The Book That Drove Them Crazy
Allan Bloom’s ‘Closing of the American Mind’ 25 years later.
Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
The most subtle of Nussbaum’s arguments poked at a contradiction lying half-buried in the book. Bloom opens with a patriotic celebration of America’s foundation in natural rights, the guarantee of equality; by the end he’s arguing that the way to save America from its present course is for universities to recommit to promoting the philosophical life, a life accessible, he frankly acknowledges, only to a chosen few. Bloom the democrat and Bloom the elitist appear at different times in the book, sometimes wrestling one another, but the tension between the two doesn’t undermine his deadly characterization of academic life or the genealogy he offers of the ideas that brought it to its present state. Still, perhaps sincerely, Nussbaum and the other second-wave academics detected a political program in Closing, an elitist, antidemocratic, anti-American agenda that could quickly darken into something spookier—autocracy or worse, a new (or very old) kind of authoritarian rule.
One observer estimated that more than two hundred reviews of Closing were eventually published, and scores of these, in obscure quarterlies and highbrow opinion magazines alike, continued the theme of Bloom as authoritarian menace. Several likened him to Oliver North, architect of the then-raging Iran-contra scandal. In Harper’s, the political scientist Benjamin Barber called the book “a most enticing, a most subtle, a most learned, a most dangerous tract.” Americans were too susceptible to a “Philosopher Despot” like Bloom, Barber wrote. “Anxious about the loss of fixed points, wishing for simpler, more orderly times,” they found in his work “a new Book of Truth for an era after God.”
In time the academic establishment’s horror of Bloom grew too vast for mere paper and ink to contain. Drastic action had to be taken: Conferences had to be held. They were convened to declare Bloom anathema. At one, in Manhattan, an administrator at the (elite!) Dalton School called him a “Hitlerite.” For left-wing academics in 1987, Hitler was almost as bad as Oliver North. Richard Bernstein, then a reporter for the New York Times, chronicled a gathering sponsored by Duke and the University of North Carolina, where Bloom, though not in attendance, was “derided, scorned and laughed at” by a large group of humanities professors.
“In some respects,” Bernstein wrote, “the scene in North Carolina last weekend recalled the daily ‘minute of hatred’ in George Orwell’s 1984, when citizens are required to rise and hurl invective at pictures of a man known only as Goldstein, the Great Enemy of the state.”
I should note that Duke’s conference was held a year and a half after Bloom’s book was published. Some hatreds need more than a minute to burn themselves out. And among the establishment—deans and department chairs, the grim-faced apparatchiks at the American Council on Education and the American Association of University Professors—Bloom remained a pariah for the rest of his life. But he was a jaunty and cheerful pariah, as Bellow shows, for there were compensations: appearing endlessly on TV, accepting invitations to Chequers from Mrs. Thatcher and to the White House from President Reagan, and laughing in his blue kimono all the way to la banque.
I wonder whether all this fuss will seem bizarre to new or younger readers of The Closing of the American Mind. The critic Camille Paglia once called the book the “first shot in the culture wars,” and whether or not it was the first it was undeniably the loudest and most ambitious.
It’s useful to recall the world Bloom and his book broke into and riled so. In material ways, the United States of America of 1987 seems as remote as Republican Rome. Our national wealth has more than tripled in the last 25 years. The digital revolution, with its upending of commerce, communication, and the habits and patterns of everyday life, was just getting underway. Music lovers delighted in the portability and convenience of their book-sized Walkmans, never imagining the tiny wonders they would be slipping into their shirt pockets a decade hence. Cars, on the other hand, seem to have been roughly half their present size, at least in memory. You couldn’t carry around a telephone unless you yanked it off the wall. Atari was as sophisticated as gaming systems came. And nobody used the words “gaming system.”
Culturally, the country fretted. Culturally, of course, all countries, or some segments of them, are always fretting, and have been doing so since Cicero grieved, “O tempora, O mores,” up to and beyond Yeats’s insistence that the center cannot hold. But by the end of the 1980s in the United States, there were numbers to underscore the worry. In the previous 30 years, violent crime had increased 500 percent, the divorce rate had doubled, the teen suicide rate had tripled, and the number of “illegitimate births” (this was the last era when you could use the term) had increased 400 percent.
Beyond the numbers, the worriers readily found signs of the culture’s degradation, if not its imminent collapse. On TV, Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael had introduced a new kind of freak show that would have been unthinkable a decade before and proved enormously popular, banishing modesty and discretion, making a virtue of exhibitionism, inviting adulterers and wifebeaters and cross-dressers to strut their hour upon the stage set. (Eerie fact: Exactly nine months after Closing’s publication date, Snooki Polizzi was born.) Popular fiction chronicled a generation of pampered youth lost to anomie and cocaine. As the Iran-contra scandal shook the executive branch, pundits discovered among the people a loss of faith in their institutions. A devastating crash on Wall Street was credited to greed unchecked by law or moral obligation.
And as if all that weren’t sufficient cause for alarm, consider this: Madonna.
The skittish American public of 1987, in other words, was well-prepped for a message like Bloom’s. It helped that his subject, colleges and universities, shared in the general unease. They were in fact one cause of it. Test scores at all levels of schooling, but particularly on college entrance exams, had been falling since the late 1960s. Two generations earlier the GI Bill had begun to democratize higher education by making it available to cohorts that in earlier times would have never thought it necessary for a fulfilling life. To accommodate the swells of new students, and to absorb the subsidies that followed them, schools vastly expanded their housing stock, increased the number of classrooms, and, crucially, widened the range of their fields of study.
The purpose of a four-year liberal arts program—defended by Bloom as an exploration of the big questions that life presents to the fully conscious human being—became confused. What was the point of a bachelor of arts degree? Was it to plumb the depths and origins of Western civilization, which had after all invented the university, and to develop the student spiritually and morally? Or was it to set the kid up for a cushy job? Humanists in our universities lost confidence in the traditional answer. By the time Bloom’s book was released, the crisis in the humanities was acknowledged by everyone except the people who worked in the humanities. Parents wondered why their college-age children were taking classes called “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen Bitch 101” and coming home after four years with degrees in “Peace Studies” that cost $100,000. State legislators wondered about political indoctrination at tax-funded universities. The most casual observers noticed that teachers of philosophy or literature could no longer describe their disciplines in plain speech, favoring a professional language that was no more intelligible than Esperanto, and much less useful.
The humanities crisis was made political fodder. The Reagan administration took a special interest, and an especially acerbic tone. Lynne Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the secretary of education, William Bennett, led the dyspeptic chorus. Both held doctorates in the humanities, which enhanced their influence with the higher-ed establishment not at all. When Cheney echoed Bloom in a widely publicized report—criticizing efforts by humanities departments to make themselves “relevant” by treating “great books as little more than the political rationalizations of dominant groups”—she earned many multiple minutes of hate all on her own.
The publication of Closing placed Bloom alongside Bellow, Bennett, and later the jurist and Jeremiah, Robert Bork, in a convenient journalistic category: the Doom and Gloomers, or the Killer Bs, or the Grumpy Old Men. (Cheney, alphabetically disqualified to serve with the Killer Bs, was nevertheless an honorary Grump.) But this grouping wasn’t fair to Bloom, not entirely—and it wasn’t fair to the arguments developed in the book, which had a subtlety and depth that journalism and partisan politics can seldom capture.
Bloom was never a movement conservative. In electoral politics he was a moderately liberal Democrat, and more liberal still in personal and social matters. Bennett and Cheney considered themselves champions of ordinary American bourgeois life. Bloom’s disdain for it runs just below the book’s surface. He was no fan of the free market or the heedless getting and striving that it encourages. He worried that the future that awaited students after “college would be just as enervating as their dismal and purposeless education.” And he wasn’t above invoking a brand-name cliché to drive the point home. In their “Brooks Brothers suit,” he writes, “they will want to get ahead and live comfortably. But this life is as empty and false as the one they left behind.” Bloom preferred Armani to Brooks Brothers.
There is no element of moral uplift in Bloom’s brief against modern life. Discussing the collapse of the traditional family, which has of course only accelerated since his time, he writes: “I am not arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them.” Bloom’s reputation for fuddy-duddyism rested largely on his instantly notorious discussion of the “gutter phenomenon” of rock music, in which he deploys words (orgiastic, barbaric) straight from a pulpit-pounding preacher circa 1955. To anyone under the age of 30 he sounded like the old crank next door hollering, “Turn it down!” But again, his case against rock was entirely his own. He didn’t worry that the music would unleash passions but that it would deaden them, especially the passion required for real inquiry and learning. “My concern here,” he wrote, “is not with the moral effects of this music—whether it leads to sex, violence, or drugs.” His critics to the contrary, Closing placed Allan Bloom to the left of Tipper Gore, who spent the eighties crusading against the depredations of Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard (and the nineties apologizing for it).
Readers today will notice that Bloom’s book has grown a few whiskers. Anachronisms are unavoidable. Some of his language is outdated: No professor today could use the word “Oriental” for “Asian” and long survive. A good language cop, as all intellectuals once were, he objects to squishy nonce words, but the examples he uses—“commitment,” “values,” “life-style”—are now so deeply embedded in everyday speech that no amount of reason or ridicule will dislodge them. He’s just lucky he didn’t live to see the infinitely elastic use of the now-meaningless word “issues.” I was touched by his quaint mention of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife” as an example of American life’s homogenizing effects: Mass marketed by Louis Armstrong (I guess Bloom couldn’t bring himself to mention Bobby Darin), a song written as leftist agitprop became a wholesome standard, “less dangerous, though no less corrupt.” What would Bloom make of the taming of the Village People’s “YMCA”—a tribute to the joys of shower-room sodomy transformed into a surefire crowd-pleaser at parochial school pep rallies? The controversy over “affirmative action,” which he treats at length, was laid to rest when its advocates decided to embrace the more ingenious logic of “diversity.” And the book gives little notice to the arrival on campus of gay rights, easily the most consequential social movement of the last three decades.
Bloom wrote a moment before the population of modernity’s Holy Trinity—Marx, Freud, and Darwin—decreased by two-thirds. Marx lost his allure, at least nominally, after the collapse of the murderous regimes that had been built from his ideas. Freud was demoted from scientist to cultural observer, and an unreliable one besides. Only Darwin survives, undiminished and if anything enlarged, as the font of a new materialism whose effects Bloom foresaw even then and witheringly described. I can think of lots of reasons why The Closing of the American Mind deserves as many readers as it earned in the eighties; Bloom’s sly wit and the torrential energy of his prose are worth the price of admission, in my opinion. But this one carries a special urgency. As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism—of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone—had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.
The crisis was—is—a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America—even Jerry Springer—had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.
“The crisis of liberal education,” he wrote, “is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”
He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were “nice.” You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. “They are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”
Relativism, in fact, was the only moral postulate that went unchallenged in academic life. Defenders of relativism often defend it by denying it exists: No one, they say, truly believes that one idea is ultimately as good as another. And of course they’re right that none of us in our own lives act as though we believed this. But most of us profess it nonetheless, especially if we’ve got a college education, in which case we will be careful to use air quotes when we are forced to say the word “truth” in polite company. In a genial but harrowing review of Closing, a professor at -Carleton College, Michael Zuckert, told of canvassing the students in his class on American political thought. He asked whether they agreed that the truths in the first lines of the Declaration of Independence were indeed “self-evident.” Seven percent voted “yes.” On further conversation, he wrote, it turned out “that they were convinced there is no such thing as ‘truth,’ self-evident or otherwise, in the sphere of claims of the sort raised in the Declaration.” He would have gotten the same response in almost any college classroom today, and I’m not too sure about the 7 percent.
What follows when a belief in objectivity and truth dies away in higher education? In time an educated person comes to doubt that purpose and meaning are discoverable—he doubts, finally, that they even exist. It’s no mystery why fewer and fewer students in higher education today bother with the liberal arts, preferring professional training in their place. Deprived of their traditional purpose in the pursuit of what’s true and good, the humanities could only founder. The study of literature, for example, was consumed in the trivialities of the deconstructionists and their successors. Philosophy curdled into positivism and word play. History became an inventory of political grievances.
Into the vacuum left by the humanities comes science, which by its own admission is unconcerned with the large questions of meaning and purpose. Even so, on campus and elsewhere, science is now taken as the final authority on any important human question—and not always the rigorous physical sciences, either, but the rickety, less empirical, more easily manipulated guesswork of behavioral psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, developmental studies, and so on. Nowadays, if we seek insight into the mysteries of the human heart (not high on the academic agenda in any case) we are far more likely to consult a neurobiologist or a social psychologist than Tolstoy or Aristotle. This is not progress.
The trends that followed the crisis in higher education that Bloom identified have only intensified since 1987: toward weaker academic requirements for students, greater specialization in the departments, a rigid orthodoxy in the university’s politics and cultural life. The university we face today is still the one he described, only more so.
If I had reread The Closing of the American Mind 10 years ago, when my own children were themselves under 10, I confess I would have thought Bloom’s portrait of educational decline was overwrought. And then they grew up and went off to college.
Here Bloom describes a freshman arriving on campus. “He finds a democracy of the disciplines,” he wrote. “This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short, there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is.” In the end the freshman will likely opt for a major that will get him hired when he graduates, while “pick[ing] up in elective courses a little of whatever is thought to make one cultured.”
This observation from 25 years ago matches what a freshman encounters at a moderately selective university today, and with small adjustments, even at many smaller colleges that claim to specialize in the liberal arts. The “core curriculum” or “general education requirements” are largely a sham: A math class may be offered, a science class may be offered, but seldom are both required, and often the content of each has only a glancing relation to the study of math or science. Philosophy and history fare still worse. Last year, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni surveyed the catalogues of more than one thousand colleges and universities. Fewer than 20 percent of the schools required courses in American government, only a third required a literature survey class, and 15 percent required anything more than a beginner’s level class in a foreign language. The results have been predictable. The authors of Academically Adrift, the most devastating book on higher education since Bloom, found that nearly half of undergraduates show no measurable improvement in knowledge or “critical thinking” after two years of college.
Perhaps the most famous image in Bloom’s book—certainly the least appetizing—is a cartoonish word picture of an MTV-watching, Walkman-wearing 13-year-old boy, the flower of American civilization, the human culmination of centuries of learning and sacrifice, nonetheless brought low by a degraded popular culture: “a pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents,” and so on and so on, whose “life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbation fantasy,” and who will soon, therefore, be well-fit to begin study at a major university.
I thought of that boy of 13 when I finished rereading The Closing of the American Mind not long ago. He is now 38. His parents, I hope, survived his childhood; about the onanism I refuse to speculate. He will likely have children of his own by now. And I hope by the time his own daughter is ready for college, he and all the youngsters he was meant to symbolize will have forgiven the author of this scandalous but all too plausible caricature. And when he disgorges tens of thousands of dollars to send his daughter to a school that has itself become a caricature of higher education, I am consoled to think that he will be able to consult Allan Bloom as to how such a thing could come to pass, thanks to a new edition of his maddening, haunting, towering book.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. This essay is adapted from an afterword to the 25th anniversary edition of The Closing of the American Mind, being published this week by Simon & Schuster.