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Re-Opening the American Mind

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind remains as important as ever, and as misunderstood, 25 years after the 1980s culture wars

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(Collage Tablet Magazine.)

The man who took the stage looked like he’d stepped out of the darkness and into some great light.

In part, that’s a physical description of Allan Bloom one evening in the winter of 1988 at Harvard. No sooner had Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government and the event’s moderator, concluded his introduction than Bloom awkwardly squeezed his way past Mansfield, seized the podium with both hands, as if to regain his balance, stood there for a moment with his shoulders hunched, fumbled for his glasses, peered at his papers, squinted, and, finally, lifted his eyes to the audience and delivered his first words. “Fellow elitists,” he greeted a room packed with students and faculty. They hooted and applauded wildly.

It was just the sort of performance they had come that evening hoping to see. There were other celebrated intellectuals on the panel, but none was more notorious than the bald, bespectacled University of Chicago professor who, less than a year before, had written The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that contemporary universities were failing students by plying them with relativism and historicism rather than feeding them the true manna of civilization, the Great Books. He had published it with difficulty. It took a promise of an introduction by Bloom’s friend Saul Bellow to convince Simon and Schuster to pay even a humble advance of $10,000 to an academic known primarily as a translator of Plato and Rousseau.

But obscurity never bothered Allan Bloom. “Bloom,” Mansfield said in his wry introduction, “has always behaved as if he were famous. And now that he actually is famous, you’ll see that fame hasn’t spoiled him a bit.” It hasn’t. He inhabited the Harvard stage the same way he had his own seminars: gentle and jovial, but so intense that, as one of his former students recalled, “there were moments of tension in the seminar when he would smoke the lighted end of a cigarette.” A minute or two after beginning his talk, the intensity and the humor were both on full display.

“I was suspect as an enemy of our democratic regime,” he said of the reaction to his book. “And the first and loudest voices in this chorus came from the Ivy League, particularly from those with some connection to Harvard—to the point where I thought of the old joke about the farmer who hears a thief in the chicken coop. Substituting the Harvard Coop, I imagined myself yelling, ‘Who’s in there?’ and getting the answer, ‘There’s nobody in here but us anti-elitists.’ ”

The bravado hid a far more serious vein. Those who accused him of elitism, Bloom argued, were getting it all wrong. He wasn’t a cranky conservative—a “grumpy guru,” as James Atlas dubbed him—who bemoaned the infiltration of alternative points of view into an ivory tower that had been, for the most part, a cozy bastion of privilege and patriarchy. In lecture as in book, Bloom promoted a far more radical idea: The main conflict of our time isn’t between Western dominant culture and its others, but between culture and civilization, two opposing concepts, one pointing the way to moral and intellectual decay and the other to the sound and everlasting paths previously trodden by our greatest philosophers.

The decades haven’t made Bloom’s argument any easier to follow. The same terms that dominated the conversation about his landmark book—ethnocentrism on the one hand, relativism on the other—dominate still. The same thinkers and disciplines that infuriated Bloom—Heidegger, deconstruction—still occupy the minds and the curricula of graduate students in the humanities. Roughly speaking, we still understand our moral and political choice as being between open-minded liberalism—which we understand to hold that all creeds were created equal, all cultures similarly rich and bountiful in meaning, and all people at once irreplaceably unique and, under democracy’s bright sun, equal and interchangeable—and conservatism—which we understand to hold that we Westerners are inherently more advanced, our culture more sophisticated and storied, and our way of life unquestionably true.

To Bloom, such a dichotomy was not only false but oppressive. Publicly, he was entertained by critical proclamations that berated him, like the memorable one, by David Rieff, that Closing was a morally corrupt book that “decent people would be ashamed of having written.” But listening to Bloom that night in Cambridge, and reading his book closely, you couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of profound sadness. The discussion, he lamented, had become about whether we should discard the classics for having been written by dead, white men, or preserve them as the pillars of a particular culture we revere. To Bloom, there was a third way, and it was much more attentive and instinctive: The great books matter simply because they matter, and we continue to seek them out not in order to reaffirm or reevaluate our own standing in the world—a myopic view based on understanding the progress of mankind as an ongoing power struggle—but because they remain instrumental.

“Nietzsche,” Bloom said toward the conclusion of his Harvard talk, “did not seek out Socrates because he was part of the classical canon German boys learned in school. He did so in spite of that fact. Socrates was necessary to him as the profoundest statement of what philosophy is and as the worthiest of rivals. Machiavelli was impelled by real need, not by conformism, when he sought out Xenophon.”

And Bloom was impelled by real need when he sought out Plato. He was 15 when the possibility of an intellectual life first occurred to him, reflected back from the pages of a Readers’ Digest article about the University of Chicago. “I had never before seen,” he wrote in Closing, “or at least had not noticed, buildings that were evidently dedicated to a higher purpose, not to necessity or utility, not merely to shelter or manufacture or trade, but to something that might be an end in itself.” He asked his parents if he could one day attend; the university, after all, wasn’t too far from the Bloom home in Indianapolis. His parents, social workers with a strong sense of the practical, dismissed the whole idea out of hand. It wasn’t until several years later, when they moved to Chicago and met wealthier Jews and realized that education could pave the path to a comfortable life, that they allowed Allan to register.

At the university, amid fake gothic buildings, Bloom met Leo Strauss, the immensely influential conservative thinker. Many of the teacher’s philosophical preoccupations soon became the student’s—Heidegger, Nietzsche, Locke—but none more wholly present than Plato.

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Moshan says:

Allan Bloom was our Jonathan Haidt. Only perhaps more brilliant.

He was never a conservative, he was more a hard-headed liberal. But he exposed leftism for the fraud that it is (leftism isn’t liberalism, many leftists masquerade as liberals because being a liberal is noble. A leftist is a hack, which Bloom more than proved).

Was the “I walk with Shakespeare” quote from Du Bois or Frederick Douglass?
Other than that, many thanks. I think the “fellow elitists” speech appeared in Bloom’s next book, “Giants and Dwarfs,” and while I don’t think I have the exact words, I’ve never forgotten this point from it: “All foundings are radical, and the test of conservatism is which radicalisms it chooses to preserve.”

nevilleross says:

A leftist is a hack, which Bloom more than proved.

Riiight. And yet, most leftists are the only ones willing to see how thing are with the economy (Occupy Wall Street), America’s perpetual wars, the environment, racial matters, the situation in the Middle East and actually do something about it, unlike most people such as yourself.

J. Arnon says:

I am glad you are allowing comments now. 

I liked Liel’s article on Bloom as far as it goes.  I do wish however that he had engaged with  some of Blooms notions about the difference between genuine engagement with problematic ideas like those of Nietzsche (an important but  problematic thinker) and not concenrate so much on style. 

Blooms criticism of the academy in his day and it’s still valid today is that too many professors of philosophy and literature opted for formulaic critics ((il n’y a pas de hors-texte) rather than engage directly with textual content and context. 

He saw this as the result of Heideggerian  theory filtered through Parisian ‘intellectuals.”

Bloom also offered us some terrific reading of individual works of philosophy and literature in his “Love and Friendship.”

J. Arnon says:

“Was the “I walk with Shakespeare” quote from Du Bois or Frederick Douglass?”

This is a variant of Machiavelli’s comment that “in the evening I shed my daily self and enter into conversation with the ancients writers and thinkers.”  (Not an exact quote, merely a paraphrase..)

PhillipNagle says:

The American left has become  totally intolerant on the college campus.  They try to interfere with speakers they oppose or stop them from speakinf altogether.  They have imposed a neofacist political correctness that smothered the free intellectual exchange of idea.  I think their ideas have been so discredited that they will lose any open debate. 

David Dietrich says:

They?

PhillipNagle says:

It clearly refers to “The American left..” in the first sentence.

Tom Cod says:

Interesting, a more nuanced picture of someone who in becoming a politicized lightening rod of the “culture wars” was reduced to a sloganized caricature by both his detractors and many supporters, neither of whom, apparently, delved too deeply into his work, something we saw occur with Solzhenitsyn. Thus seeing Bloom quote approvingly from WEB DuBois breaks him out of that stereotype of the hidebound political hack, something today’s Tea Party crowd would recoil in horror from. And someone who was, ironically, gay, might not agree with his name being invoked by the likes of Harry Jaffa in a homophobic rant laced with neo-classical references.

To understand Allan Bloom, I recommend reading Milton Meyer’s biography of Robert Maynard Hutchins. The educational establishment of his day did not know what to make of Hutchins when he became President of the University of Chicago. He spent two decades trying to remake that institution into what he came to embrace as a cathedral of classical, interdisciplinary learning. Hutchins concluded early on that colleges and universities in the United States were failing to educate students because most of the faculty were themselves uneducated.

Ari Melman says:

Your article is on point Liel. There are many objectionable points in Closing but the thesis itself is extremely strong and relevant as much today as back then and will be for the foreseeable future.

Here are two excerpts I feel are dead accurate:

Nietzsche said the newspaper had replaced the prayer in the life of the modern bourgeois, meaning that the busy, the cheap, the ephemeral, had usurped all that remained of the eternal in his daily life. p.59

Thus there are two kinds of openness, the openness of indifference —promoted with the twin purposes of humbling our intellectual pride and letting us be whatever we want to be, just as long as we don’t want to be knowers—and the openness that invites us to the quest for knowl­ edge and certitude, for which history and the various cultures provide a brilliant array of examples for examination. This second kind of openness encourages the desire that animates and makes interesting every serious student—”I want to know what is good for me, what will make me happy” —while the former stunts that desire. P.41

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Re-Opening the American Mind

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind remains as important as ever, and as misunderstood, 25 years after the 1980s culture wars