Tag Archives: Allan Bloom

Two Views: Allan Bloom and Pop Culture

Posted by Mark Judge and Emily Esfahani Smith

Cross-posted from the Daily Caller and Acculturated.com.

Mark Judge: How Bloom Killed Conservatism

Almost 25 years ago, a catastrophe befell American conservatism. University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom wrote about rock and roll.

His words came in the book “The Closing of the America Mind,” which was published in 1987 and became a bestseller and cultural touchstone. Most of “The Closing of the American Mind” is brilliant, a careful and poetically delightful assessment of the takeover of academia and American culture by Marxism and nihilism. Its upcoming 25th anniversary should get it a new round of attention.

Sadly, Bloom included rock and roll in his critique. In doing so, he 1) embraced Marxism, 2) failed to recognize one of the 20th century’s great art forms, 3) banished conservatives to a cultural wilderness from which they have yet to emerge, and 4) made it seem like the right doesn’t care about the soul.

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Degrading The Academic Vocation

By Jonathan B. Imber
It is now nearly forty years since the sociologist Robert A. Nisbet published The Degradation of the Academic Dogma, followed two years later by Philip Rieff’s Fellow Teachers. Then in the late 1980s, Allan Bloom’s best-selling bombshell, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students took pride of place in the sublime critiques of the university. Taken together, these three books stood against a tide that could not be contained, leaving in its wake an even more emboldened organization determined to survive regardless of what it might discard as no longer relevant to its mission.
Nisbet’s principal concern was about the emergence of what Clark Kerr called the “multiversity.” He objected to the separation of research from teaching, and of teaching from research and anticipated that research might become so specialized that its teaching would crowd out the kinds of courses (and research) that could reach (and benefit) a larger number of students. He also recognized that for all the noses turned up at the professional schools (e.g., law and medicine), they succeeded for a time to bring teachers and students closely together: “Rare indeed during the two decades following the war was the law school that took to itself the kind of institute or project, the batteries of technicians and assistants, that one found in rising intensity coming out of allegedly liberal arts departments. To the present moment I dare say one is far more likely to come upon individual teaching (complete with reading of student examinations and frequent hours of consultation) and individual research in, say, the Harvard Law School than in the Harvard departments of sociology, English, and biology – much less physics and chemistry.”
The transformative seeds were already planted in post-war enthusiasms for an academic culture in which gaining grants would eventually be matched by how many “public intellectuals” a school can boast. New opportunities to escape the timeless responsibilities of teaching abound. A controversy has ensued over what is being called the “outsourcing” of grading, taken out of the hands of the instructor (and/or teaching assistants) and given to companies who employ graders in Singapore, India and Malaysia. Along with accounts of the growth of adjunct faculty hired to teach a lot for very little, students and their families, it is argued, are hardly getting their money’s worth. Editorialists at the Harvard Crimson complained that outsourcing evaluation “brings up concerns about the quality of contact that students are receiving in large classes.” Outsourcing is the wrong description for giving over this particular responsibility of teaching to anyone other than the teacher. After all, teaching assistants have been overseeing grading in large lecture courses in universities for many decades. But this oversight was in principle part of learning to teach by learning to evaluate. Of course, it is easy to view such a principle cynically and to acknowledge that graduate students seeking to unionize have been given over to another kind of class struggle that marks the end of teaching as it once was embraced and practiced.

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Bloom Conference On C-SPAN This Weekend

C-SPAN Book TV will broadcast three panels from the Manhattan Institute Center for the American University’s Closing of the American Mind Conference on Saturday and Sunday. Take a look at the schedule for details. Robert George, Roger Kimball, Jim Piereson, Heather MacDonald, and other luminaries are not to be missed.

Educating for Citizenship at Brown University: An Essay In Honor Of Allan Bloom

Brown University has been described as providing “the worst education in America.” Brown’s New Curriculum, far from requiring that students read a list of Great Books, has no core of any kind. Brown students are free to “shop” their courses and take only the ones they like. Brown’s libertarian attitude toward curricular structure no doubt influences the sort of courses that wind up being taught at the place.

Consider the goings-on in a course that has become popular at Brown in recent years. On the first day of this course, the instructor informs the delighted students that it is fine with him if they never attend another lecture during the semester. He admits that he would like them to attend their weekly discussion sections, but he assures them that they need not worry about being lectured at there: the sections in this course are conducted as student-led seminars, with the graduate teaching assistants instructed to refrain from interrupting the student’s musings in any way. There are weekly writing assignments in the course, but students are always free to write about topics that happen to interest them rather than the topic that was assigned. The syllabus indicates that the course includes a midterm, but the professor hastens to set them at ease about that. To the sound of cheers, he tells them that they may adjust the details of the questions so as to better display their own strengths and interests. He promises them in any case that their exams never will be evaluated in terms of how well the essays they write happen to fit with the questions that he (the professor) asks on the exam. Instead, each exam essay is to be evaluated simply “on its own terms.” This course concludes with a final exam sternly stipulating that students compose an essay in response to one of three questions. But the last question turns out to be: “3. Write a question about any author you have read, argument you have heard, or any idea that has occurred to you during this course. Now, answer it.”

I first read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind twelve years ago, the year I began teaching at Brown. By the time I reached page 63 and read the sentence beginning “Education for our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might yearn for completion…”, I was enchanted. Bloom’s claim that there was a great wound lying unattended to at the soul of the university, a wound of emptiness endured without understanding by recent generations of students, resonated profoundly with my own earlier experiences as a professor at a number of what Bloom calls “the 20 or 30 best universities”. Perhaps because I had studied classics as an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Bloom’s prescription by book’s end – a return to “the good old Great Books approach” (334) – completed the spell. At last, someone had brilliantly grasped and confidently expressed worries that many of us had long but dimly harbored about the enterprise of education in America. Here was a champion worth backing.

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The Betrayal Of The Academy

[This is an excerpt from a paper delivered by James Piereson at a Manhattan Institute conference on October 3, 2007, marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. He is Executive Director of the Center for the American University and President of the William E. Simon Foundation. The New Criterion will publish the full text of papers from the conference, some of them in slightly different forms. The proceedings of the meeting will soon be available on C-SPAN. Speakers included Robert George, Roger Kimball, Peter Berkowitz, James Miller, Heather Mac Donald and Mark Steyn.]

[Allan] Bloom claimed that the West faces an intellectual crisis because no one any longer can make a principled defense of its institutions or way of life. This is most evident in the university, which has reformed itself according to the ideas of openness, tolerance, relativism, and diversity – all of which claim that no political principles, institutions, or way of life can be affirmed as being superior to any others. This is the near-universal view among students and faculty at our leading institutions of higher learning. The tragedy here, according to Bloom, is that relativism has extinguished the real motive behind all education, which is “the search for the good life.” If all ideas and ideals are equal, there is little point in searching for the best ones.

This open-mindedness, as Bloom said, is thought to be a moral virtue that counters a dangerous vice called “absolutism,” which involves the affirmation of any set of principles or morals as objectively true. The operative assumption here is that if someone or some group affirms something to be true they will be led to oppress those who disagree. Tolerance and openness are thus the virtues required for democracy and freedom. Hitler, as it is believed, was an absolutist; his crimes followed from his absolute conviction that he was right and Germans a superior people. Democracy thus seems to rely on the belief that no one has access to the truth.

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What Multiculturalism Has Done To Us

[This is an excerpt from a paper delivered by Roger Kimball at the Manhattan Institute’s Closing Of The American Mind conference. It will appear in complete form in The New Criterion.]

..It is a rich and promiscuous stew that Allan Bloom served up, part polemic, part exhortation, part exercise in cultural-intellectual history. It sometimes grabs readers by the lapels and gives them a shake; at other times it assumes a dry, professorial tone as it delineates the genealogy of freedom, discriminates among diverse meanings of equality, or parses a choice passage from Plato, Rousseau, Tocqueville, or Nietzsche. the egalitarian, recognizing that genuine excellence is rare, declares greatness a fraud and sets about obliterating distinctions…

As Bloom recognized, the fruits of egalitarianism are ignorance, the habit of intellectual conformity, and the systematic subjection of cultural achievement to political criteria. In the university, this means classes devoted to pop novels, rock videos, and third-rate works chosen simply because their authors are members of the requisite sex, ethnic group, or social minority. It means students who graduate not having read Milton or Dante or Shakespeare – or, what is in some ways even worse, who have been taught to regard the works of such authors chiefly as hunting grounds for examples of patriarchy, homophobia, imperialism, etc., etc. It means faculty and students who regard education as an exercise in disillusionment and who look to the past only to corroborate their sense of superiority and self-satisfaction…

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The Manhattan Institute’s Center For the American University is hosting a conference today here in New York celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Allan Bloom’s The Closing Of The American Mind.

The book was an astonishing best-seller on the misdirection of the University, and the Center for the American University has assembled Robert George, Mark Steyn, Roger Kimball, Peter Berkowitz, Gary Rosen, Heather MacDonald and others to consider the relevance of Bloom’s critique today.

Works from the conference will appear in the future in the New Criterion and at this site; but you needn’t wait that long to read about Bloom. Here’s plenty to keep you occupied until then:

– Allan Bloom, on “Our Listless Universities”, the core of his later volume, from National Review in December 1982

– Roger Kimball’s original New York Times review of The Closing Of The American Mind

– The Intercollegiate Review’s Spring issue, featuring essays on The Closing by Peter Lawler, Wilfred McClay and R.V. Young

And, most significantly – we asked current undergraduate and graduate students to write on the continuing relevance of The Closing of the American Mind. Do read the winners below:

First Place: Daniel Geary, Boston College: “The Permanent Questions Are Still Permanent”

Second Place: James Crowley, Georgetown University: “The Hungry Student: Reopening After The Closing Of The American Mind”

Third Place: Aaron Roberts: The University of Chicago: “Bloom’s Closing Revisited”

Second Place – Bloom Essay Competition

“The Hungry Student: Reopening After The Closing of the American Mind”

At the end of the introduction to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Bloom mentions that only Socrates knew that he was ignorant, albeit “after a lifetime of unceasing labor.” Bloom observes at the time of his writing that every high school student knows he is ignorant. Like the psychology professor Bloom describes in his introduction, the goal of many a professor is to rid students of prejudice so that they can know that they do not know, so that like Socrates, they can be open-minded. But as Bloom finds, harkening back to Plato’s Republic, the professor’s endeavor to rid students of prejudice enervates the very imagination that projects images onto the cave wall. That is, the professor’s endeavor actively dissembles civilization and burns its parts so that they may never be reassembled into a whole. And students are somehow more like Socrates as a result? At issue in Bloom’s essay is the end to which education, particularly higher education is directed. Does opening minds, as liberal learning through reading Great Books, involve some taste, as remote as it may be, of a love or eros of wisdom? Where does such liberal learning cease? And has it? Bloom finds that while the endeavor of American higher education has sought to open minds, it is directed toward ends which do the opposite. Perhaps Bloom is correct. But after Closing, perhaps there is some conscious attempt among a select few to rekindle the eros that characterizes liberal learning in the university.

Cosmopolitanism, tolerance, specialization, and devouring nature’s fruits. These are the ends to which the modern university would appear to be directed. My own university places a premium on these self-described virtues. But it does so having uttered the language of its Jesuit heritage: ‘educating the whole person.’ Presumably the university attempts to implant in its students the theoretical and practical knowledge which together are crucial to love of truth and passion to live a good life, as the elementary reader of Aristotle knows and Bloom is quick to note. Nevertheless, in practice, these classical ideals, which surface in Closing, today often materialize as something less than the liberal learning that Bloom describes. That is, while students are required to study literature, theology, philosophy, and perhaps even political philosophy, much less is made of reading great old books than of learning critical methods for denigrating the thought of “dead old white men” or conceptualizing them as products of history. Few are those courses that engage in sincere dialogues with the great old writers who perhaps are esteemed enough to be regarded as lovers of wisdom. While American students are fortunate to have some attempt at liberal learning, gone are the days when Alexandre Kojeve could read his students’ term papers and see that they refer to Aristotle as ‘Mr. Aristotle’ as though he were a contemporary engaging in living discussion on matters of truth, right, and beauty.

Replacing ‘Mr. Aristotle’ is too often a mode of education that intends to ‘educate the whole person’ as a citizen not of any particular city but of a soulless world. And in order to graduate from such education, one must be void of all prejudices. One must be simply a material animal without any activity of soul that exhibits excellence. As in Plato’s Republic, the civilization that resides in the cave and the philosophic endeavor to ascend from the cave are usually not the ends of most cities today. That is, rather than cultivating one’s soul within one’s own city, as is the original meaning of culture, citizens abandon their cities for a more cosmopolitan place, the world. Culture is no longer an activity of cultivation within cities but a source of understanding without prejudice. In Max Weber’s thought, which Bloom in light of his teacher traces to the root of most modern social science endeavor, the student cannot make a truth claim as to the value of one culture or mode of cultivating one’s soul over another. The end of the professor is to foster not love of truth but love of toleration. Toleration in this light precedes truth. In opening the student to a cosmopolitan world, the university then closes the student from any interest in truth.

There are students at almost all American universities who dedicate their time to more inward pursuits than this brash cosmopolitanism, which Bloom sees as replacing dialogues with the great writings of human history. These are often the students who not only embrace the division of labor in Western thought, but do so without any desire for a vision, misguided or not, of the whole. And if they seek some vision of the whole, it is usually not a vision at all but a taste of nature’s fruits. These students, in their course of study, do not seek to be graced by nature’s grace in tasting nature’s fruits. Rather they seek to conquer nature and to devour it. For them, my own university is currently constructing two new buildings to occupy the physical center of campus, a business school and a science research center. Indeed, the economics of the household, which characterizes the pursuit of the businessman, occupies sizeable space in Book I of Aristotle’s Ethics and thereafter in much of the Western canon. And science as natural philosophy teaches any student a great deal about his nature as a human being. But both these pursuits in their current states are instrumental to overly specialized utilitarian ends at best. They are hardly concerned with the meaning of human nature. Much of the research that will take place in the new science center on campus will not seek some knowledge of the whole aware of the “sanctity of human nature.” Rather, it will seek to conquer human nature and nature more broadly. That these buildings should occupy the physical center of campus reflects a withdrawal from the dialogue for love of wisdom and passion for the good life in place of some utilitarian ends. It is still true today that the physicist gains nothing but mild “spiritual uplift” from reading Shakespeare and seeks nothing more too often.

Cosmopolitanism and the tolerance it requires redirect the student’s interest in truth. Specialization marked by a desire to devour nature’s fruits through conquering nature limits the student’s ability to make even an attempt at grasping knowledge of the whole. As a student, I fear that if the university does not look back to an earlier pursuit, one interested in cultivating virtuous citizens and teachers, then our society more broadly will be susceptible to the danger that Bloom evokes from Tocqueville – a society’s enslavement to public opinion or passions. Our universities still lack the philosophic experience that Bloom sees as the lifeline to philosophic endeavor more broadly. If we as students cannot distinguish the laws that killed Socrates from laws that enable his survival, philosophy is doomed. And if philosophy is doomed in our society, we find ourselves living in nihilism. The university as the bastion of liberal learning can be the preserve of philosophy. The university can be the place where we the citizens and students bring ourselves from the cave that our ancestors dug beneath the original cave. To do this, we must read things which much of our core curriculum has abandoned in place of things cosmopolitan or things specialized for the sake of instrumental knowledge. We must ask those ultimate questions in the academy, and not limit ourselves to learning techniques in glorified trade schools. Our professors must let students know about classic philosophers. With all these needs facing our starving universities, Bloom leaves us with a choice: embrace a rebirth of liberal learning or fall deeper into the cave.

Despite the replacement of cosmopolitanism and tolerance for citizenship and truth in most curricula, and despite the new epicenter of the college campus in the instrumental sciences, the neo-Gothic towers of the old campus have not yet been demolished. Like the pseudo-Gothic spires of the University of Chicago, which Bloom describes as his first discovery of life, or the life dedicated to contemplation, these Gothic towers still reflect the contemplative life in the university. And while few and far between, courses are available for the student to read the writings of great thinkers and engage in a living dialogue about truth, beauty, and right. Academic forums for students that seek to revitalize liberal learning are sprouting up across the country. But these forums are still in their infancy. Perhaps a few students with the help of a few professors at leading universities will start to seek those ultimate questions from education. Perhaps those students and professors will call for a reopening of the American mind in true liberal learning. For love of truth, beauty, and right, the last bastions, a few professors and a scant offering of courses, I the hungry student feed on the only food I find nourishing. And I hope. I hope that the American moment in world history, “the one for which we shall forever be judged,” as Bloom describes, is a success. A reopening of the American mind.

Third Place – Bloom Essay Competition

“Bloom’s Closing Revisited”

It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.

Fifteen years after his death, Allan Bloom still commands a rapt audience. This past April, his thoughts once again filled a University of Chicago lecture hall. Though he was a brilliant essayist, translator, and educator in his own right, he is remembered for his New York Times Bestseller.

On the Twentieth Anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, we are confronted by a sort of intellectual imperative to re-examine the arguments contained therein. However, I wonder if I – as former St. John’s College student and someone whose present coursework at the University of Chicago consists principally of the study of the Greek language and of dead white males – should truly have much first hand experience of “the state [of] intellectual pluralism at today’s universities.” Nonetheless, my experiences as an American youth and as a student on various campuses have prepared me to attest to the veracity of much of Bloom’s analysis. However this may be, twenty long years after Bloom’s devastating critique, I can feel some confidence in asserting that humane learning does still continue in North America – though not as we should like it to be.

The Closing, 2007:

As someone born in the 1980’s, I write as a second generation student of Bloom – myself, a student of a student of Bloom’s. Though dedicated “To [his] students,” Bloom’s Closing was purchased in droves by the parents of his students, who yearned for insight into the minds of their close-lipped sons and daughters. Twenty years later, my generation has accidentally become the new – although, perhaps anticipated – audience of this book.

Few of us still revel in the music of Mick Jagger. Yet we are in the peculiar position of both living the world that Bloom describes and are simultaneously prepared with the critical tools and insights presented in Bloom’s Closing. Like the generation of the late 1960’s, we too are the generation afraid to say to his lover, “I love you.” But we are the first generation to know that we are afraid to say the words, “I love you.” We are the first generation both to fit Bloom’s description and to be equipped with – i.e., to know well – Bloom’s criticism.


Bloom’s book, I believe, helped me to articulate and understand my upbringing and beliefs of youth. It provided me some of the language and analysis not yet present in my own thoughts. Though I am tempted to say that this very observation sufficiently attests to the truth of the criticism, it might be objected that Bloom’s book simply became for me a false hermeneutic by which to understand my experiences of post-adolescence. To this I would rejoin that although the trans-Atlantic etiology of the cultural crisis Bloom describes may be up for debate, his description of the phenomena is as insightful as it is accurate. I have sufficient insight into the psyche of my post-adolescence to attest to the accuracy of Bloom’s portrayal.

Today, any child can flatter his hollow intellect in declaring everything to be culturally relative. But this is simply the “insight” of the lazy. It is non-philosophical and strictly dogmatic. Unwilling to confront difficult questions, they instead withdraw into their pseudo-intellectual cave. In zealously undermining all traditions of men, modern theory has created a void, which presently yearns to be filled. The truly educated and civilized yearn for higher things.

Bloom – following Tocqueville – aptly teaches that the founding principles of our society (freedom and equality) exist in a fundamental tension with one another. Unfettered and unrestrained freedom can be, and frequently is, inegalitarian. Freedom commands that the dictates of equality be muted, but equality will not have this.
The confusion over the relationship of the one to the other (freedom to equality) probably manifests itself as a confusion in our own minds regarding what is good. Owing to this confusion, these principles were further radicalized in my mind. They came to mean for me permissiveness and license, and the unseating of authority. For reasons still difficult to articulate, I grew, unawares, into an adolescent who believed in no ultimate principles but the principles of self-indulgence and Karamazovian sensualism, the expression of “individuality,”and the pursuit of worldly gain or the satisfaction of my vanity (which seem to be one in the same thing today).

Have America’s youth become a mass of relativists, of nihilists, of hedonists, of materialists? Perhaps. But underlying it all, they are simply in a state of confusion stemming from a more fundamental confusion about the appropriate ends of a human being. But, as Bloom has so aptly put it, “All this is a thin veneer over boundless seas of rage, doubt and fear.” Worse yet, American democratic culture appeared to be permissive of this confusion. Is it a coincidence that every American adolescence is haunted by pangs of loneliness, alienation, and dejection? Bloom accurately saw this in our preference for Catcher in the Rye – my favorite novel of youth – and Camus. We may be said to have become souls without longing, as Bloom had originally titled his manuscript – emotionally absent, psychically impoverished, and “flat-souled.”

The State of Education:

There is no word for “culture” in Greek. The closest word, one might say, would be the word paideia, or “education.” As such, a scholar of the classical world, would see the failures of a culture inextricably linked to that culture’s education. Having co-opted the method of the social scientist, Bloom examined the psyches of the “sample” available to him: the best and brightest in American universities. The psyches of the students at America’s elite universities are an image of the state of American culture, insofar as they are the product of a very high, intellectual tradition filtered down through the schools.
According to Bloom, we face today a profound educational crisis, coextensive with the crisis of our civilization. That crisis consists in the observation that we have formally defeated reason through the use of reason. Whatever we might understand liberal education to be, it is at least clear that it has partly – or in some cases, altogether – withered and died at some of America’s most prestigious universities and colleges.

There no longer exists a coherent image of what it means to be an educated human being. The departments within academia today deny the natural unity of human thought, yet they present their individual, partial perspectives as complete and comprehensive. The “new kind of education,” which Bloom saw, militantly sought to reduce all highs in man to lower motives, thereby stunting the growth of the minds of our nation. Multiculturalism in the humanities – for the mere sake of multiculturalism – has further obscured our purposes in education, having become an end in itself: openness to the “Other.”

What is Liberal Education?:

As stated above, education plays a reciprocal role with culture. Strangely, however, Bloom departs from the subsequent inference that Dewey had made, that higher education should become the handmaiden of liberal democracy. In point of fact, Bloom’s book was written in implicit but essential opposition to Dewey. Higher, theoretical thought – and hence, the university – is not naturally in the service of the city. Rather, at its best, it is the healthiest aristocratic element within a democratic society, promoting what is best and highest in man, without concern for the common denominator.
As Socrates is symbolic of the function of the university, the civilized and “humanizing” themes of a true liberal education involve the Socratic-Aristotelian question of the good life for a man. Education is said to be truly liberal (i.e., liberating) only if it promotes that single life that exercises that part of man that is peculiar to man, his mind. Humane learning should be dedicated to higher things and provide those “ideals” to which we might aspire.

True liberal education must actively engage us as human beings. Liberal education has as it end “the goal of human completeness,” but we may only fulfill our humanity in the use of reason. Philosophy – or any simply theoretical science – may be indefensible in terms of utility, but it represents something in man that establishes him as a being worthy of dignity. The static quality in all considerations of man is his nature. Humane education must pose those sempiternal questions which belong to man as man.

The very essence of liberal education for Bloom is the cognitive liberation borne of the knowledge of alternatives. True intellectual freedom is awareness of alternatives, a breadth and wealth of perspectives. However imperfect that tradition may be, the “best [minds] of the past” provide us with more reliable standards of thought and life than the ephemeral and present pieties and opinions. Thus philosophy is most needful, insofar as it is the function of philosophy to dismantle popular pieties and received opinions in the ascent from opinion to knowledge; darkness to light.

All this requires a return to the philosophical books undergirding our society. However, we must not read Rousseau, Socrates, or writers of their ilk as historical artifacts, but rather as living ideas. In order to treat of them seriously, we must understand them as they understood themselves. In so doing, we are under obligation to lay aside our faith in the superiority of modern knowledge, which we can do in recognition of the fact that the progress of the modern mind has borne rotten fruit: it has given us value-relativism and nihilism. This is what liberal education can do for us, but always with an awareness that liberal education is not essentially instrumental. (Even the things most needful can be also non-instrumental in the last appraisal.)

The Future of Humane Thought:

Humane learning is not yet dead in North America. Today one place with which I am familiar is that tiny enclave called “political philosophy” within many of North America’s departments of political science. There, scholars of the highest caliber still treat of the classics, with the seriousness of a Machiavelli. It is troubling, however, that this group represents a specialization, which definitionally seems to defy the concept of humane learning. Nevertheless, this group, and others like them, have answered the imposing question, why study Greek books? They have taken to heart Bloom’s exhortation:

For the first time in four hundred years, it seems possible and imperative to begin all over again, to try to figure out what Plato was talking about, because it might be the best thing available.

Today, there are still those who come to the university yearning for that je ne sais quoi that will complete them. There are even those who, like myself, came to the university eager to push through to a JD, MBA, or MD but somehow got diverted along the way by the ideas they encountered there. Today, it is not entirely uncommon to find eighteen and twenty year-old lovers of Mozart or Bartok – some of whom are without much formal music training or encouragement from their parents. Some of us do still long for the Continent and everything high which it represents. We long for Europe: to visit, to study, to live. Contrary to Bloom’s pronouncements, some of us do use Aristotle both as a means to understand ourselves, but also as source for reflection on our own practical or theoretical quagmires.
Humane learning is not altogether dead or dying in North America.

First Place – Bloom Essay Competition

“The Permanent Questions Are Still Permanent:
A Reflection on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind”

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, “a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the young, and their education”, ultimately reflects on a problem that goes back to Socrates: the tension between the philosopher and the regime that he or she inhabits. Because this problem is a perennial one, this book is just as relevant as it was when first published twenty years ago, and it will remain relevant so long as there are people who courageously seek answers to the permanent human questions about the true, the good, and the beautiful. While philosophy has always been at odds with various factions, attitudes, and opinions within society, the crisis of philosophy in liberal democracy today is that the institution that had become its last home, the university, has embraced those premises of the regime that threaten the philosophic way of life. Through his discussion of students, the universities they attend, and the ideas that have come to animate the American regime, Bloom challenges us to reconsider the nature and purpose of a liberal education, as well as examine whether we are living truly human lives.
“The essence of philosophy,” according to Bloom, “is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason” in “the quest for and even discovery of the truth according to nature.” The person who undertakes this quest is generally moved by a sense of being incomplete and has a desire – indeed, an Eros – to achieve wholeness through knowledge of the truth. Therefore, he or she must maintain, initially at least, that there is a truth to be found and reason is capable of finding it. Although the true philosopher will never find perfectly satisfactory answers to the permanent questions – “Socratic dialectic.. always culminates in doubt” – the philosophic enterprise does promise liberation from one’s previously held opinions, typically false and typically those of society-at-large. As Bloom states, “One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation.”

Today’s brand of American democracy, however, has formed the souls of its inhabitants in such a way as to make them especially resistant to making the Socratic turn. In observing the students of elite U.S. colleges and universities, Bloom recognized that the vast majority of young people lack both prerequisites for the philosophic life. First, they lack the belief that there is an objectively good and just life to be pursued. As Bloom claims in the Introduction, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student… believes… that truth is relative.” Second, most undergraduates lack the angst and yearnings that would drive them to seek answers to the permanent questions; “The eroticism of our students is lame.” This condition of their souls has resulted from growing up and living in an environment that is relatively comfortable and pervaded by a “mood” that Bloom describes – and explores in Part II – as “American nihilism… [a] nihilism without the abyss.” The students’ unreflective relativism, access to immediate gratifications, and pursuit of happiness in “ways determined by [the] language” of this nihilism have seriously enervated their interest in the permanent questions, and consequently, their disposition towards liberal education.
The ways in which the lives of today’s undergraduates reflect this “American style” nihilism differ little from those that Bloom observed in the 1980s. For starters, students are still addicted to rock music – if Bloom could have only seen the iPod. Likewise, televisions, DVD players, and video game systems are to be found throughout dormitories, and the Internet, with its plethora of mindless delights ranging from YouTube to Facebook to Homestar Runner provides added distractions from reading and contemplation. Furthermore, with an ever growing gym culture, it is still quite accurate that “students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But… they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.”

Students’ relationships, another target of Bloom’s critique, can also indicate and contribute to their being “flat-souled.” His observation of the “pervasive feeling that love and friendship are groundless” does apply to the lives of some students, though it is somewhat exaggerated since he is arguing in terms of the philosophic life. While few undergraduates at elite universities become friends in common pursuit of wisdom via philosophy, there are not a few students, many of whom share religious, political, and other convictions, that forge friendships that go beyond superficiality; and there is a portion of students that actually dates during college and gets married after graduation. Yet at the same time, the “privileged debauchery,” to quote a friend, exhibited in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons should not be understated. Many college parties resemble what Bloom writes of the “youth culture” of rock music: “so loud [that] conversation [is] impossible, so that much of friendship must be without the shared speech that Aristotle asserts is the essence of friendship and the only true common ground… illusions of shared feelings, bodily contact and grunted formulas… are the basis of association.”

Another factor that discourages students from pursuing a liberal education is their own Lockean diligence. Like their fellow citizens, American undergraduates are good “Lockeans: recognizing that work is necessary… and will produce well-being.” Bloom notes that students who “have a fixed career goal” and are “obsessive[ly] concerned” with “[g]etting into… elite professional schools” are generally not open to a challenging, life-changing liberal education. Moreover, with people graduating from college in greater numbers, the top MD, JD, and MBA programs and prestigious entry-level jobs have become increasingly competitive. As a result, students feel an immense pressure to make top grades and do time-consuming internships to pad their resumes, making them, in many cases, more overworked and overstressed than when they enter the “real world,” an important reality of college life that Bloom somewhat overlooks. Even students who would be interested in contemplating the permanent questions simply lack the necessary leisure. Combine this state of affairs with the students’ desires to satisfy their “natural inclinations” and “passions,” though in a “balanced,” reasonable, “Lockean” fashion – in other words, to have a social life – what results on elite campuses is a hyper form of liberal democracy, in which “Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to… look into the abyss.” Sunday through Thursday, many students are up until 2:00 a.m. hitting the books, only to descend into bacchanalia on Friday and Saturday, and then repeat the cycle during the following week.
The fact that numerous forces within the American regime fashion and encourage souls to be so remarkably impervious to philosophical inquiry gives even greater urgency to the university’s purpose, which is, “in the first place, always to maintain the permanent questions front and center.” Yet because the university has embraced elements of the same anti-philosophical spirit that has influenced most students, even those few undergraduates who go to college desiring a liberal education may be left disappointed. According to Bloom, the university “must provide [students] with experiences they cannot have [in democratic society] …The universities never performed this function very well. Now they have practically ceased trying.”
The university manifests its aversion to seriously facing permanent questions in numerous ways, beginning with the standard “core” curriculum. Bloom argues that for courses to provide a student with a liberal education – as opposed to a technical or vocational one – they must have “the specific intention to lead to the permanent questions, to make the student aware of them and give him some competence in the important works that treat of them.” Yet most universities do not present to students in the curriculum a “vision… [or] set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is” and the alternative ways of facing the permanent questions. Relativism has rendered all comprehensive responses to such questions to be of equal worth. Therefore, the content of introductory courses can vary depending on the instructors’ tastes, and students are free to fulfill their core requirements in remarkably haphazard ways. For example, a student may fulfill the literature requirement with courses on gothic horror and Italian autobiographies of the twentieth century and graduate without having studied seriously Shakespeare or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This problem relates to and is exacerbated by the university’s division into natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and further subdivision into departments, which entails that the various disciplines “do not address one another” and “The problem of the whole… is never systematically posed.”

In addition, the university tends to avoid serious confrontation with the permanent questions about truth and justice because doing so necessarily entails praising certain ways of life and criticizing others, the latter of which now connotes intolerance. As Bloom explains in his discussion of what “openness” has come to mean in liberal democracy, “indiscriminateness is a moral imperative because its opposite is discrimination.” To avoid appearing judgmental with respect to certain issues, universities have embraced some of the language and premises surrounding value relativism. Consider, for example, the way in which elite universities eagerly support students to form groups representing their cultural heritages. This is a perfectly safe route in a liberal democratic regime that values peace and seeks to avoid conflict, since “culture” actually originated in an attempt to maintain “the old attachments to family, country, and God” while ignoring that “real differences among men are based on real differences in fundamental beliefs about good and evil, about what is highest, about God.” The same can be said about institutional efforts to promote “dialogue” with no end beyond enhanced mutual-understanding, a far cry from dialogue in the Socratic sense that aims to distinguish true opinions from false ones.

Along with describing how the radicalized democratic spirit has flattened the souls of America’s youth and corrupted the university, in Part II, Nihilism, American Style, Bloom provides the intellectual history behind this mood’s development. Although Bloom’s analysis is interesting in its own right, perhaps more importantly, this section justifies his later claim that “Philosophy is still possible.” The command to “know thyself” will always exert a claim on human beings, and Bloom shows us how to pursue this knowledge by engaging the great thinkers, whose thoughts have been preserved in great books, who also took this mandate seriously. As Bloom states, “We need history, not to tell us what happened, or to explain the past, but to make the past alive so that it can explain us and make a future possible. This is our educational crisis and opportunity.”
For all its discussion of apathetic students and the debasement of institutions of higher learning, The Closing of the American Mind is really a book about the state of philosophy and its future in the United States. Towards the end of the book, Bloom remarks that the “story [of philosophy] defines in itself our whole problem.” Provided human nature does not change, there will always be souls inspired by the permanent questions. Concomitantly, there will always be forces in their regime that conspire against the pursuit of the truth. Therefore, the key question for the elite American university is whether it will once again provide a safe home for philosophy and encourage a liberal education for students. While the future in this regard is far from certain, the fact that people continue returning to Bloom’s book after twenty years is at least one promising sign.

Bloom Bludgeoned

Donald Lazere offers a breezy and factless hatchet job on Allan Bloom today at Inside Higher Ed.

At first he seems about to offer a detailed critique of his works, asserting that they are “lofty-sounding ideological rationalizations for the policies of the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.” Stern words; Lazere follows them with examples from the text? No, just a dscriptive paragraph – wait, actually, a mere sentence: “Bloom rages against the movements of the 60s – campus protest, black power, feminism, affirmative action, and the counterculture – while glossing over every injustice in American society and foreign policy (he scarcely mentions the Vietnam War).”
The books are not mentioned again – Lazere blithely skips on to build his case on the basis of Bloom’s friendships and professional connections: “Bloom’s personal affiliations further belied his boast of being above “attachment to a party” and captivity to “the spirit of party.” His writing for Commentary, association with the John M. Olin center at the University of Chicago, and – of course, role as instructor for Paul Wolfowitz all place him ireedemably within a neo-con cabal.

It’s on the tour of Bloom’s iniquitous friends and bastard progeny that Lazere expands his aim from damning the man to damning, well, about anyone who knew him or now cites him. Bloom, to Lazere, seems first among many right-wing hacks who “vaunt their dedication to intellectual disinterestedness while acting as propagandists for the Republican Party and its satellite political foundations.” Lazere builds his subsequent argument less-than-convincingly. Consider his take-down of Commentary:

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