The death of Allan Bloom last month at the age of sixty-two deprived us of many things: a valued teacher, friend, and scholar, an extraordinarily effective and prescient critic of American higher education. It also deprived the cultural Left of a prime object of vilification and rage. Until the spring of 1987, when he published The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom had led the retiring life of a university professor. Best known to the scholarly community for his thoughtful translations-cum-commentaries of Plato’s Republic and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, he was honored by his students and colleagues as a devoted teacher. The astonishing success of The Closing of the American Mind —the book is said to have sold over one million copies—propelled him to the center of national attention.
It also, after a few months of incredulous befuddlement in the academy, made him the victim of an extraordinary campaign of abuse and misrepresentation. The anathema brought down upon Bloom reads like a thesaurus of epithets compiled for the politically correct. He was racist; he was sexist; he was elitist; he was authoritarian; he was—sin of sins—“Eurocentric.” Bloom was accused, moreover, of stupidity, ignorance, malevolence, bad scholarship, insensitivity, and political manipulation. One critic compared him to Oliver North; several summoned up the ghost of Senator Joseph McCarthy; one even discerned similarities between Bloom and Adolf Hitler. The cataract of calumny continues to this day.
In one respect, anyway, the reaction from the academy and the cultural Left was only to be expected. After all, not only was The Closing of the American Mind a powerful indictment of intellectual and moral corruption in the academy, it was also an indictment that struck a nerve with the public. Jobs, tenure, academic institutes, and college curricula might finally be subject to open scrutiny. Alumni might wonder why they should subsidize institutions devoted to repudiating the founding intellectual and political values of the United States. Parents might object to having their children battened on nihilistic word games and taught to regard traditional morality as a contemptible expression of narrow-mindedness and bigotry. Legislators might begin wondering if all was well in the ivory towers that taxpayers had so munificently endowed and accoutered. Indeed, those with a stake in politicizing intellectual life in the academy had much to fear from the publicity accorded to Bloom’s book.
In the preface to his last book, a collection of essays called Giants and Dwarfs (1990), Bloom insisted that “the essence of education is the experience of greatness.” Almost everything that he wrote about the university flowed from this fundamental conviction. And it was this, of course, that branded him an “elitist.” In fact, Bloom’s commitment to greatness was profoundly democratic. This is not to say that it was egalitarian. The true democrat wishes to share the great works of culture with all who are able to appreciate them; 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.
The other side of Bloom’s commitment to greatness was his criticism of popular culture—more precisely, his criticism of the deliberate confusion of popular culture and high art. Among the many things that incensed his enemies, perhaps none so enraged them as his condemnation of rock music. “Rock music,” he wrote, “provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially produces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors —victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth.” Bloom’s point was diffcult to credit even for some people who were otherwise sympathetic to his argument. How could rock be such a bad thing? Hasn’t it become just one more middle-class entertainment, enjoyed by kids everywhere?
To be sure it has, as CD sales and the phenomenal success of MTV attest. But for Bloom that is precisely the problem. The fact that rock has been domesticated and commercialized, that it is now big business and mass entertainment, does not change its essential character. Its appeal is the appeal of the Dionysian: rock is anti-order, anti-verbal, anti-intellect. It is about unconstrained sexuality and polymorphous gratification. That is why its main enthusiasts are adolescents, young and old. They are right that rock music is a liberation: it is a liberation or vacation from civilization. In the deepest sense it is a liberation from music, whose essence is order. Bloom came down hard on rock because, like Plato, he understood the power of music to educate our emotions at the most basic level. Rock is an education for chaos and narcissism. There are, of course, many competing claims for a child’s emotional allegiance; rock music is only one of a host of attractions besieging young people for attention. But because “the first sensuous experiences are decisive in determining the taste for the whole of life,” Bloom was right to call attention to the dark, seductive side of rock music. “Nihilism,” he observed, is often “revealed not so much in the firm lack of beliefs, but in the chaos of the instincts or passions.”
Bloom’s criticism of rock music was part of a larger attack on the 1960s, the decade that epitomized the radically egalitarian, liberationist ethos that wreaked such havoc on the university and on society at large. While he acknowledged and paid homage to the triumph of the civil-rights movement, he regarded the Sixties as “an unmitigated disaster” for intellectual and moral life in academia. This, too, won him the vitriol of the cultural Left, for whom the Sixties was a political Golden Age. Having lived through the student demonstrations at Cornell in 1969, when black activists brandished guns and held university administrators hostage, Bloom knew otherwise. American society did not quite come apart at the seams, but Bloom was correct in seeing parallels between the American university in the Sixties and the German university in the Thirties. “The fact that in Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us,” he noted.
In both places the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. Commitment was understood to be profounder than science, passion than reason, history than nature, the young than the old… . The unthinking hatred of “bourgeois society” was exactly the same in both places. A distinguished professor of political science proved this when he read to his radical students some speeches about what was to be done. They were enthusiastic until he informed them that the speeches were by Mussolini.
Looking back on this episode from the relatively quiescent time of the 1980s, Bloom pointed out that in many ways the student revolutionaries had won the battle. Buildings were no longer in flames, guns were no longer brandished, but that was because on the central intellectual and moral issues the universities had capitulated. It was no longer a case of activists holding teachers and administrators hostage: now teachers and administrators held their students hostage— hostage to the emancipationist pabulum of their cherished 1960s ideology. Radical feminism, multiculturalism, political correctness: some of the names are new, but the phenomena were born and bred in the Sixties. “When the dust had settled,” Bloom wrote near the end of The Closing of the American Mind, “it could be seen that the very distinction between educated and uneducated in America had been leveled, that even the pitiful remnant of it expressed in the opposition between highbrow and lowbrow had been annihilated… . Freedom had been restricted in the most effective way—by the impoverishment of alternatives.”
The Closing of the American Mind was an exhilarating draught for anyone concerned about the fate of intellectual life in the American university. Its extraordinary success sparked numerous other reconsiderations of American academia, some of which aroused considerable public interest. But the counter-attack by the cultural Left, after a slow start, has been brutal and unremitting. And the sad truth is, things are much worse in the academy today than they were in 1987. The destruction of standards and the proliferation of radical ideologies is far more advanced and institutionalized now than it was then, and any effort to criticize the status quo is instantly met by a combination of ridicule and contempt.
It should be pointed out, however, that in some ways Bloom was an unwitting controversialist. For notwithstanding its polemical passages and topical concerns, The Closing of the American Mind is in its deepest sense a spiritual autobiography. It is the record of one man’s efforts to think through the great tradition and consider anew Plato’s perennial question: What is the good life for man? It was one of Allan Bloom’s greatest strengths to understand that this question can never be answered definitively and that it is never dispensible. It made him a philosopher. It also, even more than his unfashionable opinions about education, rock music, and cultural relativism, was what earned him the undying enmity of the complacent and the superficial. At his trial, Socrates described himself as the gadfly of Athens, ceaselessly settling “here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving.” The sting of a gadfly is painful. But Bloom’s many enemies should not be too quick to rejoice at his departure. As Socrates reminded the jury, they “will not easily find another.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 3, on page 1
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