- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Who Closed the American Mind?

One crisp morning 26 years ago I was walking across the campus of the University of Chicago, where I had just enrolled as a first-year Ph.D. candidate in the renowned Committee on Social Thought. While I had not yet met him, I had heard much about Allan Bloom, a legendary professor, teacher, and lecturer. I had read his translation of Plato’s Republic as an undergraduate and had some notion that I would write my eventual dissertation under his direction.

As I crossed one of the campus quads, I saw a man sitting on a bench, swaddled under a heavy overcoat and his head topped by a fedora. A photographer was arranging his equipment across from him, while he bemusedly awaited some kind of publicity shoot. While I realized only a short time later that the man I had seen was Allan Bloom, it was a year later—a quarter-century ago—that I realized that I had witnessed the photo session that led to the headshot inside the hardcover jacket of Bloom’s blockbuster book The Closing of the American Mind. By that time, I had left the University of Chicago, disillusioned by the program and put off by Bloom’s circle of students. But I loved the book and credit it, at least in part, for my eventual return to the academy and a career as a professor of political philosophy.

I still assign the book with some regularity, especially in a freshman seminar on education that I’ve taught over the last half-decade. As the years have passed, I’ve noticed how the book has aged—many of its cultural references are long dated, while contemporary hot-button issues like gay marriage and religious liberty are altogether absent from Bloom’s confident pronouncements on our likely future. Still, the book continues to excite new readers—today’s students find it engaging, even if, unlike their elders, they don’t get especially upset by it and almost unanimously have never heard of it before. And with every re-reading I invariably find something new that I hadn’t noticed before, a testimony to the expansiveness of Bloom’s fertile mind.

While I continue to learn much from Bloom, over the years I have arrived at three main judgments about the book’s relevance, its prescience, and its failings. First, Bloom was right to be concerned about the specter of relativism—though perhaps even he didn’t realize how bad it would get, particularly when one considers the reaction to his book compared to its likely reception were it published today. Second, his alarm over the threat of “multiculturalism” was misplaced and constituted a bad misreading of the zeitgeist, in which he mistook the left’s tactical use of identity politics for the rise of a new kind of communalist and even traditionalist tribalism. And, lastly, most of his readers—even today—remain incorrect in considering him to be a representative of “conservatism,” a label that he eschewed and a worldview he rejected. Indeed, Bloom’s argument was one of the early articulations of “neoconservatism”—a puzzling locution used to describe a position that is, in fact, today more correctly captured by its critics on the left as “neo-liberalism.”

 

What should most astonish any reader of Bloom’s Closing after 25 years is the fact that this erudite treatise about the crisis of higher education not only sat atop the bestseller list for many weeks but was at the center of an intense, lengthy, and ferocious debate during the late 1980s over education, youth, culture, and politics. In many ways, it became the most visible and weightiest salvo in what came to be known as “the culture wars,” and people of a certain generation still hold strong opinions about Bloom and his remarkable, unlikely bestseller.

Today there are many books about the crisis of higher education—while the nature of the crisis may change, higher education never seems to be out of the woods—but none before or since Bloom’s book achieved its prominence or made its author as rich and famous as a rock star. It was a book that many people bought but few read, at least not beyond a few titillating passages condemning rock-and-roll and feminism. Yet it was a book about which almost everyone with some engagement in higher education held an opinion—indeed, it was obligatory to have considered views on Bloom’s book, whether one had read it or not.

Bloom’s book was at the center of a debate—one that had been percolating well before its publication in 1987—over the nature and content of a university education. That debate intensified with the growing numbers of “diverse” populations seeking recognition on college campuses—concomitant with the rise of departments of Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, and a host of other “Studies” studies—leading to demands that the curriculum increasingly reflect contributions by non-male, non-white, non-European and even non-dead authors.

The Closing of the American Mind spawned hundreds, perhaps even thousands of responses—most of them critiques—including an article entitled “The Philosopher Despot” in Harper’s by political theorist Benjamin Barber, and the inevitably titled The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence Levine. Partly spurred by the firestorm initiated by Bloom’s book, perennial presidential candidate Jesse Jackson led a march through the campus of Stanford University shouting through a bullhorn, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!” Passions for campus reform ran high, and an avalanche of words, articles, denunciations, and ad hominem attacks greeted Bloom’s defense of the Western canon.

Yet the nuances of Bloom’s qualified defense of the Western canon were rarely appreciated by critics or supporters alike. While Bloom was often lumped together with E.D. Hirsch—whose Cultural Literacy was published the same year and rose to number two on the New York Times bestseller list, just behind Closing—Bloom’s argument was fundamentally different and far more philosophically challenging than Hirsch’s more mundane, if nevertheless accurate, point that educated people increasingly did not have knowledge about their own culture. Hirsch’s book spoke to anxiety about the loss of a shared literary and cultural inheritance, which today has been largely supplanted by references to a few popular television shows and sports televised on ESPN.

Bloom made an altogether different argument: American youth were increasingly raised to believe that nothing was True, that every belief was merely the expression of an opinion or preference. Americans were raised to be “cultural relativists,” with a default attitude of non-judgmentalism. Not only all other traditions but even one’s own (whatever that might be) were simply views that happened to be held by some people and could not be judged inferior or superior to any other. He bemoaned particularly the decline of household and community religious upbringing in which the worldviews of children were shaped by a comprehensive vision of the good and the true. In one arresting passage, he waxed nostalgic for the days when people cared: “It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholic and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another; but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously…”

He lamented the decline of such true belief not because he personally held any religious or cultural tradition to be true—while Bloom was raised as a Jew, he was at least a skeptic, if not a committed atheist—but because he believed that such inherited belief was the source from which a deeper and more profound philosophic longing arose. It wasn’t “cultural literacy” he wanted, but rather the possibility of that liberating excitement among college-age youth that can come from realizing that one’s own inherited tradition might not be true. From that harrowing of belief can come the ultimate philosophic quest—the effort to replace mere prejudice with the quest for knowledge of the True.

Near the beginning of Closing, Bloom relates one telling story of a debate with a psychology professor during his time teaching at Cornell. Bloom’s adversary claimed, “it was his function to get rid of prejudices in his students.” Bloom compared that function to the activity of an older sibling who informs the kids that there is no Santa Claus—disillusionment and disappointment. Rather than inspiring students to replace “prejudice” with a curiosity for Truth, the mere shattering of illusion would simply leave students “passive, disconsolate, indifferent, and subject to authorities like himself.”

Bloom relates that “I found myself responding to the professor of psychology that I personally tried to teach my students prejudices, since nowadays—with the general success of his method—they had learned to doubt beliefs even before they believed in anything … One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation.” Bloom’s preferred original title—before being overruled by Simon and Schuster—was Souls Without Longing. He was above all concerned that students, in being deprived of the experience of living in their own version of Plato’s cave, would never know or experience the opportunity of philosophic ascent.

This core of Bloom’s analysis seems to be not only correct, but, if possible, he may have underestimated its extent. Consider the intense response to Bloom’s book as evidence against his thesis. The overwhelming response by academia and the intelligentsia to his work suggested anything but “indifference” among many who might describe themselves as cultural relativists. Extraordinary debates took place over what books and authors should and should not appear in the “canon,” and extensive efforts were undertaken to shape new curricula in light of new demands of “multiculturalism.” The opponents of Bloom’s book evinced a deep concern for the formation of students, if their concern for what and whom they read was any indication.

In retrospect, however, we can discern that opponents to Bloom’s book were not the first generation of “souls without longing,” but the last generation raised within households, traditions, and communities of the sort that Bloom described, and the last who were educated in the older belief that a curriculum guided the course of a human life. The ferocity of their reaction to Bloom was not simply born of a defense of “multiculturalism” (though they thought that to be the case) but a belief that only a curriculum of the right authors and books properly shapes the lives of their students. Even in their disagreement with Bloom, they shared a key premise: the books we ask our students to read will shape their souls.

Today we live in a different age, one that so worried Bloom—an age of indifference. Institutions of higher learning have almost completely abandoned even a residual belief that there are some books and authors that an educated person should encounter. A rousing defense of a curriculum in which female, African-American, Latino, and other authors should be represented has given way to a nearly thoroughgoing indifference to the content of our students’ curricula. Academia is committed to teaching “critical thinking” and willing to allow nearly any avenue in the training of that amorphous activity, but eschews any belief that the content of what is taught will or ought to influence how a person lives.

Thus, not only is academia indifferent to whether our students become virtuous human beings (to use a word seldom to be found on today’s campuses), but it holds itself to be unconnected to their vices—thus there remains no self-examination over higher education’s role in producing the kinds of graduates who helped turn Wall Street into a high-stakes casino and our nation’s budget into a giant credit card. Today, in the name of choice, non-judgmentalism, and toleration, institutions prefer to offer the greatest possible expanse of options, in the implicit belief that every 18- to 22-year-old can responsibly fashion his or her own character unaided.

Bloom was so correct about the predictable rise of a society defined by indifference that one is entitled to conclude that were Closing published today, it would barely cause a ripple. This is not because most of academia would be inclined to agree with his arguments any more than they did in 1987. Rather, it is simply the case that hardly anyone in academe any longer thinks that curricula are worth fighting over. Jesse Jackson once thought it at least important to oppose Western Civilization in the name of an alternative; today, it would be thought untoward and unworkable to propose any shared curriculum.

Those who run institutions of higher learning tell themselves that this is because they respect the choices of their young adult charges; however, their silence is born precisely of the indifference predicted by Bloom. Today’s academic leaders don’t believe the content of those choices has any fundamental influence on the souls of our students, most likely because it would be unfashionable to believe that they have souls. As long as everyone is tolerant of everyone else’s choices, no one can get hurt. What is today called “tolerance,” Bloom rightly understood to be more deeply a form of indifference, the extreme absence of care, leading to a society composed not only of “souls without longing” but humans treated as utilitarian bodies that are increasingly incapable of love.

 

If this core argument of Bloom’s seems prescient, a second major argument not only seems to me incorrect but in fact is contradicted by this first argument. It was because of his criticisms about the rise of “multiculturalism” that Bloom came to be readily identified with the right-leaning culture-warriors like William Bennett and Dinesh D’Souza and was so vilified on the academic left. Yet Bloom’s first argument implicitly makes a qualified praise of “multiculturalism,” at least as the necessary launching pad for the philosophic quest. In his praise of the belief structures that once inspired some students to disillusionment, he was singing the praises of a society composed of various cultural traditions that exercised a strong influence over the beliefs and worldviews of that culture’s youth.

Such qualified praise led him to wax nostalgic about an age when Catholics and Protestants cared enough to hate one another. But at his most alarmist—and, frankly, either least perceptive or most pandering—Bloom portrays then-regnant calls for “multiculturalism” as a betrayal of the norms of liberal democracy and as the introduction of dangerous tribalism into the university, as well as the body politic. At times, Bloom painted a portrait in which the once-ascendant claims of American individual rights, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, were about to be displaced by the incipient warfare of identity tribalism and groupthink.

At his best, Bloom sees through the sham of yesterday’s “multiculturalism” and today’s push for “diversity”—little of which had to do with enthusiasm for real cultural diversity, but which was then and remains today a way for individuals in under-represented groups to advance entitlement programs within America’s elite institutions. Those individuals, while claiming special benefits that should accrue to members in a particular group, had no great devotion to any particular “culture” outside the broader American anti-culture of liberalism itself. Indeed, the “cultures” in question were never really cultures at all, if by a culture we mean an identifiable group of people who share a generational, geographical, and distinctive set of customs aimed at shaping the worldview and practices of successive generations.

By this measure, women, blacks, Hispanics, and so on were people who might once have belonged to a variety of particular cultures, albeit not specifically as women or blacks or Hispanics. These new categorical groupings came to be based on claims of victimhood rather than any actual shared culture; many cultures have been persecuted, but it does not follow that everyone who has been mistreated constitutes a culture. While in passing Bloom acknowledged the paucity of such claims to cultural status, too often he was willing to take seriously professions of “multiculturalism” and to lament the decline of the American project of universalist natural rights.

The stronger case would have been to expose the claims of multiculturalism as cynical expressions from members of groups that did not, in fact, share a culture, while showing that such self-righteous claims, more often than not, were merely a thin veneer masking a lust for status, wealth and power. If the past quarter century has revealed anything, it has consistently shown that those who initially participated in calls for multiculturalism have turned out to be among the voices most hostile to actual cultures, particularly ones seeking to maintain coherent religious and moral traditions.

Bloom was prone to obtuseness about this fact because, at base, Bloom himself was not an admirer or supporter of the multiplicity of cultures. Indeed, he was suspicious and even hostile to the claims of culture upon the shaping of human character and belief—including religious belief. He was not a conservative in the Burkean sense; that is, someone apt to respect the inheritances of tradition and custom as a repository of past wisdom and experience. Rather, he was at his core a liberal: someone who believes that the only benefit of our cultural formation was that it constituted a “cave” from which ambitious and rebellious youth could be encouraged to pursue a life of philosophy.

Reflection about Bloom’s distaste for particular cultures suggests that the differences between Bloom and his apparent nemesis, the Cornell professor of psychology, are rather minimal. Both wanted to disabuse the youth of their “prejudices” in the name of openness: the psychology professor in the name of nihilisitic openness, and Bloom for the encouragement of philosophical inquiry, open to the possibility of Truth as well as the possibility of nihilism.

 

In fact, Bloom’s critique of the “multicultural” left is identical to and drawn from the critique of the “multicultural” right advanced by his teacher, Leo Strauss. In his seminal work Natural Right and History, Strauss identified Burke’s criticisms of the French Revolution as one of the lamentable responses to the “Crisis of Modern Natural Right,” a crisis that arose as a reaction against the social contractarianism of “modern natural right.” Burke’s argument against the revolutionary impulses of social contractarianism constituted a form of conservative “historicism”—that is, in Strauss’s view, the rejection of claims of natural right in favor of a preference for the vagaries of History. While today’s Straussians concentrate their criticisms largely on left historicism (i.e., progressivism), Strauss was just as willing to focus his criticisms on right historicism, that is, the traditionalism of Burke and his progeny.

Ironically, because the left in the 1980s adopted the language (if not the substance) of multiculturalism, Bloom was able to turn those Straussian critiques of Burke against those on the left—though of course they were no Burkeans, even if they used some Burkean language. For this reason, Bloom was assumed by almost everyone to be a “conservative,” a label that he not only explicitly rejected, but a worldview that he philosophically and personally abhorred.

Bloom’s argument became a major touchstone in the development of “neoconservatism,” a label that became associated with many fellow students of Strauss but which, ironically, explicitly rested on rejection of the claims of culture, tradition, and custom—the main impulses of Burkean conservatism. Bloom continuously invoked the natural-rights teachings of the Declaration and Constitution as necessary correctives to the purported dangers of left multiculturalism: rather than endorsing the supposed inheritance of various cultures, he commended the universalistic claims of liberal democracy, which ought to trump any identification with particular culture and creed. The citizen who emerged from the State of Nature, shorn of any specific cultural, religious, or ancestral limitation, was the political analogue for the philosopher who emerged from the Cave. Not everyone could become a philosopher, Bloom insisted, but everyone could be a liberal citizen, and ought rightly to be liberated from the limitations of place and culture—if for no other reason, to make them more tolerant of the radical philosophers in their midst.

Bloom’s was thus not only an early salvo in the culture wars, but an incipient articulation of the neoconservative impulse toward universalistic expansion. Burke’s willingness to acknowledge the basic legitimacy of most cultures—his “multiculturalism”—led him, in the main, to oppose most forms of imperialism. The rejection of multiculturalism, and the valorization of a monolithic liberal project, has inclined historically to a tendency toward expansionism and even imperialism, and neoconservatism is only the latest iteration of this tendency. While many of the claims about Strauss’s influence on the Iraq invasion and the neoconservative insistence upon spreading democracy throughout the world were confused, there was in fact a direct lineage from Bloom’s arguments against the multicultural left and rise of the neo-liberal or neoconservative imperialistic impulse. Bloom explicitly rejected the cautiousness and prudence endorsed by conservatism as a hindrance to philosophy, and thus rejected it as a political matter as a hindrance to the possibility of perfectibility:

Conservatives want young people to know that this tawdry old world cannot respond to their demands for perfection. … But … man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection. …. Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are.

[1]Bloom here witheringly rejected “realism” as “the easy way out” of real inquiry; yet, in the wake of the Iraq invasion, one of Bloom’s longstanding allies and admirers, John Agresto, lamented the overconfidence of the neoconservatives, and especially their neglect of the reality of culture, in a post-invasion book entitled Mugged by Reality.

Bloom’s book remains a kind of liberation, an intellectually adventurous work written with a kind of boldness and even recklessness rarely to be found in today’s more politically correct and cramped age. But it was, ultimately, more reckless than many of its readers realized at the time—not because it was conservative, but precisely because it rejected the conservative impulses to modesty, prudence, the genius of place, and tradition. It opened an era of “culture wars” in which the only combatant who seemed absent from the field was a true conservatism. Perhaps it is finally time for an opening of the American mind.

Patrick Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate
Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

37 Comments (Open | Close)

37 Comments To "Who Closed the American Mind?"

#1 Comment By Elias Crim On October 1, 2012 @ 11:45 am

Getting Bloom right is not a job for the faint of heart–or a hasty reader. Many thanks to Patrick Deneen for a masterful job of explication here.

#2 Comment By Cornel Lencar On October 1, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

Isn’t the golden rule enough? There is nothing relative about it. There is no need for faith or god to try to uphold the golden rule.

#3 Comment By cortesar On October 1, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

Souls Without Longing would have been much better title in my opinion
There is nothing that depicts more the closing of a mind than a soul that longs no more
The whole point of education should be to educate souls,to install longing into them: longing for knowledge, longing for new open spaces,longing to love and to be loved

#4 Comment By pacopond On October 1, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

A lazy default relativism, regardless of their partisan leanings, has characterized many of my brightest students for three decades. The students who come from a culture thick with moral earnestness and a concern for virtue are likely to let discussion wash over them without engaging.

#5 Comment By Richard W. Bray On October 2, 2012 @ 1:35 am

Academia is committed to teaching “critical thinking” and willing to allow nearly any avenue in the training of that amorphous activity

A pernicious Bloom in this regard is Benjamin whose famous taxonomy (mis)labels knowledge and comprehension as “lower order skills.”

Sadly, much of our curricula emphasizes the “higher order skills” analysis and synthesis without providing enough actual fodder for students to analyze or synthesize.

#6 Comment By Steve On October 2, 2012 @ 9:56 am

” If the past quarter century has revealed anything, it has consistently shown that those who initially participated in calls for multiculturalism have turned out to be among the voices most hostile to actual cultures, particularly ones seeking to maintain coherent religious and moral traditions.”

For example??

#7 Comment By Rossbach On October 2, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

What effect can a higher education have on the values of students whose education right up through high school has taught them that all values are relative and, therefore, equal. Moral and cultural relativism undermines the ability of young people to discover truth for themselves because it is the solidity of belief (right or wrong) that enables one to appreciate the power of doubt and the value of skepticism. But doubt and skepticism, foundational though they are for scientific method and critical thinking generally, must be applied like a scalpel, not an axe.

Can people who have been taught to believe in nothing ever appreciate the value of acquiring knowledge for its own sake? Or is the cultural and moral relativism of the early 21st century merely a more sophisticated repackaging of the philistinism of the mid-20th?

#8 Comment By C Herman On October 2, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

I read Bloom’s book at age 16, it was a definite statement on the “culture wars” and the value of the pop culture I was being exposed to as a teenager. It is dated now, but make someone should write a “remake”? It could be a companion piece with the new Robocop (also 1987) movie next year…

#9 Comment By Michael Walsh On October 2, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

I stumbled upon Allan Bloom in 1982 as an undergrad at Boston College. I went to collect a law school recommendation from my poli sci prof, a fine Straussian prof of classical political philosophy, and interrupted Allan Bloom huddled over a transcript. Bloom gave me the dirtiest look, as if I were fecal matter on his shoe. My professor graciously handed over the recommendation. I recognized Bloom because I had done some background research on my professor-he was a noted student of Bloom and Strauss. Several years later I noticed his name in Bloom’s acknowledgments to Closing. I read Closing when it came out. I was struck by Walker Percy’s reaction to the book: he suspected Bloom was a nihilist.

#10 Comment By cw On October 2, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

They have been publishing books like this since ever since I can remember.”The sky is falling, we is mis-educatin’ our youth, it is the end of civilization!!!”

It’s a stinking genre for gosh sakes. Is there anything of value in the particular example? WHo knows? The rush the book produces by satisfying the readers need for educational catastrophe obliterates any useful thoughts it contains.

I would find much more interesting a book about our need to continually panic about the course of our culture.

#11 Comment By RTT On October 3, 2012 @ 9:33 am

Claes G. Ryn on neocon Allan Bloom:

[2]

Paul E. Gottfried on neocon Allan Bloom — on why Closing of the American Mind is one of the premier left-wing American texts:

[3]

Paul Gottfried on how Bloom is wrong about Nietzsche:

[4]

..

#12 Comment By RTT On October 3, 2012 @ 10:57 am

Neocon Allan Bloom was an intellectual lightweight who wanted to wallpaper over the real blood and soil West with Jacobin abstractions. I suspect his motives were disingenuous, not unlike the motives of Stephen Jay Gould or Franz Boas. Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind was a Trojan Horse of sorts whose purpose was to disarm the localist / ethnocentric right-wing traditions of the West, which is why Bloom’s so obsessed with the Boogeyman of “relativism.”

#13 Comment By RTT On October 3, 2012 @ 11:06 am

Unable to post comment. I’ll try again:

Neocon Allan Bloom was an intellectual lightweight who wanted to wallpaper over the real blood and soil West with Jacobin abstractions. I suspect his motives were disingenuous, not unlike the motives of Stephen Jay Gould or Franz Boas. Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind was a Trojan Horse of sorts whose purpose was to disarm the localist / ethnocentric right-wing traditions of the West, which is why Bloom is so obsessed with the boogeyman of “relativism.”

#14 Comment By An Anachronistic Apostle On October 3, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

Conservatives want young people to know that this tawdry old world cannot respond to their demands for perfection.” — Mr. Bloom

Conservatives may prefer the young people to know, as an alternative, that any hotly sanctimonious sense of self-perfection … never mind the inevitable, accompanying projections concerning the abilities of a “tawdry old world” to set things right … can be deemed as out-and-out delusional.

#15 Comment By Larry Misch On October 4, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

The Indians tried to sell the idea of multiculturalism to the pilgrims, but the pilgrims said no, the Indians must change and be more like the pilgrims. The Indians tried, but could never fully satisfy the change requirement as stipulated. The result, violence and slaughter. Having found methods of dominance over the Indian, a manifest destiny was born, the greatest nation on earth to date was created and now multiculturalism has come full circle. Face it, we are now the Indians. We are all going to die.

#16 Comment By Emil Hurtik On October 5, 2012 @ 11:09 pm

As a logical positivist, it is humorous to read about the nonsense of these true believers in nonsense, left andf right.

#17 Comment By Church Lady On October 5, 2012 @ 11:16 pm

My take on Bloom is that he concentrates on the concerns of elite academic training, as if this is what makes society what it is, rather than broad cultural practices, which actually do. It’s the congenital narcissism of the academic, in other words. Because of this, he concentrates on books and ideas, rather than on the truly revolutionary changes that are actually driving the world: technology and its influence on everything we do. He betrays the academic fascination with what people think, rather than what they do, as if thinking comes first, and doing only comes later, when most of the time the opposite is the case. Only for academics does thinking actually represent a form of doing.

#18 Comment By George Balanchine On October 6, 2012 @ 5:30 am

Tried to read Closing of the American Mind, but couldn’t get through it.
One other word to describe Bloom: philistine. He objects to Modern Art(abstraction) because it fails to provide uplift to the masses since there’s nothing visually they can understand.
Oh yes, Bloom also wrote that the difference between the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany was one of degree only, if I understood him correctly. This has something to do with Bloom’s ideas about relativism, I think.
As a Wittgensteinian mystic, this notion of Bloom’s will baffle me for the rest of my life.
It has to be one of the most idiotic things ever written about that subject.

#19 Comment By Mark W Budwig On October 6, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

Speaking as someone who was there, Bloom’s account of events at Cornell in the spring of 1969 suggests a reliance on Paul Harvey. Contrast him with Max Black, who came to talk with the students gathered in Barton Hall (who, incidentally, split en masse with the SDS, who sought physical confrontation), or with Cushing Strout and others who disagreed with them on the issue of academic freedom but could see the values that motivated them and strove for conciliation. That Bloom was not the liberal villain/conservative hero he’s been portrayed as does not absolve him of being relentlessly tendentious in his argument.

#20 Comment By CJ Wolfe On October 7, 2012 @ 12:32 am

Your very interesting review has some connections with the current project I’m working on, a dissertation on the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre.

One of the big things I’ve learned is that MacIntyre went from treating liberalism as an “anti-culture” or anti-tradition in “After Virtue” to treating it as a substantive tradition in “WJWR?” and subsequent books.

The difference between you and the mature MacIntyre on this point is that MacIntyre would say both multiculturalism and natural rights thinkers both belong to a substantive tradition, that of “liberalism.” In addition, MacIntyre would say that Bloom’s exasperation at young Americans’ loss of belief in natural rights principles -was- a loss of tradition (Bloom’s bizarre obsession with shattering people’s beliefs would also be hurtful to the liberal tradition). I think your view that mulitculturalism is an anti-culture is more like MacIntyre’s view in “After Virtue” than the later books. I’ll keep in mind what you said critiquing multiculturalism the next time I think about MacIntyre’s reasons for treating it as a tradition.

#21 Comment By DT On October 7, 2012 @ 11:13 am

If what I’ve read about Bloom is true, the interesting point to me is that once he got rich and famous, he had no trouble adopting a luxurious lifestyle he criticized students for wanting.

#22 Comment By TGGP On October 8, 2012 @ 12:16 am

I thought I remembered hearing that name, Agresto, before. John Dolan aka “Gary Brecher” the War Nerd, worked under him as an English teacher in Iraq, and mentioned his book “Mugged by Reality”. Agresto’s account is [5], Dolan’s is [6].

#23 Comment By Last Boomer On October 9, 2012 @ 1:21 am

I’m not sure today’s youth have to go any further than turning off the TV and opening a book on Marxism to have their collective identity challenged. The need for a group identity remains and is filled by pop culture references all imbedded in the cellular membrane of the marketplace. Surely disavowing students of this facile belief system is a project higher learning can still accomplish.

#24 Comment By sd goh On October 10, 2012 @ 6:59 am

This good article has now inspired me to take out Bloom’s book from my little library and refresh my mind with a second reading. I still remember his quote,”A good program of liberal education feeds the student’s love of truth and passion to live a good life”.

#25 Comment By JR NYC On October 11, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

If the Closing of the American Mind was about the flattening of the American soul multiculturalism was hardly the culprit. Start with the corporatization of the university and the resultant death of the humanities at the altar of technocratic utility. End with the sexualised porno day care that is the modern university. There are worse things than Toni Morrison. Though that didnt help

#26 Comment By Chuck Vekert On October 12, 2012 @ 10:00 am

“ [Bloom] was not a conservative in the Burkean sense; that is, someone apt to respect the inheritances of tradition and custom as a repository of past wisdom and experience. Rather, he was at his core a liberal: someone who believes that the only benefit of our cultural formation was that it constituted a “cave” from which ambitious and rebellious youth could be encouraged to pursue a life of philosophy.”

In these sentences, Prof. Deneen draws a false dichotomy. He compares a Burkean political conservatism, which is cautious about making changes to the existing political order, to a epistemological liberalism, which as he defines it is not far from nihilism. There is no particular reason to believe that persons who are liberal in politics believe that either truth is undiscoverable or nonexistent. Liberals are far more likely to accept modern science as a source of truth. Few liberals would deny evolution, the big bang theory, or global warming. Further, it is possible for a person, and here I include myself, to be a Burkean and a political liberal. A good potion of the liberal agenda was enacted in the twentieth century starting with the Progressives and the Pure Food and Drug Act at the turn of the century, continuing with FDR and the New Deal, and largely culminating with LBJ and Medicare and the Civil Rights Act of l965.

While few liberals would claim that any of these are perfect, particularly the regulatory ones, they would claim that they are good and benefit the nation. They have been part of our country and government for a half century or more and deserve to be treated as “inheritances of tradition and custom” and as a “repository of past wisdom and experience”. Hence it is very possible to be a Burkean conservative and a liberal. Our political conservatives such as Ron Paul and Paul Ryan want far more radical changes to government than Burkean liberals.

Burke, like liberals, did not hate civil government. He would not have agreed with Milton Friedman’s quip that if the government was put in charge of the Sahara Desert in a few years it would run out of sand. Ayn Rand would have disgusted Burke. Burke could hardly have hated what he wished to conserve.

#27 Comment By James Pyles On October 13, 2012 @ 10:33 am

A simple definition of wisdom = seeing things as they really are. While wisdom is not always the goal of education it should certainly be the goal of philosophy. The attainment of wisdom cannot be molded. It is not embodied in any of the educational norms argued above. It is neither conservative or liberal.

#28 Comment By Kaleberg On October 14, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

The traditional purpose of higher education was as a unifying class marker. A Roman gentleman was expected to know his Virgil by heart, or, for more prestige, his Homer, in Greek. It was a common slur that Roman senators only read Juvenal, and just for the racy bits. In the Dark Ages, the international senatorial elite grew less relevant, so they dropped this idea and just ate lots of meat. The Merovingian and Carolingian upper crust were really big on eating lots of meat. (I’ll cite Wickham’s Inheritance of Rome on this.)

Maybe liberal education really is dead, and we should all be eating more meat? (Or perhaps local, organic food?)

STEM subjects are different. Either the cursed thing works, or it doesn’t. Nothing could be more declasse than that.

#29 Comment By Binky Behr On October 14, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

Bloom’s book was simply the intellectual elitist neocon version of Limbaugh’s “How Things Ought To Be.”
More jargon, same plot, same villains.

#30 Comment By Ronald Keeperman On March 2, 2013 @ 1:17 am

The following pronouncement from Bloom’s best-seller is but one of the many memorable and useful things that one can mine there. The thing, I suppose, that Bloom was saying throughout his work was, after all, that in the old books one can find fresh ways of thinking (and acting):

“Indignation is the soul’s defense against the wound of doubt about its own; it reorders the cosmos to support the justice of its cause. It justifies putting Socrates to death. Recognizing indignation for what it is constitutes knowledge of the soul, and is thus an experience more philosophic than the study of mathematics…So it may well be that through the thicket of our greatest corruption runs the path to awareness of the oldest truths.”

#31 Comment By John Calvin Errickson II On March 17, 2013 @ 10:56 am

For a good satire on the ways and thoughts of Professor Bloom the novel ‘Ravelstein’ by Saul Bellow is recommended. Critics of ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ Professor Bloom writes against the development of Women’s studies and Black Studies but is completely silent on Gay Studies!

#32 Comment By John Calvin Errickson II On March 17, 2013 @ 11:05 am

Apologies—-the words ‘have pointed out’ in front of ‘Professor Bloom writes against’ were omitted.

#33 Comment By Ray Donahue On September 23, 2014 @ 1:45 am

Prof Bloom has written a book that tells the story
of what has happened to America. Cultural Relativism does seem to be the source of many of the problems we face. I will not say Prof Bloom is correct on everything he says because I don’t know but I will say he is closest to the truth than anyone else. I can say this because before I read this book I already understood all that it discussed and if I were to write a book it would look like a mirror image. Thank You Prof Bloom.

#34 Comment By Ray Donahue On September 23, 2014 @ 1:56 am

Those who haven’t read this book by Prof. Bloom
and those who criticize it have my pity. It will not matter to them because nothing matters to them.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on American Nihilism. The cake is baked.

#35 Comment By B B On July 22, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

Dr. Deneen,

While I agree with your points on Bloom being himself a liberal whose thought is linked to the rise of neoconservativism, I think his intention was a little different:

I think Bloom valued, as you said, the cultural ‘prejudices’ of various traditions, and I doubt he was interested in an aggressive political and imperialistic spread of liberalism, as you are aware. What I believe was more pertinent for him was the fact of the inherent prejudice of cultures and the ensuing paradox of embracing something called ‘multiculturalism.’ A culture insists on defining how life should be approached, and is thus in natural conflict with other cultures it comes in contact with. As bloom knew but few do today, this is both inevitable and useful for the pursuit of Truth. “Multiculturalism” MUST assume a relativism of all truth claims in order to function. Now it is true the the United states functions on the public-private distinction so well described by Bloom: individuals may maintain ‘cultural’ beliefs privately as long as liberal democracy reigns in the public square. Bloom, as you noted, affirms this liberal distinction, as it allows in his mind for philosophic liberation of the mind; it is, essentially, THE American cultural prejudice. But Bloom’s entire book in part serves to chronicle how this very public-private distinction is paradoxical: cultures and values do not respect these borders, even if people do, and impose themselves on public life, making it necessary for the liberal to introduce a value relativism that extends into the public life as well. Thus what Bloom feared, and what has indeed come true, is that the multiculturalism inherent in the American public-private distinction would result in the type of relativism which is today the cause of indifference and abused by the groupthink of “victimhood” and the false tribalism advocated by those seeking entitlement. Yes, Bloom did perhaps take seriously these claims as a true multiculturalism which would threaten natural rights, but more importantly, he showed us that multiculturalism as a value will always necessarily lead to relativism and must therefore be treated with caution. This also makes sense when considering his critique of democratic utilitarianism throughout the book when keeping in light the fact that, as you point out, he remains in some senses a classical liberal. Democracy harbors too many philosophical paradoxes, such as multiculturalism, to be left without an ever-vigilant intellectual eye that seeks greater ends than the common or the practical.

What is my conclusion then? That yes, we do need to watch out lest a bashing of multiculturalism lead us to renewed imperialism. But we must also, as Bloom did, be always aware that the multiculturalism inherent in our regimes (I am Canadian) leads naturally to the type of indifference that is more interested in tolerating and avoiding differences than hearing what they have to say, or, God forbid, actually establishing public laws and structures based on virtue rather than mere consensus and political correctness.

#36 Comment By Norse Lapse On April 19, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

[pacopond says:
A lazy default relativism, regardless of their partisan leanings, has characterized many of my brightest students for three decades. The students who come from a culture thick with moral earnestness and a concern for virtue are likely to let discussion wash over them without engaging.]

Any professor can facilitate already “bright” students. If any of your students turn out to be great and virtuous people, then you can proudly say you taught them how to do their taxes.

#37 Comment By Ron Pavellas On June 29, 2017 @ 3:32 am

Most of the arguments here do not speak in plain words which a non-academic or an informal scholar might find more amenable to understanding. As I waded through the abstractions I finally formulated a question which I think ought to be answered first: of what importance is it that the human race should continue? Can the answer be presented in one sentence using plain words?