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The American Mind is as Closed as Ever

In the summer of 1987, a relatively unknown University of Chicago political science professor and philosopher named Allan Bloom published an academic book entitled The Closing of the American Mind. It was a surprise hit that unexpectedly thrust him into the national spotlight and earned him, among other distinctions, a nationally broadcast interview on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line.

Bloom’s book, whose principal focus was the deeply worrying state of higher education in America—and which he and his colleagues only forecast would be a modest success—remained atop The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for four continuous months. This professorial account from the inside, a “Notes from the Underground” on how the American university had been intellectually corrupted over the past 25 years, had clearly struck a chord. It was a work that held, and continues to hold, lessons for every thinking American citizen.

In 380 unrelenting pages, citing examples from philosophy, history, religion, and politics, Bloom argued that the American university had rejected the tradition of academic integrity dating back to Plato and Aristotle, capitulated to the demands of the ideologically aggressive student organizers of the 1960s, and replaced its basic pursuit of intellectual truth with a self-serving and quasi-fascist belief in moral relativism. This, he argued, was having grave ramifications for society at large.

Bearing the evocative subtitle “How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students,” the book was angrily condemned by several voices on the left (perhaps most notoriously by William Greider in his October 1987 Rolling Stone article), and sparked a high-profile public debate on the vitality of American culture, the philosophical atmosphere at the American university, the moral character of post-1960s American youth, and just where, exactly, the United States as a society was headed.

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Thanks to the quiet diffusion of the ideas of philosophical radicals such as Nietzsche and Heidegger across Western—and especially American—society over the previous half-century, Bloom argued that our civilization was losing any sense of its philosophical and moral compass. We were forgetting, Bloom argued, not merely the political ideas of the American Founding Fathers, but the very foundation of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization itself. We had moved beyond even Marxism—which at least asserted an overarching view of man and his historical destiny—to Friedrich Nietzsche’s relativism, where no action was good or evil, and any set of values was conceivably as good as any other.

In short, Bloom said, the mob was becoming the absolute, and the stupid cliché “be yourself” a greater imperative than “do the right thing.” The social subscript carrying the book to national prominence probably had something to do with the fact that many Americans, conservative or otherwise, had recognized that the Reagan years—while a time of conservative resurgence in many ways—had largely failed to deliver the sort of socially conservative restoration that many had hoped they would.

Thirty years later, it’s become apparent that Bloom’s book is just as valid as it was when it went to press—probably even more so.

Trained at the University of Chicago in the halcyon 1950s, when the intellectual boom fostered by the flight of the post-war European intellectuals to the United States was still in full flower (“The fact is,” Bloom wrote, “that the fifties were one of the great periods of the American university”), Bloom received his Ph.D. in 1955 under the tutelage of Dr. Leo Strauss himself. He went on to teach for numerous years at his own alma mater, in addition to Cornell University, Yale University, the University of Toronto, Tel Aviv University, and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, winning the admiration of many students along the way. He became good friends with famed Canadian-American writer Saul Bellow, who later wrote the classic foreword for the first edition of The Closing of the American Mind. A lifelong lover of Western civilization’s “great books,” Bloom felt that the alienation of modern students from the classic texts of literature and philosophy was one of the great tragedies of his time—and possibly the first step in the establishment of a tyranny. Indeed, one cannot be expected to defend a heritage one does not even know.

It is important to remember that Bloom was, by his own telling, not a conservative, even though many on the left accused him of being a reactionary. One need not be “right-wing” to take pause at the worrying trends Bloom espied. Writing in 1991, he declared to those who would paint him as such, “I am not a conservative—neo or paleo. Conservatism is a respectable outlook…I just do not happen to be that animal.”

A man from a relatively liberal, Jewish background, Bloom merely saw himself as a defender of what he called the “theoretical life”—the authentic tradition of academics and philosophy that, he argued, had characterized the Western university from the time of Socrates and the ancient Greeks until the present day. Its main characteristic was the unencumbered pursuit of truth, humanity, and reality, which, Bloom argued, was being betrayed by the professors who during the 1960s had drifted wherever the wind blew. Truth has no value, Bloom felt, in a world where one’s own subjective experience and “feelings” are more important than the facts. Looking back, it seems that the ideological seeds of the “safe space” were already present during the Reagan years and probably even earlier.

In an evocative segment towards the beginning of his book, Bloom lamented how the Bible, once the common bedrock of American morality and philosophy, had essentially become a foreign document to a rising generation that was entirely alienated from its civilizational heritage. It was a generation that, as Bloom told it in the first sentence of his introduction, had no common belief except that “truth is relative.” In 2018, one need only glance at any conservative magazine’s articles on the modern university to see how little has changed—or, perhaps, how much has changed for the worse. Who at the modern university, for example, can now claim that the traditional view of marriage has its strengths—let alone that same-sex unions are undesirable—without be excoriated as a bigot?

Connecting the intellectual to the social, Dr. Bloom dedicated an entire section of his book to human relationships and how the atomization of our society—especially with regard to the divorce epidemic, which he described as the “most visible sign of our increasing separateness” and “surely America’s most urgent social problem”— had given many students a “deformity of the spirit,” making them less curious to study the transcendent meaning of human life for fear of what they might uncover. Even a non-conservative could see the danger these phenomena posed to our civilization. The social degradation we are faced with, and the ideology that abets it, has a real impact—ideas do, indeed, “have consequences.” In 2018, when Salon and the Huffington Post publish material that undermines the very foundations of family life—articles of a sort unthinkable even 10 years earlier—it is any wonder that our society is more confused and wandering than ever before?

Bloom’s point on the university is fully brought home when he recounts his experiences as a faculty member during the Cornell rebellion, perhaps the most infamous student protest of the entire 1960s. On April 18, 1969, in an episode burned into the memories of all those who witnessed it, contingents of racially aggrieved student radicals descended on the Cornell campus—shotguns and rifles in hand—to hold the university hostage for 36 hours. The event was reported in news across the world, as numerous professors received death threats and the insurgents actually opened fire on the Cornell engineering building. In the eyes of many, including Bloom, it was—as Thomas Sowell described it in 1999— “The Day Cornell Died.” When the liberal humanities professors blithely, almost eagerly, surrendered to the students’ list of demands—which centered upon the perceived racism directed against black people on campus—Bloom tendered his resignation in disgust. As numerous historians of Cornell have stated, the college was never truly the same afterwards.

Bloom believed this episode had a deep and catastrophic significance. Comparing the German universities under Nazi rule to the universities in his own time, in Closing of the American Mind he quotes Martin Heidegger’s Rectorial Address of 1933, made around the time Hitler seized the Reichstag. “The time for decision is past,” Heidegger declared. “The decision has already been made by the youngest part of the German nation.” It was incorrect for the universities to resist the revolutionary mass movement of Nazism because the decision had “already been made” by a social power that somehow knew better.

Bloom believed that the process of philosophical surrender was the same in that time and his own. “In both,” he said, “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 [in the Nietzschean sense of believing one’s personal commitments to be more important than good or evil] 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.”

“Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock,” Bloom wrote, “the principle is the same.”

Bloom makes the picture even clearer when he cites the example of a professor who one day was reading political quotes to a group of his radical students. The students supported the quotes, Bloom tells us, until the professor informed them that their author was Mussolini himself.

Today, 30 years later, has anything really changed?

Berkeley is now the new Cornell, where violent scare tactics are employed to silence speakers deemed not sufficiently “open.” This revolutionary, leftist brand of “openness” can, of course, only inaugurate a further “closing of the mind.” When Bloom discusses how students in his day reviled classic authors such as Shakespeare, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when they discovered the classic books to be “repositories of the elitist, sexist, nationalist prejudice [they were] trying to overcome,” can we fail to remember the fanatical attitude that wants to tear down our historical monuments in the name of “tolerance”?

Indeed, the same perspective on classic literature is prevalent across most of academia today. As Bloom wrote in a passage that could have been published last week, modern students might study Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but the Christian social mores within the book would be totally beyond their experience. They might as well be examining a corpse.

Is divorce, and its attendant psychological carnage, any less of an issue now than in 1987? Are we truly, in the wake of today’s various aggressive youth movements—and our educational leadership’s willingness to surrender to them—further from Heidegger’s youth-led fascism than we were then? America has made several social improvements since those days, but that does not make our dangers any less real. We gain nothing by ignoring our problems.

Mr. Buckley was right to invite Bloom on Firing Line to discuss his hit book that day in 1987. Thirty years later, we need such discussions more than ever.

Jack H. Burke has contributed to National Review. He is also a former White House intern and served as a U.S. congressional staff member.

47 Comments (Open | Close)

47 Comments To "The American Mind is as Closed as Ever"

#1 Comment By Al Kawi On April 8, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

A solid article. Bloom, alas, was on the mark. His book remains a compelling diagnosis of the pathologies that continue to afflict American intellectual and university life.

He was not a conservative, but did value the life of the mind and respected the power of ideas.

#2 Comment By Cesar Jeopardy On April 8, 2018 @ 10:02 pm

We reached a point back in the 1990s at which no Republican has the moral or ethical standing to accuse others of having a closed mind.

#3 Comment By Egypt Steve On April 8, 2018 @ 10:28 pm

Re: ” can we fail to remember the fanatical attitude that wants to tear down our historical monuments in the name of “tolerance”?”

This is clearly an apologetic for Confederate monuments. Let’s be clear: when we honor Thomas Jefferson, we do so despite his ownership of slaves, not because of it. When we honor Shakespeare, it’s not for his espousal of regressive political or social views of the Elizabethan period, but for his brilliant poetry and drama. But when we honor Robert E. Lee, or Jefferson Davis, we honor them for no other reason than their treason in defense of slavery. The Civil War aside, they never would have been known or remembered by history.

#4 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On April 8, 2018 @ 11:03 pm

One of Bloom’s problems was hyperbole, comparing Nuermberg to Woodstock is a case in point. After 70 years of life on terra firma, I never remember a day when someone from the left or the right wasn’t, with fear and certainty, declaring the world was going to hell and they had irrefutable proof. Well here we are. And yet. It would be nice for some discussions on what is a life well lived. The ancient greeks thought this was the question philosophy was about. One thing I know, you can’t base it on a religion. The religion may reflect underlying principles but it is the principles that need to be examined.

#5 Comment By Les Govment On April 9, 2018 @ 12:43 am

In the last 30+ years we’ve seen the demise of the Moral Majority movement, which has produced a new crop of conservatives (not all conservatives, of course) that are more open-minded than their predecessors.

In contrast, over the last 10-15 years, we’ve seen many on the left (i.e., namely progressives) become more closed minded. This has resulted in the growth of anti-free speech factions on the left: SJW’s, many left-wing college students, Antifa and others. Call them the Regressive Left.

Les Govment [1]
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#6 Comment By Les Govment On April 9, 2018 @ 12:52 am

To all: Error in my previous post; please disregard it. Corrected text follows here:

In the last 30+ years we’ve seen the demise of the Moral Majority movement, which has given way to a new crop of conservatives (not all conservatives, of course) that are more open-minded than their predecessors.

In contrast, over the last 10-15 years, we’ve seen many on the left (i.e., namely progressives) become more closed-minded. This has resulted in the growth of anti-free speech factions on the left: SJW’s, many left-wing college students, Antifa and others. Call them the Regressive Left.

Les Govment [1]
.

#7 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 9, 2018 @ 2:12 am

The further descent has been from Nietzsche to Foucault.

#8 Comment By Banger On April 9, 2018 @ 8:00 am

Thanks for mentioning Alan Bloom and his great book. This was a major influence on me a former student radical who realized that the left I had supported had, by the time Bloom wrote his book, self-destructed. The left emerged out of the great Western intellectual tradition without which its basic theme of compassion has no base, no home and is thus, as we can see today, now scattered into the wind.

#9 Comment By connecticut farmer On April 9, 2018 @ 8:28 am

“Mr. Buckley was right to invite Bloom on Firing Line to discuss his hit book that day in 1987. Thirty years later, we need such discussions more than ever.”

“‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished” as The Bard wrote. Shakespeare is dead…as are Buckley and Bloom. And our civilization–as represented by the first and so eloquently defended by the latter two–appears to be on it’s way to a similar fate.

I read “The Closing” when it was first published and after hearing Bloom being interviewed on the radio. It was hard going, filled with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, but well worth it. Like Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” it’s a crie de coeur, an expression of dismay if not despair, at the sight of all that we have come to appreciate and love being abased by the hordes of The Great Unwashed.

Speaking for myself, it’s a terrible and depressing sight.

#10 Comment By cj On April 9, 2018 @ 8:39 am

The ‘bigliest’ proof that we’re headed towarards disaster is the presidency of D Trump. So it’s not just the pseudo-progressives of the Democratic party leading the US into the sewer, it’s also the GOP with their denial of science and anything that thwarts the greed of those financially supporting the party (the democrats are in the same boat).

Was this article written prior to the trump catastrophe or did this potentially ruinous presidency slip the author’s attention?

#11 Comment By William Heitler On April 9, 2018 @ 8:53 am

“Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same.”
To write that, or quote that statement with approval, reveals, to my mind, a severe lack of historical perspective. To say the least.

#12 Comment By Angolo On April 9, 2018 @ 8:54 am

We need “discussions” less than we need a) greater collapse of enrollment in the Humanities, b) the elimination of life-time tenure, c) the appointment of deans who will make all faculty hiring committees strictly “advisorial,” and d) donors who will create endowed chair positions for non-Leftist scholars.

Only the first two are underway.

I say this as a full-time university person with a Ph.D. in the Humanities.

#13 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 9, 2018 @ 9:43 am

It’s easier to dismiss Heidegger than to grapple with him, easier to just call him a fascist, admired by liberals who are out to destroy the Western Canon. But Heidegger is part of the canon.

He is held in the same high esteem as Derrida among the leftist heathen army of neo-Marxist neo-Nazi PhDs. I’m only lightly acquainted with the poisonous works in question, but I definitely don’t understand how confronting highly demanding philosophy, far more difficult than Kant or Hume, let’s say, is a rejection of knowledge.

People work hard to understand Heidegger, man, it’s like fighting with Grendel, and certainly you cannot hope to grasp any of the modern giants–no matter your opinion of them–without being well acquainted with their foundations.

Oh, but they attacked Shakespeare, in the 60’s, the Mussolini loving liberal heathens, oh cruel barbarians, and now look: Shakespeare is almost gone, barely anyone knows him, what I’m saying is just wait a couple more years and: finito. No more Tolstoy, no Shakespeare, no Dante, no classics, everything will fade but Heidegger and Derrida and Judith Butler and their twisted devotees, the feminist orc hordes, the Nazi-Marxist culture crusher is all that will be left, we’re so screwed blued and tattooed.

But my own sister studied Heidegger and Derrida and Foucault in the heart of the intellectual death machine, Europe. Then in her work she used their analytical methods in conjunction with the classics–Sophocles, Plato–while politically she supported Bernie Sanders, chose not to vote in the general election, and then celebrated Trump’s victory as a triumph of democracy.

OK, fine, she’s smart, but is she smart enough to comprehend postmodern philosophy EX NIHILO???

No one is that smart. We don’t have twentieth century philosophy emerging from vast nothingness, you see.

Why don’t you have more faith in the knowledge you venerate? The knowledge is compelling and unhidden, so what more do you want? People shouldn’t attack Shakespeare, don’t attack old ideas, don’t come up with new ones? You’re in for lots of frustration.

The Western heritage has no use for trembling guardians. No one has burned the libraries. The works are easy to find, easy to read. If you want to study ANY school of philosophy with any degree of seriousness, you must be serious about the classics. So they’re valued and safe. I don’t care how insightful Alan Bloom is, the intellectual heritage of the West isn’t going anywhere, wilting flowers: get a grip.

#14 Comment By Carl King On April 9, 2018 @ 10:27 am

Your oblique comparison of reading Shakespeare to removing monuments honoring Robert E Lee left me with a slightly nauseous taste in my mouth.

#15 Comment By the idiots are winning On April 9, 2018 @ 10:35 am

I would like to thank Mr. Burke for this article. When I attended university 50 years ago, the totalitarianism of the various “protest movements” was becoming quite evident, as was the willingness of university professors and administrators to yield before it. It is interesting that such behavior never seems to originate in the fact-based fields, e.g. STEM, or in medical schools, law schools, or B-schools. Why is this so? I submit that in fact-based fields, “feelings” don’t cut much ice.

#16 Comment By Eric Mader On April 9, 2018 @ 10:43 am

Bloom’s book was a kind of early awakening for me. Not so much because of his arguments as because of the reactions to its publication on my campus. I was part of the campus left in those days, finishing an undergrad degree in Comparative Literature (UW Madison). I read Bloom’s book and found it worth discussing, at the very least. A student journalist I knew, an acquaintance, dissed the book at length in one of the campus newspapers. Talking with him over coffee a few days after his article came out, I learned that hadn’t actually read the book.

I’d read the book because of a young outlier professor in my department, who’d added it as “additional reading” to one of his course syllabi. He was vilified by most others in the department for doing this. Of course such books mustn’t even be discussed, was the general message. Later that year his contract wasn’t renewed. In fact nowhere on campus could I find anyone attacking Bloom who’d actually read his book or even parts of it.

And so things have dragged on until the present, getting markedly worse by most metrics, from what I can see. I’m only glad, a few years later, I decided to leave my PhD. program after a year. I certainly wouldn’t have survived as an academic in the current climate.

I reread The Closing of the American Mind again about 2010 (grasping much better the outlines of the argument than I had originally) and also picked up Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein, based on his friendship with Bloom. Yes, of course, Bloom’s book delivers a punch, in clear and measured prose. With the SJW plague now ruining (what’s left of) our humanities from the Ivy Leagues on down, that punch is more deserved now than it was in 1987. But what does it mean to punch a rotten corpse?

#17 Comment By ted richards On April 9, 2018 @ 10:45 am

sadly there is no way back from here. the damage is too severe thus ensuring we as a society will crash and burn.

the only hope for our society is how we pick up the pieces and what we choose to do with them after the collapse.

we face a very ugly tyranny if the lefts choices are selected by society or perhaps hope if they are rejected.

since socialism is now collapsing everywhere throughout the world… maybe we have some sunlight in the distance.

#18 Comment By MarkedMan On April 9, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

Whatever value this post might have in the abstract, it is jarring coming from a self professed conservative. US Conservatives today are 100% captured by the Republican Party and the bourbon swilling billionaire hobbyists whose agenda they promote. In order to accomplish this they ignore or disparage objective reality on issue after issue. “Tax Cuts Always Yield Growth”. “There is no Climate Change.” “Racism no longer exists in America.” “The Crime Rate is Rising”. “All government programs are boondoggles”. “The American worker is better off without unions”. With the modern US conservative movement in such shambles, “The American Conservative” continues to run post after post looking for liberals-who-were-wrong-on-the-internet to rail against. The Conservative movement in the US is intellectually bankrupt and incapable of seeing its own cancer riddled body, and so continues its shambolic hunt for everything liberals are doing wrong.

#19 Comment By Youknowho On April 9, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

There is a reason why students find the story of Anna Karenina and its religious underpinning alien to them their life experience.

By the time they reach college, they will have run across more than one divorced woman and while they had problems – which some of them discussed at length – none of them had the slightest inclination to jump in front of a train.

Divorce they understood. Having no exit except the train, no, they do not.

The mores have changed, and a lot of books in the canon do not reflect it, and some of what they read shocks them (like hanging of the “faithless maids” in the Odyssey – or the acceptance of honor killings in the Bible). So they are going to look on those classics with a jaundiced eye.

You cannot blame ideology for this. The world round them has changed and the classical canon remians unchanged.

#20 Comment By James Graham On April 9, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

I too read Bloom’s book when it was published.

Although I don’t recall if he touched on it, I think one of the “closers” victories is the prevalence of anti-anti-communism.

The Black Book of Communism was a best seller in France but the American version, published by Harvard in 1999, had little impact.

On the other hand The Communist Manifesto is now number four on the list of most-assigned publications in American universities.

[2]

#21 Comment By b. On April 9, 2018 @ 12:40 pm

“Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are. They are divinations of the order of the whole of things, and hence the road to a knowledge of that whole is by way of erroneous opinions about it.”

It would be fair to say that, as erroneous opinion goes, Bloom might have delivered outsized error and dishonest opinion, but it resulted in no measurable advance for him personally, or us, collectively. It did make a tidy profit.

The traditional hatred of those that have made their mistakes, and now realize how unoriginal they were in their choices, for those that are in the process of making theirs, and still have time to do better, is not only tiresome; tradition does not make conservative reasoning. It does handily close the mind, however.

Underneath it all, authoritarian instruction is presented in bad faith as “teaching”.

#22 Comment By b. On April 9, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

In all honesty, it would be refreshing to have religious intolerance manifest in that open prejudice that Bloom was missing e.g. from the centuries of Catholic-Protestant race on the “road to a knowledge that is whole”. Does the obnoxious certainty displayed by those who just know who will go to hell and who won’t count as “erroneous opinion” after all?

#23 Comment By Jack Howard Burke On April 9, 2018 @ 12:46 pm

In response to Egypt Steve, when I typed my reference to “monuments” I was in fact thinking more of Thomas Jefferson and Columbus (or even Lincoln, whose monuments have also been attacked within the last several months) than “Confederate monuments.” (Although pending on the legitimate will of the public I would also support leaving those up, especially those select monuments which are well over a century old, or simply honor the sacrifice of common soldiers.) I am in fact an active member of the Sons of Union Veterans and support the preservation of historical memory generally. I am surprised you found that conclusion to be so “clear,” especially with respect to “treason and slavery.” Best wishes.

-The author

#24 Comment By The Dean On April 9, 2018 @ 12:49 pm

I read this book back in 1987 and found it absolutely mesmerizing and insightful. The same year I believe that Time Magazine’s person-of-the-year was a computer. Little did Professor Bloom realize that in thirty years almost everyone would have a wireless computer in their pocket, mistakenly called an iPhone.

The interconnected world that we now live in, unknown in 1987, has undermined the social fabric that we as American understood from our founding.

I am sure there are ways to find information on bomb making, taking and ordering illicit drugs, or belonging to racist or fringe groups with just a click.

Gambling, once a compulsive behavior for the morally bankrupt is now condoned by the state in the form of lotteries and casinos.

Marijuana, a gateway drug for most, is being legalized throughout the country for “tax” purposes.
At least earlier generations new that gambling, drugs and excessive alcohol consumption was a detriment to the individual and a civilized country.

Published opinion faces no editorial jurisdiction since said opinion can be displayed on YouTube for free regardless of agenda.

I cannot succinctly describe this book, but read it.

#25 Comment By R. Kingsley On April 9, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

I graduated from university 50 years ago. As a progressive, I expect human kind to improve in terms of both science and morality. Morality based on an authoritarian deity as interpreted and enforced by a cadre of devotees has made some remarkable strides in the progress of human history. However, the weakness of this system continues to be the “interpreters and enforcers”. The Enlightenment was an attempt to develop and apply derived principles or maxims as moral guides and give humans a central role in determining what behavior was appropriate. This is not moral relativism as some try to brand it. We now have a lot of human history to learn from and an honest evaluation of the results of many experiments in governance can help us decide which schemes are worth preserving. Hardened ideologies and vested interests interfere with that honest evaluation. In practice, we seem in dialectical fashion to bounce from one near disaster to another. For the thoughtful person who pays attention, this can be very uncomfortable but it appears to be the way the world works. We need to work to make sure our disasters continue to be only near.

#26 Comment By George Crosley On April 9, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

But when we honor Robert E. Lee, or Jefferson Davis, we honor them for no other reason than their treason in defense of slavery. The Civil War aside, they never would have been known or remembered by history.

Wondrous to relate, Robert E. Lee was admired by generations of men, women, and children until roughly 15 minutes ago. But those ignoramuses are now dead and gone, and more attuned people like yourself hold the field.

Warning: Until 15 minutes ago, many Americans admired Abraham Lincoln who has now been discovered to have been shockingly retrograde on matters of women’s rights, gay rights, and trans rights. Maybe if he hadn’t been assassinated he would have gotten woke.

Carl King: Your oblique comparison of reading Shakespeare to removing monuments honoring Robert E Lee left me with a slightly nauseous taste in my mouth.

You poor soul. I sincerely sympathize. Our history books are filled with oodles of stories about men and women who just weren’t as up-to-date as us, aren’t they?

#27 Comment By Frank On April 9, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

“since socialism is now collapsing everywhere throughout the world… maybe we have some sunlight in the distance.”

Has anyone told the Scandinavian countries yet?

#28 Comment By Dan Green On April 9, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

Patrick J. Deneen’s book, ” Why Liberalism failed” is a must read. He sight first Facism failed, the Communism failed, now Liberalism has been so successful it is failing under it’s own weight.

#29 Comment By Peter On April 9, 2018 @ 3:20 pm

This was a potentially interesting article undermined by the author’s lack of understanding of Bloom’s arguments on the one hand, and the traditions he purports to defend on the other. Its conclusions are too broad, and – as others have noted – ridiculous in the face of a man in the White House actively deconstructing the office, the laws of the land, and the value of Truth. Can’t blame Derrida or some students for that, can we?

And there is value in literacy and humanities study, despite what the cynics might argue. Reading ‘The Communist Manifesto’ or other works by Marx and Engels allows one to understand the movements those ideas helped engender. Studying the history of ideas will not compel you to join the Khmer Rouge. Studying the history of the Khmer Rouge will compel one to condemn it. But the fact remains that the world’s most powerful nation is nominally Communist. And people would suggest not studying Marxism? Very open minds indeed – Horatio Alger is much more fun than Michel Foucault it’s true! but serious intellectual work demands grappling with all kinds of theorists, and pushing the limits of what might be true. Courage!

#30 Comment By Jones On April 9, 2018 @ 3:40 pm

@Emil Bogdan

I don’t think anyone said to burn all of Heidegger’s books. That’s a proposition more likely to come from the left than the right today. (Someone should tell those folks that Heidegger was a white man!)

There’s a difference between reading and studying Foucault — I have, at length — and actually trying to reshape society according to his ideas. (I pick Foucault somewhat at random; no one thinker is particularly to blame, because they’ve all been fed into the stinking pot of “critical theory,” left there to cook in the minds of callow undergrads for a few decades.)

People have been studying this stuff for a while; they’ve only just begun to have success actually reshaping society in accordance with their foul ideas. We will start to see the fruits of this effort in the coming years; we haven’t seen anything yet.

#31 Comment By cacambo On April 9, 2018 @ 4:27 pm

I am a left-wing academic in a humanities field, did my graduate work at Berkeley, and I am a big fan of Allan Bloom. Read The Closing of the American Mind when it first came out and just taught it this semester in a graduate seminar.

Just so you know that were not all marching in lockstep in academia, as is often portrayed.

#32 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 9, 2018 @ 5:09 pm

When I read this article, I had to resist the desire to respond until I had pulled my copy of the book. Many comments here have centered on the authority based educational system.

What Dr. Bloom’s book does is establish the veracity for why that authority existed. He also establishes a general overview what education departments were like prior to 1960 and for some time after. Frankly one of his positions is accurate, that the university system had an environment in which even objectionable ideas were freely discussed, but said discussions were engaged in a manner minus the threat of force. There was a certain order, that allowed voices to interact.

One of the primary contends is the constant threat for advance as opposed to the veracity of the content to change. Also that in knocking over the established order nothing was set to take it place that provided a meaningful set of domains by which one could effectually navigate toward professional, personal and academic enlightenment as to place in the society or role toward the same.

I was curious about the Cornell incident. And I cannot defend the use of any threat of coercion, the direct here is a tad bit disingenuous. Because while students did engage this tactic. it was a uniquely black tactic or a black contend. It encompassed a scope that actually swallowed black issues making them moot and mute on campuses, and that was the work of white protesters, which I suspect was the real reason there was little push back. But that’s another issue.

The lack of the specifics on the issues in contention is what Dr. Blooms book misses.

The only observation I would make at the moment is that these movements were not US centric. They were going on across Europe and even in Asia.

Most importantly, is that those university assails did change segregation, economic disparity, or the lives of one of the foundation complaints that of blacks. There is an obvious reason why, but the ownership of the emotional contend has been to the benefit of whites —

Outside of academia, it was not blacks who advance d the most devastating changes to the moral order. Prayer in school, killing children in the womb, same sex relational behavior, divorce, castigation of faith and practice, marriage and family . . . is not the result of blacks on college campuses demanding more courses that include the role of blacks in building the country as contributors to the US. I have said it before and I will continue that press.

#33 Comment By Geoff On April 9, 2018 @ 6:37 pm

*Is divorce, and its attendant psychological carnage, any less of an issue now than in 1987?*

Well since you asked, the divorce rate has declined substantially since 1987. In 1990, the divorce rate was about 4.75 per thousand and in 2016 it stood at 3.25 per thousand.

*the authentic tradition of academics and philosophy that, he argued, had characterized the Western university from the time of Socrates and the ancient Greeks until the present day.*

The Western university only dates to about the beginning of the 12th century, almost sixteen hundred years after Socrates drank the hemlock.

This piece feels slack and uninformed throughout. But I enjoyed being reminded of Professor Bloom’s book, which I read and admired when it came out.

#34 Comment By Tom Cullem On April 9, 2018 @ 9:31 pm

This article is particularly interesting read in tandem with the column on Hungary’s recent election and Orban’s victory. The (occasionally stealthy) appeal of Eastern Europe’s strongmen, including of Putin in Russia, is perhaps more understandable in light of the moral relativism eating away at the core of the West’s great traditions. A good example is the refusal to acknowledge the link between deep cultural losses resulting from mass immigration and faith in multiculturalism (itself a form of cultural relativism), and the crime engulfing England now. It is so much easier to blame austerity and budget cuts – of course, we forget the poverty of the 1930s and the austerity of the post-war fifties, none of which engendered the crime we see now in Britain’s cities.

Liberals continue to profess themselves bewildered by ongoing support for people like Trump, Orban, and Putin. They blame those supporters for being ignorant, xenophobic, and bigoted. But they never blame themselves for allowing the termite of moral relativism to eat away at the foundations of Western society until enough people feel the ground giving way beneath them to conclude that while they have some regrettable qualities, perhaps Orban and Putin aren’t all wrong, after all.

#35 Comment By Les Govment On April 9, 2018 @ 11:16 pm

Being a libertarian, I think I’m fairly well positioned to assess both the Left and the Right fairly. I do not believe MarkedMan (who posted on 4-9-18 at 12:22 pm) could say the same.

I am personally acquainted with several conservatives (some are relatives of mine), and none of them fit MarkedMan’s portrayal of conservatives at all. They’re just ordinary people making their way through life. They mostly just want government to leave them alone, and they don’t want their tax dollars taken from them and given to others.

Clearly, MarkedMan is a left-wing troll who (like so many others on the left) routinely slanders conservatives.

As I said, I’m a libertarian, not a conservative. It’s my observation that it is actually the Progressive Left that has become intellectually bankrupt. Many on the Progressive Left are morally bankrupt, too.

Les Govment [1]
.

#36 Comment By Robert T Ernst On April 10, 2018 @ 12:58 am

I too read The Closing of the American Mind when it came out. As a former academic, I thought that at least some of what Bloom wrote had merit while other ideas approached nonsense. But, while reading the book I was struck by its many parallels with another interesting work in terms of their connections to the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Both books seemed interesting at first reading, even intriguing. But after re-reading both several times more than a decade later, and after reflecting on what they were saying about the nature of education and academia, I came to the conclusion they were peddling a point of view I could not accept. I now agree with Noam Chomsky’s evaluation of Bloom’s book as “mind-bogglingly stupid.”

#37 Comment By Rick On April 10, 2018 @ 12:04 pm

Well you Paleos don’t disappoint. Wow!!!

Heidegger, Hume, Kant, Plato, Derrida.

Break out the brandy snifters and leather chairs because we’re gonna have a good time in front of the fire in our library filled with the classics.

The issue with universities today is that 80% of those who teach today are either adjunct or student teacher grad students.

Those folks don’t counter their department narratives /ethos ever, because they need a roof over their heads and food on the table.

If you want more diversity of opinion on campuses you have to get more tenured folks at the table who can freely speak their mind.

As it currently stands, most departments are stuck with the mindset of 20 years ago when tenure was still given out.

#38 Comment By LouisM On April 10, 2018 @ 12:34 pm

This book was instrumental in my contempt for the liberal arts and humanities ever since it was first published and was the reason a high school student avoided all courses and degree’s in the humanities and liberal arts.

I remember being in high school when this book came out and I could barely read it. The vocabulary and its references were far above my life experiences to fully comprehend what the author was trying to communicate but I did understand that all the things that made the humanities and liberal arts a worthwhile and substantive degree with a long tradition of respect and considered a gateway degree to literature, law, history, teaching, etc…it was all being washed away and replaced with contemporary garbage. The garbage of minority studies. The garbage of gender studies. The garbage of media studies but not analytical and objective Edward r murrow and water conkite journalism…no the contemporary media studies was more subjectively akin to Andy Warhol.

It was not obvious in 1980 but Mr. Bloom saw the pillars and foundation of the humanities being pulled down and he saw the garbage replacing it. Today the liberal arts and humanities are garbage degrees that do nothing but put students in debt. They are indoctrinated with garbage courses by garbage teachers with garbage degrees which will entitle them to retail jobs and barristas (basically the same jobs they could get without the garbage degree…and in truth…many companies would rather hire those without a liberal arts or humanities degree because they have less attitude and less entitlement and less victimization). The liberal arts and humanities have descended into a leftist hell hole of anti-Americanism, anarchists, revolutionaries, anti-male, anti-husband, anti-father, anti-baby (proabortion), anti-marriage, anti-heterosexual, anti-white (anti-European/western civilization), anti-Christian, anti-free speech, anti-2nd amendment, big government, nanny state, open borders ideologies. Every subversive element that undermines a nation can be found in the humanities and Mr. Bloom saw it almost 50 years ago. He might not have been prescient enough to see the outcome of today but he saw the pillars and foundation being torn down and saw its replacement was garbage. Many thought the humanities would have imploded and disappeared because of the level of worthless manure contained in their courses and degree programs. In truth, it is only govt guaranteed college grants and student loans that have prevented this educational social experiment to be perpetuated to this day but many students, particularly men, are abandoning college and most specifically humanities and liberal arts for scientific or skills/trades based education which either don’t put them in debt or allow them enough income after graduation to pay it off…but here too…the sickness of liberal arts and humanities is attempting slowly to creep into STEM and the skills/trades under the guise of diversity.

China and India turn out 36 engineers for every 1 engineer in the US. This educational social experiment cannot continue without economic collapse or a population replacement of high wage earners with high skilled Indian and Asian immigration. This also worked for the last 40+ years but one can now see the backlash with Trumps election. The voting populace wants their kids to be the high wage earners of tomorrow and they want the immigration doors closed and their kids educated for those jobs. The question is whether we are at the tipping point to fix these problems? Here again is the conundrum. The left created them and there isn’t a chance in hell they would fix them and the right is too cowardly to face down the constituencies of the left and be called racism hate mongers. Only Trump is willing to face down both the left and the right and this is also why both the left and right want to impeach, undermine or destroy Trump. Who will win? I don’t know? We shall have to watch and see

#39 Comment By James Drouin On April 10, 2018 @ 5:16 pm

Finally, an article with actual intellectual content vs the brain-dead liberalism AS is renowned for.

#40 Comment By Skeptik On April 10, 2018 @ 5:59 pm

Silly man! For the uninitiated, the Nuremberg rallies were conducted by men who wanted two things: exclusion of Jews from public life; and aggressive war to right imagined wrongs. They were also attended and cheered on by such creatures. Woodstock, on the other hand, was a music festival conducted by – at he time, mostly unsuccessful – businessmen, the entertainment provided by musicians who had no taste for war or anti-semitism, and was cheered on by a throng of people, some of whom admittedly were spoiled brats who took full advantage of all the free time that the work of those who came before them provided. You can get mad at those kids for not understanding what work was; you can’t call them Nazis. Twit.

#41 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 10, 2018 @ 6:30 pm

“I now agree with Noam Chomsky’s evaluation of Bloom’s book as “mind-bogglingly stupid.”

Hmmmm . . . not stupid, but there are some gaping holes that don’t get explicated enough to test his overall case.

Nearly every single academic protest was born from reading Moa or Che in the public library. Those militants were academically schooled and many from the best schools in the country. The postmodern theory and theorists, Foucault’s, Derrida, Lyotard, Gilles and a host of others were not the heroes of dunderheads floating in libraries. No, they were embraced by the academic elite who transferred those concepts into action against traditional understanding, felt and or believed repressed truth and were the source of oppression.

The other aspect that is deeply lacking and remains a truth among academia (especially elite institutions) is how divorced they are from the real world in which most people operate.

That reality is as much part of the revolt across the continents. As the decedents of post colonial Africa enter the upper echelons of academia, they too are tearing down icons statued across the continent. And as I recall, they are angry with their parents for having tolerated the abuse — despite the fact that that toleration provided the active mechanisms for changing the lives of those very same children.

The founders who engaged a revolutionary war were by and large among the best educated, affluent and acknowledged men — their education led them not to peaceful advocacy, but war.

Further the violence in the cities were not about oppressive concepts and theories — they were a response to reality, experienced. In that regard, trying to defend the university system that did in fact actively deny access to specific groups by merely dismissing them as complaints —

that’s a very tough row to hoe.

#42 Comment By Campbell Scribner On April 10, 2018 @ 9:02 pm

Honoring the legacy of Western thought and aesthetics, as Bloom did, has nothing to do with preserving memorials to Confederacy or apologizing for the despicable legacy of slavery in the name of historical memory. One can remember just fine without the veneration of public statuary. A morally repugnant and completely unnecessary line in an otherwise lucid article.

#43 Comment By Jack Howard Burke On April 10, 2018 @ 10:50 pm

In response to Campbell Scribner:

I already responded to this supposed criticism in an above comment. Neither the word “slavery” nor the word “Confederacy” appear anywhere in my piece; it’s a jump to assume that I was speaking about all monuments equally without distinction, and a jump of another level altogether to assume I was “apologizing for the despicable legacy of slavery.” As I said above, I am an active member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. I have a Union ancestor who was wounded at Antietam, and another who served as a Union officer and died while on leave at home in New York. I assure you, friend, that I am not insensitive to the debate on this issue. (Although I certainly stand by my stance in my above comment.)

Some of the leaps made in these comments are certainly unwarranted from the text of the article itself; let’s try to keep things in context. Best wishes.

-The author

#44 Comment By JonF On April 11, 2018 @ 11:15 am

Re: Wondrous to relate, Robert E. Lee was admired by generations of men, women, and children until roughly 15 minutes ago.

Yes, and Henry VIII was widely admired for a good long time too, for standing up to the Pope and “making England great again” to phrase it in modern terms. These days not so much as Henry’s body count, which includes two wives and various relatives of his (and many, many more) is a bit too extreme to wish away into irrelevance.
Just because history takes a more sober look at cardboard heroes of old does not mean history has gone off the rails.

#45 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 12, 2018 @ 3:46 am

Thanks Robert T. Ernst for your view on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve had it recommended to me a number of times but haven’t bothered to read it, not from laziness, just a weird feeling that it’s gonna try hard, but I won’t like it.

And yet, it’s intriguing enough that whenever it’s mentioned, I always wonder if I should go ahead and just read the damn thing. So thanks, I’ll keep waiting, hopefully I’ll die before I succumb to the temptation.

I hate to dismiss something only on hearsay, but otherwise I’d actually have to read it. So based on nothing but the views of others and my “feelings,” I believe that I have constructed an utterly coherent and legitimate position: reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is bad, I don’t want it, it’s bad.

#46 Comment By Marina On April 12, 2018 @ 7:22 am

“modern students might study Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but the Christian social mores within the book would be totally beyond their experience. They might as well be examining a corpse.”

“Friedrich Nietzsche’s relativism, where no action was good or evil, and any set of values was conceivably as good as any other.”

Your incredibly simplistic and naive reductions of both Tolstoy and Nietzsche is shameful. To suggest that Anna is solely about Christianity as well as to suggest that as a result modern students cannot gain anything from it is to do an injustice to a great piece of literature. And notice that word ‘conceivably’ that you mentioned? Nietzsche underlines that notion because it is imperative to understand that good and evil do not exist intrinsically in nature and to pretend that they do is to take power away from our ability.

Do you think infanticide is wrong? You probably do. But do you realize that that’s a recent development and people used to kill children all the time? Do you know that the only reason that infanticide rates went down is not because we decided that killing children is wrong but because people started using condoms, for instance? There are no preexisting morals and that’s what Nietzsche was trying to underline but to turn his words into an absolutely relativistic playground is just a bad reading on your part.

#47 Comment By Dfghj On April 12, 2018 @ 10:48 pm

Mr. Burke’s interpretation of Mr. Bloom’s account of the effects of the events of 1969 at Cornell University, where I arrived as a student in the fall after the Straight takeover, simply don’t accord with mine. I realize his is a relatively short article, but it lacks nuance and complexity. The university as a whole, not “the college” as Burke states, had a variety of reactions and consequences. To focus solely on philosophical currents and marriage and Biblical literacy is to dismiss entire areas of conflict at that time and afterward, including relationships between the genders, the classes, the generations, the political elite and working classes, the effects of the Vietnam War, transportation, agriculture, military and scientific technology, and more. I feel solutions are not as simple as sending more children to Sunday school, following reactionary advice on marriage, or requiring more instruction in philosophy. I do think it is vital that we find a way to listen to viewpoints we dislike and to disagree civilly.

In my view at the time, a large part of the eruption of student unrest while I was in college was due to the unwillingness of older adults to listen seriously to the objections of young people who perceived wrongs and wanted changes. As a result, there was no dialogue to achieve a result that merged the legitimate concerns of youth with the legitimate experience of older generations or others with different life experiences to find the best solutions or the general good. In my lifetime, this seems to be a chronic problem