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.
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.