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.
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.