[This review originally appeared in Vol. VI, No. 1 of the first iteration of the Claremont Review of Books, in the 1988 spring issue]
Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind was published in 1987, and it has been bought, if not exactly read, by millions of Americans since then. In many ways this was a very useful book. It brought into public view the scandal of the universities, which openly teach that there is no principled difference between good and evil. Bloom exposes and denounces the pervasive and mindless relativism has exhausted the spirit of the West so badly over the past century.
Bloom’s book is a diagnosis of the intellectual and moral ills of our day. If it is not a prescription, it contains at least some suggestions for a cure. The book is most sound, I will argue, in its description of current pathologies. It is partly sound, partly unsound in its account of their origin. It is least sound in its prescription for their healing.
Allan Bloom introduced me to the study of political philosophy in three fine courses at Cornell in the mid-1960s. He caught my interest as no other teacher at Cornell did. He convinced me that political philosophy was about the life and death issues that matter most, and I have been pursuing it ever since. For that I will always be grateful. Bloom was one of the premier teachers of America during his lifetime, and his gifted students, of whom there were many, may be found today in important positions in the media, in government, and of course in academia.
I therefore offer my criticism in the spirit of Bloom’s teacher and mine, Leo Strauss, and in the spirit of those classical political philosophers whose writings Bloom and Strauss have pointed us to throughout their careers. I mean to practice what Bloom preached.
To compare small things to great, Aristotle set the example in his treatment of his former teacher Plato. Truth must come before friends; “both are dear, but it is pious to honor the truth first” (Nic. Ethics, bk. 1, my translation). It seems to me that Bloom’s low view of America, and the consequent turning away from any serious political concern in his conception of American education, undercuts the good effect of his book’s best parts.
Bloom begins by examining the students in our prestige universities, and he finds them deficient in moral formation, in reading of serious books, in musical tastes, and above all in love. They are shallow. They have no longing in their souls for anything high or great. Their minds are empty, their characters weak, and their bodies sated with rock and roll and easy sex — or at least with the belief that sex is “no big deal.” These students come equipped with a simple-minded relativism that is quick to close off all discussion with the tag, “Who’s to say what’s right and wrong?” Their relativism justifies an easygoing openness to everything, an openness which expresses their incapacity for being serious about anything. Their proclaimed openness, in fact, turns out to be a dogmatic closedness toward moral virtue no less than toward real thoughtfulness. They are “spiritually detumescent.”
At the same time, Bloom argues, many of these same students, who claim to be open to everything, are filled with “boundless seas of rage, doubt, and fear.” Their music, rock and roll, has anger and desperation in it, not just the beat of bodily gratification. They mouth the slogans of “self-realization” and wear T-shirts proclaiming “no fear,” but all too often, these slogans prove to be nothing but “desperate platitudes.”
Toward the end of the book Bloom turns to their teachers, who are even worse than the students. When it came to the crunch during the campus takeovers of the 1960s, the professors collapsed, because they believed in no principles that would justify resistance to the barbarians. And so the left-wing thugs took over Cornell without opposition.
The cause of our current malaise, in Bloom’s diagnosis, is modern philosophy, which has infected us in two ways — through politics and through 19th and 20th century continental European thought. As for politics, says Bloom, America was founded on modern principles of liberty and equality that we got from Hobbes and Locke. Liberty turned out to mean freedom from all self-restraint, and equality turned out to mean the destruction of all differences of rank and even of nature. Our Founders may have acted, or have pretended to act, “with a firm reliance on divine providence” (Declaration of Independence) but their natural-rights philosophy, says Bloom, came from the atheists Hobbes and Locke. (Bloom hedges on whether the Founders were self-conscious atheists or merely the dupes of clever and lying philosophers.) Bloom characterizes the Lockean doctrine of the Founders in this way:
[In the state of nature man] is on his own. God neither looks after him nor punishes him. Nature’s indifference to justice is a terrible bereavement for man. . . . [This doctrine] produced, among other wonders, the United States. (163)
The practical result:
God was slowly executed here; it took two hundred years, but local theologians tell us He is now dead. (230)
Similarly, the Founders may have thought they were establishing a political order based on reason: Bloom stresses our initial claim to be the first political order so grounded. But the regime of reason turned out to be the regime where reason discovers the virtue of unleashing the passions. At first reason legitimates only the modest passions of industriousness and money-making. But having abandoned its older claim to be the rightful master of the soul, reason eventually lost its authority and became impotent against demands for self-indulgence and mindless self-expression.
The story of America, according to Bloom, is a tale of the practical working out of the degradation inherent in the logic of our founding principles:
This is a regime founded by philosophers and their students. . . . Our story is the majestic and triumphant march of the principles of freedom and equality, giving meaning to all that we have done or are doing. There are almost no accidents; everything that happens among us is a consequence of one or both of our principles. . . . [T]he problem of nature [is] always present but always repressed in the reconstruction of man demanded by freedom and equality. (97)
Eventually, Bloom says, the infections occasioned by our political principles sapped the strength of religious faith and traditional morality. The relativism of today’s students is, in Bloom’s view, a perfect expression of the real soul of liberty, which from the start, in Hobbes’s thought, meant that life had no intrinsic meaning. Here, in Bloom’s view, is the ultimate source of the view that liberty means nothing more than self-realization or self-expression with no intrinsic moral limit. The anti-nature dogmas of women’s liberation, which deny the obvious natural differences between men and women in the name of equality, are destroying the last remnants of the family, which had been the core of society through most of America’s history. Likewise, the anti-nature dogmas of affirmative action — insisting that equal opportunity be suppressed until all categories of Americans come out exactly the same — deny the obvious natural differences among human beings in regard to ambition and intelligence.
Thus, according to Bloom, equality and liberty eventually produced self-satisfied relativism, which sees no need to aspire to anything beyond itself — “spiritual detumescence.” They also produced left-wing political movements which try to implement the “reconstruction of man demanded by freedom and equality” and which not only threaten but dominate important parts of our leading universities. Further, Bloom argues, Hobbesian-Lockean liberty was also designed to liberate scientific technology in order to conquer nature and make life comfortable. The very idea of a conquest of nature implies disrespect for natural limits and has contributed to the decline of respect for nature’s guidance in all areas of contemporary life.
The second cause of our problems today, Bloom tells us, is post-Lockean modern philosophy. The big names are Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, but their views have been popularized (and degraded) by such men as Marx, Freud, and Max Weber. Their ideas have worked their way into our universities and our speech, giving us “The Self,” “Creativity,” “Culture,” and “Values” (four of Bloom’s chapter titles). These continental writers, more radical than Hobbes and Locke, all strongly denounced “bourgeois society,” i.e., democracy American style. From them we have learned to think of ourselves as despicably low. Yet at the same time, we have vulgarized the grand conceptions of especially Rousseau and Nietzsche and fitted them into our own democratic prejudices. Thus every nursery-school child is encouraged to be “creative.”
Let me elaborate on Bloom’s analysis and follow out my own medical analogy. If Bloom is right, America’s founding principles, taken from Hobbes and Locke, may be compared to AIDS. The body whose immune defenses are breaking down may appear healthy for many years before it becomes obviously sick. Thus, although in Bloom’s view our founding principles were atheistic and relativistic at bottom, the body politic continued to look healthy for about 180 years before the disease began to manifest itself openly.
The idea that America was AIDS-ridden from the start was suggested by Judge Robert Bork, in Tradition and Morality in American Constitutional Law (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1984). American constitutional law, he writes, seems to be “pathologically lacking in immune defenses” against “the intellectual fevers of the general society.” Bork’s position is even more radical than Bloom’s: Bork believes that there is no theory at all inherent in our political institutions. But the result is the same: “our constitutional law [is] constantly catching cold” from the most radical intellectual opinions of the day.
AIDS is a syndrome in which the body becomes helpless in the face of infectious diseases. It loses its ability to distinguish good (food) from evil (viruses). AIDS is a kind of bodily relativism, a self-destructive openness to good and evil alike. Similarly, an AIDS-infected American mind loses its ability to tell the difference between healthful and harmful opinions. Salutary customs and traditions, such as moral self-restraint and the habits and attitudes necessary for sustaining family life, for seriousness of purpose, for national survival, and for deep and intense love, become indistinguishable from life — destroying doctrines and beliefs, such as the hostile teachings of 19th and 20th century German philosophy. If Bloom is right, the American mind suffers from Hobbes-Locke induced AIDS — a liberty that has no respect for nature and natural limits. It therefore not only fails to resist the destructive infection of Nietzsche-Heidegger, but with its false openness, the American mind mindlessly welcomes the infection, thus bringing on what may be the terminal stage of the disease.
Bloom also prescribes a cure for our malady. The cure is Great Books education in the prestige universities, taught in the spirit of opening students up to the charms and challenge of “the philosophic experience.” Of course Bloom is not so naive as to think that reading a few good old books will transform American political and intellectual life. He means that this sort of reading might help in restoring some sort of seriousness to education and therefore to life. Bloom readily acknowledges that this is a slender hope.
* * *
I myself cannot subscribe to Bloom’s diagnosis of the problems of American education, although I do agree with him that relativism is a leading danger in our time.
I can sum up my main objection to Bloom in this way: Far from being the source of the problem, America’s founding principles are for us the best ground of a solution. Far from being the equivalent of mental AIDS, our principles are our immune system. Bloom is of course right when he says that today’s prevailing notion of liberty cannot distinguish itself from license. When Hobbes argues that no action of government can ever be unjust, he tends to legitimize today’s liberal view. Indeed, as is well known, in Hobbes’s thought there appears to be no principled objection to tyranny altogether, tyranny being nothing more than “monarchy misliked,” and monarchy being the form of government recommended by Leviathan. But the American Founders were not Hobbesians, however often Bloom and his students and friends may repeat the falsehood that they were.
In fact, the Founders had a low opinion of Hobbes. James Wilson, one of the most important men at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, summed up his assessment of Hobbes by asserting that Hobbes’s “narrow and hideous” theories are “totally repugnant to all human sentiment, and all human experience.” Wilson says this in the context of affirming Lockean ideas about the natural rights of man (Lectures on Law, 1790-91, in Works of James Wilson, ed. Robert McCloskey [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967], 1:229). Similarly, Alexander Hamilton, in The Farmer Refuted (1775), denounced Hobbes’s principles, which he attributed to his enemy, the Tory Samuel Seabury.
[Hobbes’s] opinion was exactly coincident with yours [Seabury’s], relative to man in a state of nature. He held, as you do, that he was then perfectly free from the restraint of law and government. Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. But the reason he ran into this absurd and impious doctrine was that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor and will be the final judge of the universe.
. . . To grant that there is a supreme intelligence who rules the world and has established laws to regulate the actions of his creatures; and still to assert that man, in a state of nature, may be considered as perfectly free from all restraints of law and government, appear to a common understanding altogether irreconcilable.
Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed that the deity, from the relations we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.
This is what is called the law of nature. . . . Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind. . . . (Emphasis added.)
Against Hamilton and the other Founders, Bloom asserts, without the slightest attempt to prove it, that for Americans, rights precede duties as a matter of course: “But in modern political regimes [such as America], where rights precede duties, freedom definitely has primacy over community, family, and even nature” (113). But at the end of the quotation just given above, Hamilton says the exact opposite: duties precede rights. Bloom also says the enlightenment views of Hobbes and Locke were meant to liberate men “from God’s tutelage” (163). Thus Bloom attributes to America, and America’s Founders, a view that Hamilton went out of his way to denounce as immoral.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood our founding better when he said, in A World Split Apart, “In American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, on the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. . . . We have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.” The language of the Declaration of Independence supports Solzhenitsyn’s claim: “All men are created equal”; they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”; men are subject to the laws of “nature’s God.” In other words, men have rights because man is God’s creature, and men have duties as subject to God’s law. In the Declaration, the signers appealed “to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” meaning that they understood that freedom was given to men conditionally, since God, as Judge, can take it away.
Bloom, Solzhenitsyn, and I would agree that men today have forgotten God. But why does Bloom accuse the Founders of things manifestly untrue? Even Jefferson, perhaps the most skeptical of any of the leading Founders, wrote,
Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?
Washington, far from viewing the Enlightenment as a challenge to religion, saw religion as contributing to true enlightenment:
The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition, but at an epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period. . . . [A]bove all, the pure and benign light of revelation ha[s] had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of society. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation, and if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.
Similarly, Bloom mistakes the Founders’ view of human nature, attributing to them a break with the classical view of man as a combination of reason and passion:
In the past it was thought that man is a dual being, one part of him concerned with the common good, the other with private interests. To make politics work, man, it was thought, has to overcome the selfish part of himself, to tyrannize over the merely private, to be virtuous. Locke . . . taught that no part of man is naturally directed to the common good and that the old way was both excessively harsh and ineffective, that it went against the grain. They experimented with using private interest for public interest, putting natural freedom ahead of austere virtue. (166-67)
On the contrary, Locke and the Founders always understood that “man is a dual being.” The Federalist speaks of man throughout as both rational and passionate:
Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason without constraint. (No. 15)
It is true, of course, that Locke and the Founders paid close attention to the problem of self-interest, and that they did everything they could to channel self-interest in the direction of the common good. But so also did Plato, Aristotle, and all the classic writers on politics. They too recommended devices linking self-interest to the common good, to “supply the defect of better motives,” in the words of Federalist 51. But the Founders were far from indulging the delusion that a well-constructed constitution would work even for a nation of devils. This delusion is, to be sure, typical of those post-Rousseau Continental thinkers who abandoned human nature as the standard of political life. Hamilton once explicitly denounced this view when he said, “It is always very dangerous to look to the vices of men for good.”
The Founders were well aware of the need for public-spirited citizens. They anticipated with clarity the consequence of a loss of public virtue. They believed that a people accustomed to living however it pleased, who saw no higher purpose than, say, entertainment and having fun — a people incapable of self-government in the sense of controlling selfish passions and interests — would also be incapable of self-government in the sense of democracy, making public laws for themselves to live by. As Madison says in Federalist 55:
Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities [men’s capacity for virtue] in a higher degree than any other form [of government].
But if a people ever becomes slavishly lacking in self-restraint, if their “spirit shall ever be so far debased,” they “will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.”
The students described by Bloom in the first part of his book are indeed approaching the debased character that Madison feared. But it is not true that our Founders’ principles and institutions sowed what we are now reaping by liberating men from all restraint of laws divine and natural. It can be shown, as I have done in the last chapter of Vindicating the Founders (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), that the Founders understood with perfect clarity that government must foster virtue in the people, to encourage them to become self-assertive, self-controlled, enlightened republicans. For the moment I will merely mention John Adams’s educational provisions in the Massachusetts Constitution, and the surprisingly strict laws regulating sexual morality enforced in those years in every state in the union. I also mention Hamilton’s remark, in Federalist 85, that one intention of the U.S. Constitution was to rectify “an almost universal prostration of morals” caused by irresponsible actions of the several state governments which had “undermined the foundations of property and credit.”
Bloom rarely quotes Americans on America. He prefers to quote the pronouncements of foreigners, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Tocqueville. Instead, I will mention the one fact that is the most convincing piece of evidence to me about the source of America’s current difficulties. If you look at the history of those changes in American education of which Bloom so justly complains, you find that those changes were always introduced by men who knew they were at odds with the people and the politicians who were formed by the Founders’ principles. Those intellectuals who have been promoting for many decades the relativistic, anti-natural, and leftist dogmas prevailing today all hated the principles of the founding and most of them said so openly and loudly. Their work could only go forward after the Founders’ view of natural right and natural law had been discredited.
The first sustained attack on the founding principles was launched in the South before the Civil War by slaveholders and their apologists who wanted to get rid of natural rights so they could be free to continue to tyrannize over their slaves. During the Progressive Era there was a sustained denunciation of the founding, especially of the Constitution, by leading American intellectuals. John Dewey, Herbert Croly, J. Allen Smith, and Woodrow Wilson among others attacked the Founders’ views and institutions because, based as they were on the idea of individual rights, they stood in the way of massive state intrusion into private life. More recently we have been subjected to constant vilifications of religion and morality in American life — Bloom mentions that nothing is less controversial in the prestige universities than such attacks — and these attacks have consistently included attacks on the idea of natural law and natural right.
But Bloom argues that the barbaric attacks on America in the 1960s were really a product of America itself, the unintended culmination of a doomed enlightenment enterprise:
The content of this morality [viz., that of the ’60s at Cornell] was derived simply from the leading notions of modern democratic thought, absolutized and radicalized. Equality, freedom, peace, cosmopolitanism were the goods, the only goods. . . . They were inherent in our regime, they constituted its horizon. (326)
Bloom makes this argument because he sees no principled distinction between liberty and equality as the Founders conceived them, and liberty and equality as, say, Bill and Hillary Clinton conceive them. In other words, since Bloom does not see the much more traditional character — and that means the rational character — of the Founders’ view of liberty, he mistakes the source of the problem. Instead of debunking the founding, Bloom should be celebrating it as a fund of wisdom to be recovered for the sake of the very enterprise he wishes to foster. Instead of confusing the issue by speaking of today’s left as an extreme version of the Founders’ principles, he should be vigorously denouncing the leftist hatred of political liberty, liberal education, and religion, the bulwarks of American constitutionalism.
Bloom’s mistake about America proceeds, I believe, from two sources. First, he simply doesn’t know much about America’s origins. His own studies have been mostly in European political philosophy and literature. And second, not having studied America much himself, he has relied heavily, almost exclusively, on a famous Straussian syllogism.
Like Bloom, I too have learned from Leo Strauss that there is a vital alternative to modern thought in classical political philosophy. No one taught his readers to loathe the ultimate degradation of modernity more effectively than Strauss. But there is a danger for Americans in particular in Strauss’s teaching, a danger that Bloom succumbed to. Crudely understood, Strauss seems to be saying (for example, in the first chapter of What Is Political Philosophy?):
Ancients are good, moderns are bad;
America is modern;
therefore America is bad.
More specifically, according to Strauss, America is based on Locke, and Locke, exalting the individual above God and nature, exiles the individual from man’s deepest longing, the longing for eternity.
But this is not the America of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Wilson. The Founders were Lockeans, to be sure. But in what sense? Their writings show without doubt that their understanding of their own actions had nothing in it of the amoral or immoral or atheistic tendencies that Bloom ascribes to Locke (although some of them were far from being orthodox Christians).
But there is a second reason for Bloom’s mistake about America, and that stems from his own experience and taste. Bloom acknowledges that he never felt at home in the American Midwest of his youth, that there was nothing for him in the concerns of his high school classmates (244), nor in the piety of his orthodox grandfather (60). But when he arrived at the University of Chicago, and saw its pseudo-Gothic towers, he says, “I somehow sensed that I had discovered my life” (243). Bloom implies that he knew he had discovered it before he ever met his master Leo Strauss at Chicago, and I can believe it. Bloom is describing himself as an uprooted intellectual for whom traditional religion and “bourgeois society” mean nothing. For such a man, what incentive is there to study America with any sympathy? Far from being the land of the free and the home of the brave, the American Republic was for him a dreary desert from which he longed to escape. His oasis was the university, the Republic of Letters, and there he stayed for the rest of his life. Everything outside the university, Bloom implies, is philistine, bourgeois, and boring. Consider the snobbishness of this typical remark of his: “The importance of these [university] years for an American cannot be overestimated. They are civilization’s only chance to get to him.”
Is civilization only to be found in or through universities? Some of the most lively and civilized writers of our time — men like Walker Percy, Tom Wolfe, and George Gilder — do not hold university appointments. Considering Bloom’s own relentless indictment of the politically correct orthodoxies of American higher education, one wonders whether civilization is to be found at all in the “best” universities (the only exception being an isolated, often embattled, teacher here or there). Why does Bloom not look to certain less prominent but more serious places, like the University of Dallas, where the trends he describes have been resisted more successfully than at the more prestigious institutions? Or, to put it more radically, why should we respect the modern university at all? If Bloom’s story of its internal decay is true, as I believe it is, it seems much more likely that, if civilization is to be preserved, it will be in spite of our prestige universities, not because of them.
Tocqueville, an authority on America whom Bloom admires, would never have said that universities are our access to civilization — not even in 1835, when they were so much sounder than today. Indeed, Tocqueville and Bloom differ profoundly in other ways as well. To exaggerate for clarity’s sake: Tocqueville never stops celebrating the virtues of small-town life in America, with its strong Protestantism, its tight moralism, its close-knit families, and its human-scale democracy. But Bloom seems to value all this only as the source of strong prejudices that he will liberate his students from. Otherwise Bloom seems ready to chime in with the Rousseau-Nietzsche condemnation of bourgeois life.
In this respect, without intending it, he is in agreement with today’s liberals, who (unlike Bloom) want to replace the America of equal opportunity and moral self-restraint with a society of forced egalitarianism and libertine self-expression. In such a society, liberty will be abolished in favor of a false conception of equality (it is already in the course of being abolished). The kind of education that Bloom praises will disappear.
* * *
Bloom’s prescription for a cure to our ills centers on the university. Bloom is firmly against the idea that the university should serve society.
Bloom’s university is to be explicitly devoted to cultivating the philosophic life, by pointing students away from their own countries and traditions. But in the current climate, which is already all too willing to question the value of American society and government (as Bloom himself emphasizes), would this orientation not tend to legitimate the prevailing prejudices?
Nietzsche, one of Bloom’s authorities on the current malaise, rightly points out the debilitating effect of Great Books education in our world, in a passage I first read during a course I took with Bloom at Cornell in 1965. Such an education, says Nietzsche, promotes accumulation of knowledge of other times and places, without providing a direction. “It is not a real education but a kind of knowledge about education, a complex of various thoughts and feelings about it, from which no decision about its direction can come.” In healthier times, education in the best writings of the past is not for the sake of objective consideration, but “always has a reference to the end of life, and is under its absolute rule and direction” (Use and Disadvantage of History for Life, sec. 4). Bloom would agree, but he makes the end of life “philosophy,” forgetting, it seems, the lesson of the philosophers that all human beings except philosophers need a moral and political orientation. Without that, a Bloomian education will produce not Socrateses but pale shadows of Socrates — mere intellectuals.
In this Bloom opposes the Founders, particularly Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Jefferson’s conception of university education was public-spirited. Its main intent is “to form the statesmen, legislators, and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” This is to be done by studies in “the principles and structure of government.” “Political economy” is to be learned in order to promote the public industry. Students are also to be enlightened with “mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts, and administer to the health, the subsistence, and comforts of human life.” Finally, the university is to “develop their reasoning faculties” and “enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.” All of this is in order “to form them to habits of reflection and correct actions, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.”
Bloom is not indifferent to the needs of society. His final paragraph suggests that a return to the classics may also have a decisive effect on “the fate of freedom in the world.” But Bloom would make the public mission of the university anti-social or rather trans-social, any benefit to society being an accidental by-product, while Jefferson and I would make its public mission primarily political, allowing “the philosophic experience” to be cultivated without official sanction.
Is not Jefferson’s university closer to what Nietzsche, Plato, and indeed anyone of common sense, would consider appropriate for the future leaders of society, not to mention future philosophers? His university would certainly accommodate the chance philosopher in one niche or other of the curriculum. But does it really make sense to attempt to go beyond this, to institutionalize an education to the philosophic life in a conventional academic structure? In the end it is who happens to be teaching and who happens to be learning that will make all the difference. Philosophers, like Caesars, can appear anywhere, and they can take care of themselves. The attempt to plan for them seems to me to betray a tendency on Bloom’s part to equate, against the letter of his intention, the philosopher and the intellectual. Finally, is it really philistine to structure the university with a view to service to society, above all in attempting to educate future statesmen in the principles of republican government, but on a lesser scale training men and women to be useful to their society and to themselves? That is something that can be understood and done well by those who are far from the exalted heights of philosophy. As Rousseau, another of Bloom’s authorities, reminds us in his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, “Someone who his whole life long will remain a bad versifier or an inferior geometer, might perhaps have become a great clothier.”
The liveliest and most accurate parts of The Closing of the American Mind are the beginning and end, those parts that deal directly with university life in modern America. That is what Bloom knows best because he has been immersed in it and has observed it closely since his youth. Bloom spent a lot of time with students and professors, and he had a gift for penetrating their facades and seeing what they are really like. The observations in these parts of the book, which are of course deliberately and delightfully exaggerated, reveal in the most memorable way the tendency of American young people and of university education. Particularly good are the sections on the debilitating effect of divorce on children and on their capacity to learn and love, on the sad consequences of affirmative action on black students, on the loveless love lives of so many students, and on the tremendous importance of rock and roll for young people and how it degrades their souls.
Because he feels so much at home with intellectuals, Bloom overlooks politics. He is therefore unable to appreciate that the cause of sound education in this country is much more likely to be supported by “bourgeois” politicians than by intellectual sophisticates. Bloom has contempt for those politicians. But it was not the Nixons of America who capitulated to Cornell’s black radicals in the 1960s. Certainly Nixon’s response would have been quite different from that of Bloom’s students, who expressed their sovereign contempt for those thugs by passing out xeroxes of passages from Plato’s Republic! (332). That impotent gesture did nothing to save Cornell from barbarism. But for Richard Nixon, one of the few public men willing to act against the tide in those mad years (and their madness is still with us), Bloom has only a sneer (329).