June 5th, 2009

Allan Bloom and the struggle for the soul of the university

I’ve been slowly plowing through Allan Bloom‘s dense but nevertheless wonderful 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. It’s an indictment of alarming trends in higher education that took hold in the 60s and have only accelerated since.

I plan on another post—maybe even a few more posts—on themes sparked by this book. It’s not that I agree with everything in Bloom’s work. But the good in it is so very good, and still so remarkably timely some twenty-odd years after its publication, that I highly recommend reading it if so far it has passed you by, or even re-reading it if you haven’t taken a look lately.

Bloom is at his best in a chapter entitled “The Sixties,” which I’m reading especially slowly and savoring greatly. The subject matter and his conclusions are disturbing. Bloom writes about the student uprisings of that time, and how so may of the university administrators—and especially the craven professors—responded to the pressure of a violent mob of students by dealing what turned out to be the beginning of the death blows for true academic freedom and devotion to the classical canon of Western thought in American universities. Let me warn you, it’s not a pretty story.

Bloom himself was a professor at Cornell at the time, one of the centers for a student uprising in the spring of 1969. The Cornell demonstrations highlighted and also helped set the stage for so many issues we confront today, including that of affirmative action.

Cornell was only one venue of many—Columbia and Berkeley most famously come to mind—featuring demonstrations that occurred during that tumultuous decade, accompanied by varying degrees of violence. I am not referring to the widespread Vietnam protests which also took place at so many universities of the time; the uprisings of which Bloom wrote, such as the one at Cornell, centered on additional issues directly connected with university curricula, teaching, and student life.

As I said, I plan to write more on this subject in a future post. But right now I’ll just offer the following, from Bloom’s many observations about the student leaders of the demonstrations. When you read it, think about the 60s radicals in general, including for example Bill Ayres [emphasis mine]:

There they were in those few elite universities, which were being rapidly democratized. And their political futures were bleak…providing only the prospect of having to work their way up in the dreary fashion of such contemptible persons as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But these universities were respected, looked to by the democratic press and were the alma maters of much of the powerful elite. These little places could be seized, just as a polis could be seized. Using them as a stage, students instantly achieved notoriety. Young black students I knew at Cornell appeared on the covers of the national news magazines. How irresistible it all was, an elite shortcut to political influence. In the ordinary world, outside the universities, such youngsters would have had no way of gaining attention. They took as their models Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara, promoters of equality, if you please, but surely not themselves equal to anyone. They themselves wanted to be the leaders of a revolution of compassion. The great objects of their contempt and fury were the members of the American middle class, professionals, workers, white collar and blue, farmers—all of those vulgarians who made up the American majority and who did not need or want either the compassion or the leadership of the students. They dared to think themselves equal to the students and to resist having their consciousness raised by them. It is very difficult to distinguish oneself in America, and in order to do so the student substituted conspicuous compassion for their parents’ conspicuous consumption.

I could almost have excerpted any passage from the chapter; the entire piece is of merit. But this particular passage caused me to think of (among many other things) the extremity of the contempt of these radicals and their modern-day descendants for a non-intellectual and uncommon “woman of the people” such as Sarah Palin, and their denigration of her bona fide political achievements.

[ADDENDUM: In a different context, commenter “huxley” notes a quote from Jonah Goldberg, about Obama during the 2008 campaign. I think a fuller version of the quote is quite pertinent here as well:

[Obama is] a very left-wing politician with almost no experience, who often sounds like his campaign slogan is: “People of Earth! Stop Your Bickering. I Am From Harvard, And I’m Here To Help.”

Perhaps therein lies the answer to this supposed mystery. Indeed, perhaps there’s no mystery at all, and Obama’s problems are the same problems Democrats always have at the presidential level: He’s an elitist.

Oh, I know. Upon reading that, some liberal spluttered herbal chai tea from her nose at the injustice of this whole elitist canard, and the earnest Ivy League interns at some liberal magazine have burst into laughter, offering the appropriate bons mots from Balzac at the preposterousness of such a suggestion, saying: “Don’t you conservatives understand? Democrats care about the little guy. They’re on the side of the proletariat — I mean workers — and as Obama has so eloquently put it, if the workers would only stop clinging to their silly sky god and guns, they’d understand that.”]

26 Responses to “Allan Bloom and the struggle for the soul of the university”

  1. david foster Says:

    The Obama wing of the Dem Party is indeed all about class struggle, but it’s not “haves” versus “have-nots.” Rather, this is a *horizontal* class struggle, in which those who have attained their positions through educational credentials try to shut down all alternative paths to influence and wealth.

  2. huxley Says:

    I’ve been meaning to have another look at Bloom.

    I read Closing when it came out and at that time it struck me as Bloom’s crotchety complaints about youth and his perverse reading of their open-mindedness to influences outside the Western canon as closed-mindedness.

    I might understand it differently twenty years on. I’ll have a look.

  3. GeoPal Says:

    Read Bloom’s book twenty years ago. I had been well aware of the struggle between the Left and Right and believed the battle a stalemate – too close to call. Bloom convinced me with his book that the Left had taken much of the high ground, politically, socially, and morally. From those heights the left called the shots in the battle – the fight was, in essence, fought on their terms, in their good time and order. There, at the end of the Reagan era, I’d become convinced the battle was lost and the only thing that could turn things around was some unforeseen sea-change event, a miracle if you will. It hasn’t happened yet.

    Not only do I recommend “The Closing Of The American Mind”, I believe it’s a must read. Am looking forward to any many posts on the book, Neo.

  4. Ozyripus Says:

    Neo, your quotes and comments get the tone of the so-called radicals in Universities in the late ’60s and ’70s exactly: contempt (for their betters).

    Let me disagree with Bloom on the faculty being the weak sisters — it was and is the administration, i.e., the officer class of the Universities. Granted, they are faculty who have escaped the tedium and low salaries given for teaching and research.

    Also, just a few years ago, I was told — by a faculty member — that more than half of the faculty of California’s most elite public University supported Ward Connerly’s efforts to end affirmative action. Those faculty were and are not now in the fuzzy studies.

    I saw, and was party to actions in defense of standards, by non-fuzzy-studies faculty, in the late ’60s and ’70s, at a less elite, but competent University. Sadly, we proved to have done a mere rear-guard action.

  5. Baklava Says:

    My question is …

    when exposed to alternative points of view, what makes a liberal discount entirely the conservative point of view without even thinking about the intellectual or factual points that are raised?

    When I was a liberal pre-1991 and then became aware of the alternative viewpoint – I went to the library 3 times a week for a full year – the result for me was a core belief change from liberalism to libertarianism (wanting a cut of government of 80%). Since then I’ve moderated to the middle and became a conservative because I KNOW that cutting government by 80% is un-doable and not even sell-able to the public.

    But in those years since 1991, the federal government has grown from 1 trillion dollars to over 3 trillion dollars in expenditures yearly and still that ISN’T enough for the liberal.

    Since 1965 federal spending on the defense budget was 50% of expenditures and that has shrunk to only 19% of the budget today.

    Yet we have massive deficits and an ever growing entitlement spending issue as the baby boomers get closer to claiming their due.

    As a centrist – conservative – I want to know how can the entrenched liberal of today see an alternative viewpoint and actually put their thinking caps on?

    So little analysis to fact and figures and history is done by today’s liberal. Is it the death of libraries? Is it the birth of the strawman argument. Is it the total lack of respect given to conservatives by ABCCBSNBCCNN?

  6. the elephant's child Says:

    I want to recommend another pair of books by Dr. Alvin Kernan, “Crossing the Line”, and “In Plato’s Cave”.

    Alvin Kernan graduating from high school in a tiny town in Wyoming enlisted in the Navy, and found himself on the Lexington on Dec. 7.

    He survived the sinking of the Lex at the Battle of Midway, and managed to be present and involved at most major actions in the Pacific. He has a wry, delightful sense of humor.

    The GI Bill took him to Columbia and Williams and “In Plato’s Cave” takes him through his experiences as student, faculty member and administrator at Oxford,Yale and Princeton where he was again a wry observer of the culture wars in the universities. One of the great academic memoirs.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Ozyripus: Well, if you read the chapter in Bloom’s book to which I’m referring, you’ll see exactly and precisely why he held the faculty in particular contempt, at least at Cornell in 1969. He was a member of the faculty and was privy to all the goings-on.

    As I said, I hope to get into more of this in a later post.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Baklava: If you think you already know what there is to know (via your smart friends, your college degree, and the fact that you listen to NPR and read the NY Times), then there’s no need to actually read what the opposition says. It’s just as good to read what the NY Times says it says—and oh so very much easier. Not everyone has intellectual curiosity, and not everyone is eager to take on even the possibility of challenging his/her own beliefs.

  9. huxley Says:

    As a centrist – conservative – I want to know how can the entrenched liberal of today see an alternative viewpoint and actually put their thinking caps on?

    Baklava — Most liberals believe that they are informed and that they have put their thinking caps on. All the good smart people they know believe the same things, so they must be right.

    One can argue with them, as you and I both have, but that rarely has any effect.

    Only an intrusion of reality — for me that intrusion was 9-11 — can cause them doubt their belief system and start to rethink things.

  10. Oblio Says:

    I read Closing when it came out in 1987. I remember reading it in my about-to-be Mother-in-law’s kitchen on Martha’s Vineyard. Mrs. Oblio’s family was shocked and scandalized at the time and wondered how an otherwise well-educated young man could go so horribly wrong. It took my own mother years to believe what I told her about Political Correctness on campus.

    Dark Side member since 1983

  11. FredHjr Says:

    I’ve never read “The Closing of the American Mind” but I broke with socialism in 1987, the same year the book came out. I should have read it and I believe in the future I will. Right now I have several others to finish.

    From what I have extrapolated from neo’s opening to this topic, I surmise that the New Left takeover following those violent actions can be chalked up to a very, very simple and old modus operandi: bullying.

    It’s what the collectivists do well and always have done well. Despite their faux intellectualism, at heart, when you get right down to it, these people want to be killers. Most of them don’t have the balls to kill someone, but they will pay someone else to do it. They want to kill their political opponents and burn the world down, so that they can be the deus ex machina inside the phoenix that brings the New World into being out of the ashes of the old one.

    Lenin got it started. He didn’t have the testicles to carry a gun and actually go up to an opponent or counter revolutionary and shoot him in the head. But he knew how to put a spell over other men and get them to do it. Stalin, may have actually personally murdered men, but he never pretended to be an intellectual. Mao was able to get others to do his dirty work. Che did personally torture and execute other men.

    I agree with Jamie Glazov, over at frontpagemag.com. These Marxists want to burn it all to ashes and then, On The Third Day, effect The Resurrection.

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    Gee Fred, you jumped the gun (as it were) on me. You just described the topic of one of the later posts I had in mind.

  13. Lucius Says:

    I am currently reading “The Empire And The Papacy” by Tout, and ” The Little World Of Don Camillo” by Guareschi as well as my Bible. Friends…share what you are reading.

  14. rickl Says:

    the elephant’s child Says:
    June 5th, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    I want to recommend another pair of books by Dr. Alvin Kernan, “Crossing the Line”, and “In Plato’s Cave”.

    Alvin Kernan graduating from high school in a tiny town in Wyoming enlisted in the Navy, and found himself on the Lexington on Dec. 7.

    He survived the sinking of the Lex at the Battle of Midway, and managed to be present and involved at most major actions in the Pacific. He has a wry, delightful sense of humor.

    Actually the Lexington was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, off Australia, on May 8, 1942, about a month before Midway. I know because my father was aboard at the time. I wonder if he and Dr. Kernan ever crossed paths?

  15. Sarah Rolph Says:

    Baklava: It’s largely emotional and psychological. Dr. Sanity has written some great posts about the question you raise–check out her archives.

  16. FredHjr Says:


    Did you get the story about the guy at the State Department who had been a spy for the Communists for 30 years? His name was Myers, and he had been an Army officer before he became a college professor – got his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. His wife was also involved, and she devised some shopping cart system of dead drops for the Cuban spies.

  17. Capn Eddie Ricketyback Says:

    I was a young adult during the sixties, and I remember watching with dismay the behavior of the campus radicals and the faculty and administration letting them get away with it. I thought at the time that when those radicals grew up and got into positions of authority it would not bode well for the future of this (former) republic. My only miscalculation was underestimating the severity of the results.

    I have been pessimistic about the future of this country for the past 20 years or so, but didn’t think I’d be around for the payoff. Looks like I was mistaken about that, too, as I believe 52.6% of the voters of this country have sealed our fate. If I were an industrious young person I’d be looking at countries such as The Czech Republic to pursue the “American Dream.”

  18. Ben Says:

    I’ve often struggled with this. And internal struggle, the meanest kind. Am I right, or am I rationalizing because of vanity?

    I went to a state school–LSU, Baton Rouge. As a matter of fact, I’m going back in the Fall to get a doctorate. Quite humble. However, the things I learned I learned. Functional things. The degree is just accreditation. If I didn’t learn the stuff, I wouldn’t succeed in the real world, degrees on the wall not-with-standing.

    Plenty (most, in fact) of my high school friends went to Ivy League schools, where they got degrees in Political Science and History and whatnot. Well, I read books about political science and history all the time, and what I know about those subjects, for certain, is that all the “experts” disagree on EVERYTHING. Nobody disagrees about the basics of how to build a sewer system or bridge or how to analyze human blood to check for disease. Sure, these methods are always updated and tested and improved and there is art and the personal touch in everything, but gravity is still gravity and the human cell is the human cell. They function a certain way whether that way is popular at the moment or not.

    Yeah, I really do think that certain degrees at certain universities are just a modern form of nobility. Entitlement and uselessness. Slightly more merit based (all my friends are indeed very, very smart and worked hard to rock-out the SATs), but it is still nobility in that these nobles are beyond good and evil. Consequences of actions simply do not matter, not even considered. All that matters is their perfect desire to be kind to the poor savages that have to work for a living because they weren’t born awesome and because the evil corporations exploit them.

    And I don’t THINK I have an inferiority complex, but how can I be objective? Isn’t that the pain of classism? Inferiority despite rationals reasons for it? Let’s do the numbers (yes, I’m bragging, a sign of feelings of inferiority, but these are indeed the facts):

    I make more money than them, I’m taller than them, I’m in perfect health, and I have every episode of Farscape and Buffy on DVD… as the singer sang: I can’t complain but sometimes I still do.

    Yet, at dinner parties, my arguments are met with “You just don’t understand” so often I’m inclined to turn my work into a weapon. Well, are my facts wrong? Is there a fallacy in my logic?

    Erg. OK, now I’m just venting. I guess I should focus on how, despite my primitive belief system of reason, logic, individualism, and empiricism, these people still like having me around. They are a lot of fun when you get them off politics, and on the important things I trust them with my life, as they trust me with theirs (we’re in a paintball gun league). Lefties would be perfect neighbors if they just didn’t vote.

    Thanks for the vent! Oh, and I check your site everyday. I think you are a very fair thinker.

  19. Oblio Says:

    Good post, Ben. No question, there are class and status issues associated with “belonging” to an elite, highly selective institution. I continue to believe that status anxiety among the New Class is the most powerful engine of cultural change in the US, and in fact frames the “political” debate. I think it is more basic than politics, older, and more primitive. Your Ivy friends can’t dissent, or they will risk being thrown out of the privileged circle.

    The best response is always to live productively, and it sounds like you are doing that. I envy your going back for your doctorate in some useful field. I sometimes think of doing so myself, but various obligations (e.g. paying college tuition for a couple of boys) dictate that I will continue to labor in my current vineyard yet awhile.

    Go get’em! and laissez les bon temps roulez!

  20. nyomythus Says:

    neo — don’t start turning into David Horowitz. I mean he has a valid point, but it’s just a tad overblown.

  21. Richard Aubrey Says:

    I made this up after reading some of Lucius Beebe’s writings about the East Coast wealthy–mostly extremely new wealth–and some other work on the late nineteenth-century wealthy.
    My guess is that about that time, money became the new measure of status. Before that, it had been education in humane letters (law, theology, literature, plus some public influence in some way).
    I would add that being a successful general was a help. There was even talk of running Lee for president after the Civil War. But see Washington, Grant, Tyler, etc.
    Money helped, but it was hard in those pinching times to have money without having land. And wealthy landowners were a class to themselves.
    Once it became about money, the gaining of which is immensely different from the gaining of highly-valued accumulated classroom seat time, the folks who accomplished the latter were desperate to regain their status.
    So now having money that you earned–robber barons–is inferior to having Ivy degrees. It’s almost…lower class.
    The definition of status has been captured by the folks who have the shiny pants from sitting in class for so long.
    Since they have the status by general acceptance, the folks who already have money want in. As the Brit manufacturing wealthy tried to marry into the landed gentry and get their titles. It was a swap of money for status. The gentry got more money than they had had and the dirty-handed coal mine owners got status and hunting invitations and titles.

    Some things never change.

    As to the middle class, the socialist Michael Harrington observed that the biggest resistance to socialism would come from the middle class whose painfully accumulated wealth would have to be forcibly expropriated. Presumably the wealthy’s accumulated wealth wouldn’t be sufficient–true–and the wealthy wouldn’t be too concerned, presuming they’d have a privileged position after the revo.

    Part of the elite’s distaste for the middle class is an awareness that the middle class is not going to be mulcted easily.

  22. Stphnd Says:

    Neo-neocon, I heartily approve your taking up The Closing of the American Mind, but wonder whether we will not be left in the position of Malone asking Ness in the movie Untouchables, substituting moral relativism for Capone:

    Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?
    Ness: Anything within the law.
    Malone: And *then* what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.
    Ness: I want to get Capone! I don’t know how to do it.
    Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That’s* the *Chicago* way! And that’s how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I’m offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?
    Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.
    Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward.

    Will Bloom’s antecedents in Strauss’ Natural Right and History come next? If so, huzzahs!

  23. rickl Says:

    Richard Aubrey:

    As to the middle class, the socialist Michael Harrington observed that the biggest resistance to socialism would come from the middle class whose painfully accumulated wealth would have to be forcibly expropriated. Presumably the wealthy’s accumulated wealth wouldn’t be sufficient–true–and the wealthy wouldn’t be too concerned, presuming they’d have a privileged position after the revo.

    Part of the elite’s distaste for the middle class is an awareness that the middle class is not going to be mulcted easily.

    In my opinion, that’s exactly what is happening now. I’ve stated before that I think Obama and his cronies are trying to destroy and impoverish the middle class.

    It’s mainly the middle class who supports free-market capitalism. The poor support socialism because they want what they haven’t earned (and feel entitled to it), while the very rich support socialism because they fear some young upstart coming along and knocking them off their perches. Socialism will permanently cement the elites in power.

    When all is said and done we’ll end up with a society that more closely resembles medieval feudalism than anything we’ve become used to.

  24. the elephant's child Says:

    Ooops! I said “Lexington” and I meant “Yorktown”. Alvin Kernan was on the Yorktown, which went down at Midway. Actually it was the second book–“In Plato’s Cave” that I wanted to call attention to, for Dr. Kernan was very involved in the culture wars in the universities, but to read only the second and miss his story of WWII would be sad. “In Plato’s Cave” fits right in with Bloom’s book.

    As to Obama and the Cairo speech, Scott Johnson summed it up pretty well at Power Line: “If Obama were General-Secretary of the United Nations, the speech might have been passable. Coming from the president of the United States, it was an embarrassment. Obama runs down the country he represents while puffing himself up as a transcendent figure. He humbles the United States while glorifying his personage. This aspect of the speech seemed to me indecent.”

  25. FredHjr Says:

    Why is it that more people do not understand the FACT that poor people do not hire workers? In order for there to be growing employment and opportunity, you must have a vital and growing private sector. The government cannot possibly absorb the numbers of people needing jobs. And the large corporations do not absorb these people. In fact, the Fortune 500 (or any other index of large, publicly traded firms) contribute very little to job growth. Often, they are net shedders of jobs.

    Also, our tax policies are driving large companies overseas, where they do not employ American workers at all.

    How is this situation endurable? It cannot be tenable, since it destroys a nation by sapping its vitality.

    The large number of closet socialists who inhabit the halls of corporate America do not seem to grasp the reality of it all: without a vital and growing private sector, they too wither. Furthermore, it means that these people, however accomplished and “educated,” do not grasp the fact that zero-sum economic thinking is conceptually and theoretically wrong, not to mention that in the real world it is fallacious too.

  26. Hippo Says:

    Dear Neo, Most peoples’ political journeys start on the left and head toward fascism.Usually ending in despair, before the realisation that liberation lies not “out there but within”.From This point on it is easy to see that the motivating forces in every person [me n you included, Liberal or Conservative] are humiliatigly base -greed,hate,jealousy.feelings of inadequacy, fear of death etc until such time as we realise this we will continue to pretend to be concerned about the plight of our fellow man or the desruction of the planet or that the oppression of the third world is just.When we can get over our fear we realise everyone is performing the same act and then we no longer need to keep up the pretence and the weight can slip off our shoulders.It is much nicer without it and life is lived much more fully in every way,Come on in the waters lovely.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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