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.
[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.”]