January 4th, 2013

On The Closing of the American Mind

Several years ago I read the first third of Allan Bloom’s great work The Closing of the American Mind. The other day I picked it up where I had left off, and was struck simultaneously by how relevant it still is and how much worse things have gotten since 1987, when it was first published.

The subtitle is “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” We are seeing the ripening fruits of those efforts—which I can’t really call “failed,” because I believe they were deliberate on the part of at least some of the academics Bloom deplores.

Bloom himself was no conservative, although his book was embraced by conservatives and hated by most liberals (despite getting a good initial review in the NY Times). It was deeply critical of the collapse of the great universities of this country to the sway of PC thinking and cultural relativism, and mourned what we have lost along the way. Bloom was a champion of teaching the great works of Western literature, and was criticized as a booster of dead old white men (sound familiar?)

Pick up his book and read almost any page and you will find something to savor and to contemplate—very much food for thought. For example, here’s where I left off and started up again [emphasis mine]:

I believe that the most interesting students are those…who are still young, even look young for their age, who think there is much to look forward to and much they must yet grow up to, fresh and naive, excited by the mysteries to which they have not yet been fully initiated. There are some who are men and women at the age of sixteen, who have nothing more to learn about the erotic. They are adult in the sense that they will no longer change very much. They may become competent specialists, but they are flat-souled. The world is for them what it presents itself to the senses to be; it is unadorned by imagination and devoid of ideals. This flat soul is what the sexual wisdom of our time conspires to make universal.

Bloom died just a few years later, in 1992, of AIDS. I mention this to underscore the complexity of human life. His final book, dictated from his hospital bed while very ill, was on Love and Friendship.

There is little question that Bloom had a gift for friendship, if his good friend Saul Bellow is any guide. Bellow’s highly-praised work Ravelstein is a fictionalized ode to his great friendship with Bloom, who was the template for the title character. The book (which I have not yet read) deals with Bloom/Ravelstein’s homosexuality, which was news to most of the public at the time, but the novel is mostly a testament to Bloom himself. In Bellow’s words:

“Allan inhaled books and ideas the way the rest of us breathe air… People only want the factual truth. Well, the truth is that Allan was a very superior person, great-souled. When critics proclaim the death of the novel, I sometimes think they are really saying that there are no significant people to write about.” But “Allan was certainly one.”

Bloom’s book defies easy characterization. It is not a conservative screed, although it is sometimes regarded as one. It’s a book whose every page—perhaps every sentence—contains something that makes the reader think more deeply about the largest questions of life. Isn’t that what a liberal (in the older sense of the world) education is for?

13 Responses to “On The Closing of the American Mind

  1. George Pal Says:

    Read the book when it first came out and it stirred in me the first faint air of despair that has grown ever since. And just as faintly, I recall Bill Kristol having noted that the early praise for the book came from the very people, in some cases, who abetted the Leftist nihilism that had turned the classically Liberal Liberal Arts into liberal barbarism. These people (academics praising the book) were so far removed and self-alienated from classical thought that it was no longer possible for them to understand the dichotomy of what they had fostered and what they were now praising. The ensuing critical critical tsunami was probably meant as much to set the idiots straight as making it known Mr. Bloom was a danger to the nihilist agenda.

    By the way, I got a kick out of Andrew Ferguson’s observation last year, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Closing Of The American Mind that precisely 9 months after the publication date, Snooki Polizzi was born – a portent, I think, of things to come and Mr. Bloom being right.

    I believe I would challenge any hopelessly truculent liberal to read this book and then try to explain away the present zeitgeist as the fault of regressive conservatives.

  2. Sharon W Says:

    I read this book in early 2009 and felt I understood how Obama could be elected. It seemed to explain a lot about how racism was addressed in the University environment. Nothing much has changed and the fall-out as predicted by Bloom was correct.

  3. KLSmith Says:

    Political correctness: control speech and you will control thought.
    How sad for us all that the “liberals” we’re co-opted by the far left.

  4. Otiose Says:

    I read this when it first came out. But I didn’t know he was dead and any of the circumstances surrounding his end.

    I remember his book helped sort out one insight – that open vs closed mind is independent of left or right politics.

  5. M J R Says:

    I heard or read about the book before it was published, and I hastened to get it, because I was sure it would not last long on any bookstore shelves: I was sure the establishment (they weren’t the “mainstream” then) would ignore it, bury it, do what they would do to stifle its dissemination.

    To my surprise, I need not have hastened. Flash-forward a quarter-century. At this point, the mainstreamers will do whatever it takes to suppress a book, but it’s already too late — there are enough alternate outlets, including right-oriented publishers, that a book such as Bloom’s will not be buried.

    But such a book ^will^ manage to be be buried with respect to the mainstream culture; recent Exhibit A, D’Souza’s 2012 book “2016”, letting the cat out of the bag regarding the incumbent president, then a candidate for reelection.

  6. Ann Says:

    Bloom was Camille Paglia’s mentor when she was a graduate student at Yale.

    Interesting that she’s just about the only person with leftist inclinations today who now and then dares to question the ways and the gods of the PC crowd.

  7. Ann Says:

    Major oops — wrong Bloom! I was thinking of Harold Bloom.

    Never mind. 😉

  8. rickl Says:

    But good point about Camille Paglia. She, as well as Christopher Hitchens, are/were lefties who have an aversion to Kool-Aid.

  9. Gary Rosen Says:

    Funny, after reading neo’s post on Bloom I also thought of Paglia before I saw your comment, Ann. Paglia strains to be outrageous but is intelligent enough that she frequently makes good points while doing so. In that she is like another Ann, Ann Coulter.

  10. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    And as to the demise of the classics:

  11. Wolla Dalbo Says:

    In the context of the issues raised by this thread, I direct reader’s attention to what I found to be an extraordinarily interesting summary explication of German historian Oswald Spengler’s view of History and of the natural basis and evolution of civilizations (http://nationalinterest.org/article/spenglers-ominous-prophecy-7878?page=show).

    As I recall, Spengler, a major early 20th century European historian, somehow never mentioned, except perhaps as a very brief and dismissive aside, in what I had thought was a very comprehensive undergraduate honors course in Historiography.

    His is what might be called an “organic,” somewhat romantic, even mystical look at civilizations and their growth and decay, rather than a strictly analytical one, but—looking at the evidence—his predictions and views seem to be rather close fits.

    Reading this very enlightening—and sobering—summary of his views and predictions, and seeing how they so clearly fit and explain contemporary America is pretty scary.

  12. sdferr Says:

    Just to note, if one searches on Allan Bloom’s name at YouTube, a few videos will turn up and he will speak, whereupon, we can listen.

    Also possibly of interest (and even better for my money), Mr. Bloom’s own teacher, Leo Strauss, can be heard on tapes freely available for download at the Leo Strauss Center at U. of Chicago website.

  13. SUNDAY GOD & CAESAR EDITION | Big Pulpit Says:

    […] On The Closing of the American Mind – Neo-Neocon […]

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