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?