And I probably will again. It is so richly loaded with thought that almost every sentence might cause the reader to pause and reflect. Plus, it’s extremely readable. Bloom has done something extraordinarily difficult, which is to write a serious work about education, politics, history, and philosophy in a very lively style.
Apparently, that’s the kind of guy he was.
I’ve only read (that is, re-read; I read much of it a few years ago) a small portion of the book so far. But I was blown away at the outset by the first few paragraphs of his introduction, entitled “Our Virtue.” And so I’m going to reproduce some of it verbatim, just for you, to whet your appetite for the book itself. Remember as you read this that it was written no later than 1987, and probably a bit earlier:
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. Those are things you don’t think about. The students’ backgrounds are as various as America can provide. Some are religious, some atheists; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society. That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged—-a combination of disbelief and indignation: “Are you an absolutist?,” the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as “Are you a monarchist?” or “Do you really believe in witches?” This latter leads into the indignation, for someone who believes in witches might well be a witch-hunter or a Salem judge. The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness, and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings—is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right,; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, “If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?,” they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place. It is not that they know very much about other nations, or about their own. The purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue—openness.
Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum. It wants to produce a certain kind of human being. This intention is more or less explicit, more or less a result of reflection,; but even the neutral subject, like reading and writing and arithmetic, take their place in a vision of the educated person. In some nations the goal was the pious person, in others the warlike, in others the industrious. Always important is the political regime, which needs citizens who are in accord with its fundamental principle. Aristocracies want gentlemen, oligarchies men who respect and pursue money, and democracies lovers of equality. Democratic education, whether it admits it or not, wants and needs to produce men and women who have the tastes, knowledge, and character supportive of a democratic regime. Over the history of our republic, there have obviously been changes of opinion as to what kind of man is best for our regime. We began with the model of the rational and industrious man, who was honest, respected the laws, and was dedicated to the family (his own family—what has in its decay been dubbed the nuclear family). Above all he was to know the rights doctrine; the Constitution, which embodied it; and American history, which presented and celebrated the founding of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” A powerful attachment to the letter and spirit of the Declaration of Independence gently conveyed, appealing to each man’s reason, was the goal of the education of democratic man. This called for something very different from the kind of attachment required for traditional communities where myth and passion as well as severe discipline, authority, and the extended family produced an instinctive, unqualified, even fanatic patriotism, unlike the reflected, rational, calm, even self-interested loyalty—not so much to country but to the form of government and its rational principles—required in the United States…
But openness…eventually won out over natural rights, partly through a theoretical critique, partly because of a political rebellion against nature’s last constraints. Civic education turned away from concentrating on the Founding to concentrating on openness based on history and social science. There was even a general tendency to debunk the Founding, to prove the beginnings were flawed in order to license a greater openness to the new. What began in Charles Beard’s Marxism and Carl Becker’s historicism became routine. We are used to hearing the Founders being charged with being racists, murderers of Indians, representatives of class interests. I asked my first history professor in the university, a very famous scholar, whether the picture he gave us of George Washington did not have the effect of making us despise our regime. “Not at all,” he said, “it doesn’t depend on individuals but on our having good democratic values.” To which I rejoined, “But you just showed us that Washington was only using those values to further the class interests of the Virginia squirearchy.” He got angry, and that was the end of it. He was comforted by a gentle assurance that the values of democracy are part of the movement of history and did not require his elucidation or defense. He could carry on his historical studies with the moral certitude that they would lead to greater openness and hence more democracy. The lessons of fascism and the vulnerability of democracy, which we had all just experienced, had no effect on him.
Liberalism without natural rights, the kind that we knew from John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, taught us that the only danger confronting us is being closed to the emergent, the new, the manifestations of progress. No attention had to be paid to the fundamental principles or the moral virtues that inclined men to live according to them…
Note how long ago all of this had already hit its stride; Bloom was a student of that history professor back in the mid-1940s, having been born in 1930 but having also been precocious enough to get his undergraduate degree at the age of eighteen from the University of Chicago after having entered at fifteen.
Note also the tone of barely-restrained sarcasm; Bloom seems to have had a certain amount of contemptuous anger at those academics who could have been so stupid as to not have realized the effects of their throwing out the precious baby and leaving the dirty bathwater (it seems his first history professor was none too happy with his challenges, either). As the book goes on, some of the best passages involve Bloom’s description of the faculty’s craven abdication during the student uprisings of the 1960s, when he was one of those who tried (in vain, as it turned out) to hold his finger in the dyke of the best traditions of Western Civilization.