Re-opening the American mind

Twenty-five years on, a re-read of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind reveals just how wrong liberals were to hate it, and how wrong conservatives were to claim it as their ideological bible.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Books

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‘The first shot in the culture wars’ was fired 25 years ago, with the publication of Allan Bloom’s landmark book, The Closing of the American Mind. That was Camille Paglia’s apt description, and the reverberations of Bloom’s shot can still be felt today. The ‘war’ over culture has seen flare-ups and ceasefires since the 1980s, but the basic idea behind it – that liberals and conservatives are defined by deeply opposed values, not just different political ideas – remains an important way in which American politics is understood.

Bloom’s book rose to prominence in large part thanks to those culture wars, as conservatives embraced his views as their own, and liberals interpreted his argument as an attack on them. Bloom charged universities with abandoning their mission to provide a liberal arts education. Higher education had not just declined, it had – as the subtitle of the book put it – ‘failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students’. He argued that the problems on college campuses reflected a broader social and intellectual crisis in the country.

Mention The Closing of the American Mind, and there’s a very good chance someone will dredge up Bloom’s attack on students and rock music. Here is Bloom in full flow:

‘Picture a 13-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home during his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, life-like electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a non-stop, commercially pre-packaged masturbational fantasy.’

Conservatives lapped it up, and saw a like-minded fellow who wanted to restore traditional morality. Liberals were repelled, and saw a fuddy-duddy who wanted to turn back the clock. A set-piece culture clash.

But extracted passages such as this do not tell the book’s whole story; even Bloom’s harangues against rock music are not all that they first appear. In a cruel twist, the culture wars that propelled Bloom to fame have also led his book to be largely misinterpreted. If you view The Closing of the American Mind through the prism of the culture wars, as most on the left and right still do, you miss what’s vital and distinct about it. That perspective also makes the book appear to be mainly an artifact of its era, and not a work of more lasting value. Twenty-five years on, it’s time to rescue Bloom from the partisans.

I was a postgraduate student in 1987, and I recall how the book seemed to come out of the blue. It was as if the whole country had suddenly decided to read about academia and academic ideas. Looking back, it seems almost surreal that a book about the state of higher education – filled with references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger – became a bestseller in America and around the world. As Andrew Ferguson notes in his excellent new afterword to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition, this came as a total surprise. ‘The first print run, in February of 1987, was 10,000 copies. By spring it was selling 25,000 copies a week. It hit the bestseller list in April, reached number one by summertime, and stayed there for two and a half months. It became beach reading!’ Nearly a million copies have been sold since.

The book’s break-out success was also remarkable when you consider that Bloom, in 1987, was not what we would today call a public intellectual. He was a well-established professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Chicago, but outside the academy he was a virtual unknown. Since Bloom’s death in 1992, more has emerged about his personal life – in part thanks to Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein, whose main character is based on Bloom – but little of that was public knowledge back in 1987.

The obscure professor certainly threw a cat among the pigeons. Conservatives pundits such as George Will and William Kristol praised the book in reviews, framing it as an indictment of liberal administrators and professors. Liberals in turn, as Ferguson notes, ‘took the book as a personal affront and reacted accordingly’. David Rieff called Bloom ‘an academic version of Oliver North: vengeful, reactionary, anti-democratic’; The Closing is a book that ‘decent people would be ashamed of having written’. In the most famous rebuttal, Professor Martha Nussbaum in the New York Review of Books did a hatchetjob on Bloom, saying he ought to have his license taken away: ‘How good a philosopher, then, is Allan Bloom? The answer is, we cannot say, and we are given no reason to think him one at all.’

Both sides depicted Bloom as a conservative culture warrior, but he really wasn’t suited for the part. In a speech at Harvard a year after his book was published, Bloom said ‘I am not a conservative – neo- or paleo-’. He reportedly voted for the Democrats, although he was overwhelmingly an academic, not a party-political activist. In The Closing he criticised the bourgeois pursuit of wealth: students in their ‘Brooks Brothers’ suits’ will ‘want to get ahead and live comfortably. But this life is as empty and false as the one they left behind.’

As a gay man with – as Bellow describes – a libertine lifestyle, Bloom was hardly a poster boy for the Moral Majority. Nor was he a social conservative. In criticising feminism, Bloom clarifies: ‘I am not arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them. I am only insisting that we not cloud our vision to such an extent that we believe there are viable substitutes for them just because we want or need them.’

Like traditional moralists, Bloom rails against rock music, but for a very different reason: ‘My concern here is not with the moral effects of this music – whether it leads to sex, violence or drugs. The issue here is its effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.’

Just because William Bennett – a prominent conservative back-to-old-morals type – was a follower of Bloom’s, it doesn’t mean Bloom ought to be put in that same category. This pigeonholing of Bloom leads to overlooking the subtleties of his arguments. Indeed, Bloom’s ideas pose serious challenges to both the left and the right.

Take his discussion of relativism. Bloom writes that openness is an essential feature of the academy: ‘The university is the place where inquiry and philosophic openness come into their own. It is intended to encourage the non-instrumental use of reason for its own sake, to provide the atmosphere where the moral and physical superiority of the dominant will not intimidate philosophic doubt.’ However, over time openness was transformed into a mindless relativism: ‘Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.’ If the university preaches that all truths are relative, what’s the point of searching for truth? Openness, ironically, leads to the ‘closing’ of the American mind.

Liberals are most closely associated with the promotion of this relativist outlook, and they (rightly) took Bloom’s criticisms as being directed at them. But then they – as well as conservatives – concluded that Bloom must be calling for a return to absolute, traditional values. But that’s not the case. ‘I never stated, nor do I believe, that man is, or can be, in possession of absolutes’, Bloom declared in his post-publication Harvard speech. Both absolutists and relativists are problematic: ‘The first asserts the quest for truth is unnecessary, while the second asserts that it is impossible.’ Against both, Bloom asserts the ideal of liberal education, which offers the search to determine which values are superior to others.

In a related vein, consider Bloom’s discussion of ‘Great Books’ and the ‘canon’. Again, at first, his advocacy of classic works appears to be an attack on liberal humanities professors who dismiss ‘dead white males’ – and it is. Academics who seek to identify bias of race, class or gender deny the liberating potential of great authors. As a counter to such philistinism, Bloom puts forward the poetic words of black author and activist WEB Dubois at the turn of the century:

‘I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.’

And yet such sentiments do not lead Bloom to side with those who want to restore ‘Western Civilisation’ courses. He is, in fact, acutely aware that promoting ‘Great Books’ can take on an ‘evangelical’ tone. Indeed, a canon is, by definition, established by authority, and ‘hence not by criteria that are rationally defensible’. He says that the idea of ‘Western Civilisation’ is an error, because great thinkers are not bound by geography, and such characterisations only invite critics to demand ‘the supplement of all the other Civs’.

In a middle section of his book, called ‘Nihilism, American Style’, Bloom contends that the demise of liberal education has its roots in the influence of German philosophy – most notably Nietzsche and Heidegger. While Bloom is an equal-opportunity critic of both left and right throughout the book, it is in this section that the liberal-left comes in for special attention, because its representatives, he argues, have been at the forefront of extolling this philosophy, albeit in an American rather than German form.

Here Bloom deploys the phrase, ‘the Nietzscheanisation of the left’, and it’s an insight that’s worth the price of the book alone. Often unwittingly, the left espouses ideas that have nothing to do with Marx, but are instead informed by Nietzsche and his heirs. Indeed, the two are polar opposites: Bloom correctly identifies Marx as following in the trajectory of the Enlightenment, and Nietzsche as the leading anti-Enlightenment philosopher. The left’s complaints about capitalism, industrialisation and bourgeois social norms sound radical, but they are in fact coming from a reactionary perspective.

However, for all of the incisiveness of Bloom’s analysis in his philosophical digression at the centre of the book, it is here that he also reveals a major contradiction in his argument. On one hand, he recognises the negative influence Nietzsche’s ideas have had on theoretical and social life in America; on the other, he takes on board Nietzsche’s perspective.

Bloom essentially shares the critique of the Enlightenment and modernity put forward by Nietzsche (as well as Heidegger and Max Weber). According to this view, the Enlightenment rationalism of John Locke et al is instrumental and technocratic; it does not satisfy the soul. Bloom’s agonising over the soulless MTV generation derives from this anti-modern outlook.

Bloom admires Nietzsche for his ‘profound philosophical reflection which broke with and buried the philosophical tradition’. Nietzsche finds that man is left without an overarching reason to be; that objective knowledge, truth and morality are all fictions. To both Nietzsche and Bloom, this is a profound problem. But to the countercultural American left of the 1960s onwards, it is seen as something to celebrate. Nietzsche and Bloom stare at the abyss in horror; American students say ‘party on dude!’. Bloom writes: ‘American nihilism is a mood, a mood of moodiness, a vague disquiet. It is nihilism without the abyss.’

This is what bothers Bloom about the left: they don’t truly appreciate Nietzsche. It is significant that Bloom’s chapter is called ‘The Nietzscheanisation of the left or vice versa‘ (my italics). The left may have been informed by the insights of Nietzsche, but he in turn has been co-opted by the left’s leading representatives. Bloom is irked because they don’t struggle with the Nietzschean existential moment, and join him in re-establishing the questioning spirit of Socrates as a means of grappling with it.

This anti-Enlightenment, anti-modernity strain is a serious impediment to Bloom’s objective. He wants to uphold liberal education, and yet our modern notion of such an education was the product of the Enlightenment, of which he is highly suspicious.

Bloom has other shortcomings as well, not least of which are his elitist views. It is annoying to read that he believes only a few are capable of accessing philosophical ideas (refuted, of course, by the number of people who bought his book). Time and again, he pins the blames for social problems on democracy. Saying relativism is a product of democracy and equality is plainly wrong; the US has been a democracy for over 200 years, but it is only in recent times that the relativistic outlook has taken hold. It is Bloom’s elitism that opens him up to criticism from the liberal left, and enables them to avoid addressing his ideas.

‘I am large; I contain multitudes’, wrote Walt Whitman. In the end, I can overlook many of Bloom’s contradictions and deficiencies because there is so much in his magisterial book that he gets right. Relativism has become a way of life, and has infiltrated the highest levels of government. The negative trends in higher education Bloom identified have since only got worse. Bloom’s critique continues to resonate.

Twenty-five years on, it is hopefully easier to recognise that most of the culture-war talk that has surrounded Bloom since the publication of his book is just distracting noise. Now is a good time to read (or re-read) him afresh, and enter his ‘community of those who seek the truth’.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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Topics Books


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