by Patrick J. Deneen
One crisp morning 26 years ago I was walking across the campus of the University of Chicago, where I had just enrolled as a first-year Ph.D. candidate in the renowned Committee on Social Thought. While I had not yet met him, I had heard much about Allan Bloom, a legendary professor, teacher, and lecturer. I had read his translation of Plato’s Republic as an undergraduate and had some notion that I would write my eventual dissertation under his direction.
As I crossed one of the campus quads, I saw a man sitting on a bench, swaddled under a heavy overcoat and his head topped by a fedora. A photographer was arranging his equipment across from him, while he bemusedly awaited some kind of publicity shoot. While I realized only a short time later that the man I had seen was Allan Bloom, it was a year later—a quarter-century ago—that I realized that I had witnessed the photo session that led to the headshot inside the hardcover jacket of Bloom’s blockbuster book The Closing of the American Mind . By that time, I had left the University of Chicago, disillusioned by the program and put off by Bloom’s circle of students. But I loved the book and credit it, at least in part, for my eventual return to the academy and a career as a professor of political philosophy.
I still assign the book with some regularity, especially in a freshman seminar on education that I’ve taught over the last half-decade. As the years have passed, I’ve noticed how the book has aged—many of its cultural references are long dated, while contemporary hot-button issues like gay marriage and religious liberty are altogether absent from Bloom’s confident pronouncements on our likely future. Still, the book continues to excite new readers—today’s students find it engaging, even if, unlike their elders, they don’t get especially upset by it and almost unanimously have never heard of it before. And with every re-reading I invariably find something new that I hadn’t noticed before, a testimony to the expansiveness of Bloom’s fertile mind.
While I continue to learn much from Bloom, over the years I have arrived at three main judgments about the book’s relevance, its prescience, and its failings. First, Bloom was right to be concerned about the specter of relativism—though perhaps even he didn’t realize how bad it would get, particularly when one considers the reaction to his book compared to its likely reception were it published today. Second, his alarm over the threat of “multiculturalism” was misplaced and constituted a bad misreading of the zeitgeist , in which he mistook the left’s tactical use of identity politics for the rise of a new kind of communalist and even traditionalist tribalism. And, lastly, most of his readers—even today—remain incorrect in considering him to be a representative of “conservatism,” a label that he eschewed and a worldview he rejected. Indeed, Bloom’s argument was one of the early articulations of “neoconservatism”—a puzzling locution used to describe a position that is, in fact, today more correctly captured by its critics on the left as “neo-liberalism.”
What should most astonish any reader of Bloom’s Closing after 25 years is the fact that this erudite treatise about the crisis of higher education not only sat atop the bestseller list for many weeks but was at the center of an intense, lengthy, and ferocious debate during the late 1980s over education, youth, culture, and politics. In many ways, it became the most visible and weightiest salvo in what came to be known as “the culture wars,” and people of a certain generation still hold strong opinions about Bloom and his remarkable, unlikely bestseller.
Today there are many books about the crisis of higher education—while the nature of the crisis may change, higher education never seems to be out of the woods—but none before or since Bloom’s book achieved its prominence or made its author as rich and famous as a rock star. It was a book that many people bought but few read, at least not beyond a few titillating passages condemning rock-and-roll and feminism. Yet it was a book about which almost everyone with some engagement in higher education held an opinion—indeed, it was obligatory to have considered views on Bloom’s book, whether one had read it or not.
Bloom’s book was at the center of a debate—one that had been percolating well before its publication in 1987—over the nature and content of a university education. That debate intensified with the growing numbers of “diverse” populations seeking recognition on college campuses—concomitant with the rise of departments of Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, and a host of other “Studies” studies—leading to demands that the curriculum increasingly reflect contributions by non-male, non-white, non-European and even non-dead authors.
The Closing of the American Mind spawned hundreds, perhaps even thousands of responses—most of them critiques—including an article entitled “The Philosopher Despot” in Harper’s by political theorist Benjamin Barber, and the inevitably titled The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence Levine. Partly spurred by the firestorm initiated by Bloom’s book, perennial presidential candidate Jesse Jackson led a march through the campus of Stanford University shouting through a bullhorn, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!” Passions for campus reform ran high, and an avalanche of words, articles, denunciations, and ad hominem attacks greeted Bloom’s defense of the Western canon.
Yet the nuances of Bloom’s qualified defense of the Western canon were rarely appreciated by critics or supporters alike. While Bloom was often lumped together with E.D. Hirsch—whose Cultural Literacy was published the same year and rose to number two on the New York Times bestseller list, just behind Closing —Bloom’s argument was fundamentally different and far more philosophically challenging than Hirsch’s more mundane, if nevertheless accurate, point that educated people increasingly did not have knowledge about their own culture. Hirsch’s book spoke to anxiety about the loss of a shared literary and cultural inheritance, which today has been largely supplanted by references to a few popular television shows and sports televised on ESPN.
Bloom made an altogether different argument: American youth were increasingly raised to believe that nothing was True, that every belief was merely the expression of an opinion or preference. Americans were raised to be “cultural relativists,” with a default attitude of non-judgmentalism. Not only all other traditions but even one’s own (whatever that might be) were simply views that happened to be held by some people and could not be judged inferior or superior to any other. He bemoaned particularly the decline of household and community religious upbringing in which the worldviews of children were shaped by a comprehensive vision of the good and the true. In one arresting passage, he waxed nostalgic for the days when people cared : “It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholic and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another; but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously…”