Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind 20 years later

20 years ago, a bombshell hit the liberal educational establishment. A little-known University of Chicago professor wrote a book that was on the summer reading list of just about everyone in the chattering classes.

The Closing of the American Mind was subtitled: “How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.”

The New Criterion, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the first appearance of this classic, devotes several essays revisiting the book in the November number. One of the things that is in short supply these days is serious criticism -- there is a lot of reviewing that goes on, but criticism requires a broadening of perspective. And it virtually demands some distance -- retrospective, if you will.

Bloom's book was itself a work of serious criticism -- albeit one that had a curious appeal to the more general reader. But then, the best serious criticism can stand the test of being exposed to the general serious reader, as opposed to the academic specialist.

Bloom's book ranged from his contemporary experiences teaching at a major elite university (drawing also on the formative moments of the student rebellion when he was teaching at Cornell) to ancient Greek philosophy to 19th century German nihilism. It brought perspective.

Of course, as with so many serious books, far more people bought it than read it. From Roger Kimball's essay:

But even the success of The Closing of the American Mind had its oddities. One side of the oddity was summed up by a cartoon in The New Yorker. It shows a bemused-looking chap in a bookstore. He is standing in front of a table piled high with the book. As he leafs through a copy, a bookseller stands by beaming and confides, “I haven’t read it, but it’s terrific.”

I have often wondered how many of those million copies sold actually found readers. Five percent? Seven? Not more, I’d wager. But the interesting thing is that it didn’t matter. Poetry, T. S. Eliot said, communicates before it is understood. Similarly, books like The Closing of the American Mind do not have to be widely read to touch a nerve and communicate their essential message.

In James Piereson's lead essay, we are reminded that one of the main themes of the book -- the importance of an education in the "great books" (i.e. the ones overwhelmingly written by dead, white males) -- was hardly a new one, since it had been addressed from within the liberal tradition since the 1930s.

What Bloom was saying was more root-and-branch, and was probably only possible because enough of a culture had developed outside of that liberal tradition that the reading public could conceive of an assault from outside that tradition without the assault being an anti-intellectual one.

Bloom, however, understood that trying to change the curriculum without addressing the more fundamental ideas that have shaped it would be like trying to cure a sick man simply by changing his diagnosis.

Bloom claimed that the West faces an intellectual crisis because no one any longer can make a principled defense of its institutions or way of life. This is most evident in the university, which has reformed itself according to the ideas of openness, tolerance, relativism, and diversity—all of which claim that no political principles, institutions, or way of life can be affirmed as being superior to any others.

This is the near-universal view among students and faculty at our leading institutions of higher learning. The tragedy here, according to Bloom, is that relativism has extinguished the real motive behind all education, which is “the search for the good life.” If all ideas and ideals are equal, there is little point in searching for the best ones.

One remembers the fury with which the book was attacked: which just made some of us recent college graduates all the more interested in what the fuss was about.

A retrospective like this, however, tells bits of the story that only the passage of time tends to send bubbling to the surface. For instance, did we know at the time that the book was written at the encouragement of Bloom's friend Saul Bellow? If so, it is lost in the mists of memory.

Certainly it was not common knowledge that the success of the book was almost certainly due to an unexpected change in editors between the time the book was accepted for publication and the time that editing actually began. The editor called for a snappier title (the original: Souls Without Longing,) and turned on its head the original academic structure that started with the ancients and moved to the modern. Instead, Bloom starts in medias res, with "his discussion of contemporary students, with his unsparing comments on their relationships, the books they read, and the music they like to hear..."

There, too, it is hard to remember that one of the hottest topics of debate about the book was actually Bloom's harsh indictment of rock music (an indictment that Roger Kimball, in his essay, takes up and expounds on in more general critical terms -- a fascinating discussion in and of itself.)

Or how about the fact that the book drew explicit parallels between the academy of the Nazi era and the radicalized academy of the 1960's and beyond?

Yet another thing that the perspective of two decades has yielded is that since this was practically the first book of its sort, the academy didn't see the book coming. As a result, the first major reviews were favorable. The NYT Book Review essay was by Roger Kimball (the contributor of one of the New Criterion essays,) and the editors of that publication helped things along by giving Kimball's review the title of "The Groves of Ignorance." Other favorable reviews quickly followed in the daily Times , the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

By the time anyone went on the counter-attack, it was too late, and the book had leaped to the best-seller list. The attacks on the book then only had the effect, as noted above, of attracting more attention from those who felt that things weren't quite right at America's major universities. Today, such a book would likely have been assigned unfavorable reviewers from the beginning at the major establishment organs. Overtly conservative books still tend to do quite well on the best-seller lists, but they tend to be "shock-jock" books of the Ann Coulter variety.

The end of the story isn't an entirely happy one for the lover of traditional education. While Bloom became a multi-millionaire and became an unlikely celebrity, and while generations of conservatives who followed would forever be emboldened in questioning liberal academic orthodoxies, Bloom's main goal went unfulfilled.

Bloom's primary concern was for the top few dozen universities in America, hoping that the course could be changed, and that there could be a return to liberal education (in the true sense) grounded in the classics and eternal verities. This most evidently did not happen.

But Bloom, of course, was looking at things from the only perspective he knew -- that of someone who had spent his entire academic life, from college student through professorship, in Ivy League level universities. As is often the case, it was probably difficult for him to conceive of the possibility that deep learning and thought can go on outside those elite institutions -- and indeed outside the university setting entirely.

Not surprisingly, one of the fruits of Bloom's work was a genuinely conservative one, in the modern sense where the importance of free enterprise and independence is emphasized. His book began a cascade of self-learning enterprises that ranges from home education of children to book clubs devoted to the great books of Western Civilization.

Who is to save, and pass on to the next generation, the classical learning of Western civilization? Look in the mirror.


carol said...

Thanks for memorializing this. I didn't read the book myself until 5 years ago, and it at least made me glad I hadn't gone to n "elite" university. The sickness was just starting to infect UM in the mid 80s.

It would be interesting to read a similar treatment of an average land-grant state U today.

Montana Headlines said...

My own university experiences were also not like the ones Bloom described -- I read the book at the time with morbid fascination and disbelief.

And, like you, I realized that I had received a far more "liberal" education than had I attended an "elite" university.

Probably only a professor could write that sort of book -- an outsider wouldn't have the authenticity, and a student wouldn't have the perspective.

And by definition, in a place where liberal orthodoxies are rigidly enforced, those who reach the security of tenure have generally been thoroughly vetted for correctness.

Anonymous said...

Mike Wheat for Congress!

Montana Headlines said...

When people told me that Mike Wheat's supporters couldn't read, I told them they were exaggerating.

Guess I was wrong.

The Space68Cowboy said...

Excellent book - excellent post!

Montana Headlines said...

Thanks, SpaceCowboy.

We may be posting a little more about "Closing of the American Mind" and the recent New Criterion retrospective.

Lots of good stuff there.