by Joshua H. Liberatore
I first read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind during my sophomore year in college at a time when I was steeped in the very conditions and concerns articulated in this remarkable and apparently timeless critique of American university education. Chief among my first impressions of the book, besides the many pungent insights whose relevance to my undergraduate experience were immediately apparent, was the knowledge that I would be rereading Bloom’s book many times, for many years to come. This is true not just because of the topical acuity of Bloom’s observations – the assault on the classical liberal tradition wrought by the 1960s, the general decline of standards in reading and teaching, the overall anxiety of a tradition giving way to preoccupation with “cultures,” “lifestyles,” and self-serving “ideologies” in American society – but also due to the complexity and richness of the writing, which might well take a lifetime of periodic revisits in order to fully appreciate and digest. Bloom writes exuberant prose, without the trappings of either didactic journalism or academic hyper-specialization, but it’s by no means easy stuff. His argument is erudite but independent; the 382-page book contains fewer direct quotations than even a long New Yorker reportage does. Rather, it depends on an entire career of reading, rereading, and teaching, and thus, absorbs a vast amount of material that goes uncited but organically integrated. Moreover, Bloom is illustrating long-term trends that require time and experience – and in my case, hindsight – to comprehend.
Recently, I felt moved to reread the book, partly to see if my original assumption was correct, and partly to see if I could understand a bit more now that I’m reading from a safe distance from the University of Michigan of the late 1990s. In short, it more than stood the test of durability. And I understood more, not least because my own experience teaching reading and writing – and dare I say, ideas – for six years have rendered me more sensitive both to the exquisite charms of Bloom’s perspicacity and to his dark diagnosis of an educational tradition in crisis. A new feature of the book also occurred to me this time around: the so-called “culture wars,” though perhaps in abatement, are not over. Bloom wrote his controversial book in 1987, when Reagan ruled the roost, and chaps like William Bennett, Francis Fukuyama, and Kristol the Elder – with whom Bloom has been associated, however narrowly, as part of the early Neoconservatism movement in politics – threw themselves into pitched battle with academics and writers of the Left who represented the continued preeminence of the very trends Bloom was critiquing. Now, of course, we have William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Richard Perle, all struggling for a foothold in the premature aftermath of eight years of policy disasters under the leadership of Regan’s unwanted stepchild, George W. Bush.
Any thinker who wrote either Bloom or The Closing of the American Mind off as a period-piece or part of a discredited generation might well take the second look the book deserves. Bloom died a few years after the paperback version of Closing hit the shelves, but his words are very much alive and kicking. Bloom’s basic premise is that our obsession with different forms of diversity (racial, ethnic, and sexual) and the concomitant elevation of “culture” and “identity” over tradition, “lifestyles” over the good life, and “ideologies” over ideas have eroded not only our sense of continuity and stability but also the very health of our “selves,” now badly educated and mediocre. The militant “value relativism” that swelled anthropology and ethnic studies departments in the 1960s and destroyed core requirements in philosophy, history, and languages leaves us without a cherished center, the skeletal matter that binds most strong communities and societies together with enduring confidence and dignity. Instead, we’ve converted a once successful melting pot into a confused and isolated amalgam of alienated “subcultures,” a term Bloom debunks for all its specious depravity. Has our self-righteous celebration of equality and diversity brought us great rewards? Have we improved our understanding of the greater, non-Western world? Have we earned wide respect for our cultural achievements? Is our body politic healthy? All of these questions are worth asking, and if we have the courage to explore the answers, we must harness the example of Socrates – who forms a leitmotif in Bloom’s own investigation – and proceed with all deliberate haste and focus.