- On Allan Bloom
It is now 20 years since Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind burst on the scene and for a brief moment opened a debate on higher education in America. I say brief for it did not take long for the academic establishment to realize that Bloom's book was dangerous—that he was exposing various pathologies of the modern elite university to the outside world—the one exercise of free speech that the custodians of the university really frown upon.
In the bad old days, people who wanted to say particularly unwelcome things were legally suppressed in one way or another. In the good new days, they are dealt with in other ways—death by denunciation. So, by my informal and no doubt incomplete count, Bloom was denounced by over 2,476 college presidents and by many other guardians of liberal correctness.
The sound and fury set off by this book was in part a result of the moment at which it appeared, more or less at the height of the culture wars. That led to many mis-readings and misunderstandings of it. So it is a very good thing to look back at it now—20 years later—without the sound and fury that surrounded it back in 1987.
I am personally happy to be part of an effort to reassess Closing , for I was a student of Bloom's and he changed my life. He was the most charismatic human being I ever knew. He was the most amazing and effective figure in a classroom, although he lacked most of the standard traits one would think would be needed for this—he stuttered, he chain smoked, he had a nervous energy that did not bespeak that kind of self-possession so admirable in a teacher—so present, for example, in Bloom's teacher, Leo Strauss.
Most importantly, Bloom had a gift for transferring his energy and passion to a room full of students and getting them to feel—somehow—that the books, the thinkers, the ideas he was talking about were simply the most important things—that one could not go on as one would have otherwise been inclined to do.
We have been asked to consider Bloom's Closing in the context of our concern with the challenges and supports of a free society. That is, in some sense fitting and proper, for Bloom was, to some extent, concerned with how modern education is disserving free society. The problem, as he saw it, was the quality he called "our virtue," openness. Openness is, indeed, one of the most highly promoted aims of higher education today.
But to paraphrase William Faulkner, according to Bloom, openness isn't a virtue, it isn't even openness. The real openness is open-mindedness, i.e., openness to considering the truth of new or unfamiliar things. The openness Bloom ironically called a virtue is really a closedness to the truth, for it rests in a dogmatic relativism. It is dogmatic because it is committed in principle and in advance to relativism, that is, to the view that all value claims are equally true—or equally false. This is understood to be not only or not mainly an epistemological claim as much as a moral claim and it is the one moral demand that is not relative.
Bloom thought this kind of closed-minded openness to be a vice and a threat to free society, because it relativised and weakened the intellectual and moral commitments on which free societies must rest. Thus the Declaration of Independence is denied to be self-evidently true—but not affirmed to be self-evidently false either. It is somebody's value judgment and it may as well be true that men have no rights as that they have unalienable rights. Bloom's point was that the citizens of a free society must adhere to opinions suited to a free society. Openness robs citizens of those beliefs and thus puts free society in danger.
And yet it is only partially correct to say that Bloom's Closing is concerned with the way higher education is dis-serving...