- Reforming Higher Education and the Opening of the American Mind
As a student, colleague, and friend of Allan Bloom's, I feel it incumbent on me to start by saying something about Allan Bloom the man before going on to say a few things about Allan Bloom the book. I can do no better than to repeat remarks I delivered to open a conference I organized on the tenth anniversary of The Closing of the American Mind : "I was privileged to be his student as an undergraduate at Cornell in the '60s and his colleague at the University of Chicago from 1979 till his death in 1992, serving with him as Co-Director of the Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy from its founding in 1984, and joining him as a colleague in the Committee on Social Thought in 1990. He was the most powerful personality I have ever come in contact with. Whether talking or listening, teaching or strolling and stopping, joke-telling or arguing, reminiscing about the past or planning the future, Allan was always questioning and challenging, always wondering and speculating, always thinking and making those around him think. He suffused the world with drama and high stakes for whoever contended with his conversational torrent. Conversation with him was exhilarating and exhausting, inspiring and infuriating, thought-provoking and just plain provoking, much like reading The Closing. Allan had a gift for seeing into other people's hearts and souls, perhaps the texts he read with the greatest subtlety and deepest enjoyment. The power and fascination of his talk and writing derived in large part from his genius for finding universal significance in his own particular experience and for looking at phenomena from diverse perspectives; a less friendly observer might call that a proclivity for exaggeration and inconsistency. I lack those gifts, and if Allan had listened to me, The Closing of the American Mind might have been a more cautious and consistent book, but also a less powerful, profound, and pro-vocative one."
I will now make a few points about Allan Bloom's famous book and what seems to me to be one of its implications for reforming higher education.
To begin, despite the first half of the subtitle of The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students , its author wrote primarily, as the first sentence of the book announces, "from the perspective of a teacher," one "dedicated to liberal education," which is to say not that of a citizen (or parent for that matter). In other words, Bloom's book approaches such weighty issues as divorce, racial separatism, sexual liberation, feminism, and what came later to be called multiculturalism not primarily from the perspective of a citizen concerned with public policy and the consequences of these developments for our society and polity and families, but from that of a teacher of great books and the questions they can raise, who is therefore concerned with the obstacles posed to that teaching.
Bloom did, however, also write secondarily as an American citizen who lamented the decline in serious study of the principles of the American founding and such statesmen as Lincoln. He subsequently edited the collection Confronting the Constitution: The Challenge to Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and the Federalists from Utilitarianism, Historicism, Marxism, Freudianism, Pragmatism, Existentialism , and I am sure he would have welcomed the current efforts to encourage serious study of the principles of the American founding. He was not, however, himself, a teacher or scholar of the American founding, but devoted himself instead to such authors as Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Nietzsche.
The second point I would like to make is that although Bloom directed withering criticism against the current academic trends that denied the possibility of learning from the reading of great books, which stemmed from what we can call the cultural left, his diagnosis was broader and deeper than that. It encompasses the obstacles posed to liberal education by commercial or bourgeois society ("capitalism" in the vernacular) and even by democracy itself. It is worth recalling, for example, his eloquent denunciation of the deleterious...