Allan Bloom was a US philosopher and intellectual best known for his book Closing of the American Mind (1987) that defended the idea of studying the theoretical landscapes of the Great Books against the modernist tendency towards sociological studies. It was a bestseller at the time. A critic of American Higher Education, who saw the system as moving away from intellectual towards vulgar relativism and social pursuits, he saw education as a personal journey in understanding and engaging with the highest minds and thoughts, in an atmosphere of intellectual openness. Not to be confused with Harold Bloom, who also solidly defended the ‘Canon’ of great thought and literature.
Plato and Rousseau
He taught in Paris, translated Rousseau’s Emile (1978) and drew inspiration from what he called its natural companion, ‘the’ book on education, Plato’s Republic (1968), which he also translated. Education plays a central role in both books. Education of the child to adulthood is the theme of Emile and the education of citizens, warriors and rulers, the philosopher Kings, is central to the Republic. It also states that women and men should receive the same education. In Emile he saw what he had seen in Plato’s Republic, a higher calling through education.
The Closing of the American Mind
In Closing of the American Mind (1987) Bloom places blame at the feet of Nietzsche and Heidegger for producing cultural despair. Although admiring both, he thinks that the modern student body has come to resemble Nietzsche’s soulless ‘last man’. Nietzsche destroyed ideas of good and evil and replaced them with ‘values’, where reason is superficial. The descent into relativism, the lack of the higher ideals of philosophical and intellectual rigour, the decadence of modern music and the adoption of social pursuits, he sees as a form of closure of the mind. What culture needs is an open mind that can face up to these philosophers and take on the challenges they pose.
The book, as explained in the Preface, is written from the point of view of a ‘teacher’. He is a man of the Enlightenment, of reason and is loyal to the liberal education goals of teaching students to become autonomous thinkers, to discover themselves, others and the nature of the world. He sees a culture now obsessed with charisma, the language of relative values, the passions and emotions.
Universities, for Bloom, were no longer fit for purpose, that purpose being the education of open minds with the high ideal of searching for truth. What he finds is ubiquitous relativism among the young, not as a philosophical position but an indignant, moral principle that had arisen as a result of the individualism of the Enlightenment, Locke and Mill had created a path towards relativism. Into this vacuum came the emptiness of the 1960s and the degeneracy of the campus, then the emptiness of continental philosophy. Lofty intellectual goals were replaced over time by social and hedonistic activity, as well as moral and epistemological relativism. He wants society to resist interference from the left and right, to maintain a degree of separateness.
Although not calling himself a Conservative, Bloom was widely seen and attacked as being reactionary in his critique of Universities. His attachment to the Canon and Great Books, to many, seemed culturally bound and limited. The idea of a Liberal Arts education with this single minded goal is also narrowly drawn within Eurocentric cultural constraints. His elitism is also explicit.
Paglia described The Closing of the American Mind, cleverly, as the "the first shot in the culture wars" as it took sides against what Bloom saw as rather trivial interpretation of literature as ‘identity’ texts concerned with race and gender. He has received a second wave of followers, as the most recent rounds of the culture wars have erupted. In many parts it reads like a text for now rather than then, with its attack on the invasion of university life and aims by cultural relativism and political activism. The book, once again, seems relevant at a time when the University system is seen as being under threat from relativist theorists.
Bloom, A., 2008. Closing of the American mind. Simon and Schuster.
Bloom, A., 1978. The education of democratic man: Émile. Daedalus, pp.135-153.
Bloom, A. and Kirsch, A., 1968. The republic of Plato (Vol. 2). New York: basic books.