Defending Allan Bloom

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind turned 25 this year.  As Sean Collins notes, there are many who see the publication of this book as one of the opening salvos of the so-called “culture wars.”  Bloom attacked universities for abandoning the liberal arts. He pointed to a “social and intellectual crisis” happening on college campuses.  In some of the more controversial parts of the book, Bloom took shots at rock music and youth culture.

Conservatives loved it.  Liberals thought Bloom was trying to turn back the clock.  But as Collins argues, Bloom’s argument in The Closing of the American Mind was much more nuanced.  Too often Bloom’s book has been read in the context of the culture wars, but to read it this way is to “miss what’s vital and distinct about it.”  Here is a taste of Collins’s piece at Spiked:

Like traditional moralists, Bloom rails against rock music, but for a very different reason: ‘My concern here is not with the moral effects of this music – whether it leads to sex, violence or drugs. The issue here is its effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.’

Just because William Bennett – a prominent conservative back-to-old-morals type – was a follower of Bloom’s, it doesn’t mean Bloom ought to be put in that same category. This pigeonholing of Bloom leads to overlooking the subtleties of his arguments. Indeed, Bloom’s ideas pose serious challenges to both the left and the right.
Take his discussion of relativism. Bloom writes that openness is an essential feature of the academy: ‘The university is the place where inquiry and philosophic openness come into their own. It is intended to encourage the non-instrumental use of reason for its own sake, to provide the atmosphere where the moral and physical superiority of the dominant will not intimidate philosophic doubt.’ However, over time openness was transformed into a mindless relativism: ‘Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.’ If the university preaches that all truths are relative, what’s the point of searching for truth? Openness, ironically, leads to the ‘closing’ of the American mind.