The Closing of the American Mind: 30 Years Ago

 

Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is a very strange book. In part an extended reflection on pop culture and in part a critical history of philosophy, it is also in part a personal memoir. Thirty years ago – when, as a favor to Nobel-Prize winner Saul Bellow, Simon and Schuster published his friend’s book – no one, least of all Bloom himself, expected it to attract much attention. But that it did – and more. For it became a phenomenon. In fact, for nearly a year, it was the talk of the land, and it sold like hotcakes. Bloom, who had always lived beyond his means, soon found it almost impossible to do so.

I doubt that a high proportion of those who purchased Bloom’s bestseller managed to get through or even much into its second part. This section of Bloom’s tome – entitled “Nihilism – American Style” – is brilliant, and the writing is quite lively. But to even begin to understand the argument, one must be a Kulturmensch with at least a passing familiarity with writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Heidegger; and those who got bogged down in the early pages of part two are not likely to have gone on to part three: “The University.” It was the book’s first part, entitled “Students,” that electrified the American public.

Philosophy may have been too abstruse a subject for most of those who purchased the book. But nearly all of them had children or grandchildren; and, thanks to the proverbial “generation gap,” their offspring were for them a puzzle and a source of considerable anxiety. The chapters that Bloom devoted to the character of American college students before the late 1960s, to the role that an encounter with classic literary and philosophical works often then played in the intellectual and moral development of the ablest of these, to the impact that rock music came to have on the next generation of students, and to the larger significance of the sexual revolution – these were for older Americans a real eye-opener. For the first time, they had more than an inkling of what they had on their hands.

The book’s early reviews were almost without exception enthusiastic, and overnight its author became a celebrity – so much so that he was summoned to appear on Oprah. Bloom, who was graced (if that is the word) with a superfluity of vanity, reveled in the fame and fortune that the book’s success had conferred on him. Within academe, even among some of those who thought more or less as he did, his achievement stirred envy. In America – as opposed to, say, France – no professor of political philosophy had ever been so bathed in adulation.

Soon, however, there was a counter-blast as the literary left in the academy stepped in aggressively to make sure that all right-thinking people understood that Bloom’s critique of rock music and the sexual revolution was reactionary and that the same (or worse) could be said concerning his defense of the notion that a modicum of wisdom might be attained through the careful reading of old books. Some even intimated that his analysis was monstrous and that to look to past thinking in search of moral and political guidance was to court sexism, racism, and inequality. Had they looked in the mirror, the most vociferous of his critics might have recognized that their conduct served only to reinforce his larger claim, suggesting that, at least within the academy, a rigid, anti-intellectual orthodoxy was setting in and that American minds really were to an ever increasing degree closed.

There were other, less scholarly sorts who reacted instinctively against what Bloom had to say. In the years immediately following the book’s appearance, I ran a seminar program for freshmen at a small university in the Southwest. For a time, figuring that the book would engage these entering students and stir discussion, I had all those teaching in the program start off the fall semester by assigning to the incoming freshman the first part of Bloom’s book. These chapters had on our students an effect no less electrifying than they had had on their parents and grandparents. These youngsters had grown up on rock music. We were in Oklahoma where the sexual revolution had not yet fully penetrated the high schools, but for these students it beckoned, and now that they were in college many of them were eager to harvest its fruits. Almost to a man my male students hated the book. The attack on rock music threatened something dear to their hearts. The young women did not chime in. They fell silent. They were not prepared to defend Bloom against the furious onslaught launched by their male colleagues, but they seemed to sense that rock and roll was a threat to their well-being, and they were less quick to think the sexual revolution a liberation.

My guess is that, if someone were to resurrect the book (which remains in print) and use it now as I did then, today’s male freshmen would respond in a similar fashion. Among the young women, I suspect, the most vocal would be those who found Bloom’s discussion of relationships an offense. For, while he emphatically denies that there is any great literature that countenances racial prejudice, he suggests – correctly, in my opinion – that almost every great literary work articulates an argument concerning the sexual differentiation of humankind that “progressive” young women would find offensive. We have not yet reached the time when works like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are consigned to a book-burning in the quad. But, to judge by events that have taken place on our campuses over the last two years, that time will come. On the part of professors who teach history, literature, theater, film studies, philosophy, sociology, and political science, self-censorship is already the norm.

On this subject, there is great more to be said — and, with that in mind, a number of scholars (myself included), spurred on by my colleague Nathan Schlueter, have addressed Bloom’s book in a retrospective symposium just posted on the website Public Discourse. If this subject interest you, you should start with Professor Schlueter’s introduction and then read the posts by Peter Augustine Lawler, Michael Platt, and myself — which deal, respectively, with Parts One, Two, and Three of Bloom’s book. My own contribution regarding “The University” is as much a memoir as an analysis. I was in a seminar on Plato’s Republic that Bloom taught at Cornell University in 1968-69 — the year that the armed building seizure that looms large in Bloom’s book took place.

It is, however, Professor Lawler’s contribution that deserves particular attention. It is the last of the many fine things which that gentleman wrote in the course of his career. He died earlier this week at the age of 65.

There are 22 comments.

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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I read it (the whole thing) after it had been out a year or so, and realized I was too dense to figure out what all the fuss was about.  I should try again.

    • #1
  2. John Park Member
    John Park
    @jpark

    @casey assigned Bloom’s book for discussion a couple years ago. I read it, but couldn’t come up with a post.

    • #2
  3. Fredösphere Inactive
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    I received The Closing of the American Mind as a birthday present (my request) in high school. It looked great on my shelf. Thanks to a stubborn streak, I read it from beginning to end. I absorbed absolutely nothing of the Rousseau parts, however.

    It would be interesting to know if the book would have ever become a cultural phenomenon if the editor had gone with Bloom’s original title, Souls Without Longing. Maybe not–but there’s no way to run that experiment.

    Just before seeing this post, I read the Lawler essay mentioned above, thanks to this recommendation.

    (Dr. Rahe: my eldest will be a Hillsdale freshman in the fall. If you find him in one of your classes, please be merciful.)

     

    • #3
  4. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Thanks for the post, & for the link. I saw two of the essays, but I missed the rest–the Lawler essay came out, at least in my neck of the internet woods, the day he died.

    I also admire Peter Lawler & I would like to commend to everyone my brief eulogy.

    • #4
  5. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    The book has lingered on my shelf since a Ricochet member long ago proposed a series of member posts on the topic, after weeks of references on the podcasts. Perhaps I’ll finally answer the challenge soon.

    As both a composer of rock songs (among other styles) and a traditional Catholic, I expect to find a mix of astute observations and myopic preferences in the portion on rock.

    • #5
  6. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    I gave it to a person who had only a tiny bit of college but had been exposed to the subject of the book and instinctively understood and like it   She was a good Catholic.  Perhaps that made her sensitive to the stuff put forth by her opposites.  I never thought of that until I read your piece today because I thought it was a lively discussion of contemporary youth in familiar language.  My contemporaries that is, I was fifties generation so watched it all unfold with horror.

    • #6
  7. Damocles Inactive
    Damocles
    @Damocles

    I read it when it came out.

    My only reaction, when he was discussing sex with the “just like a game of tennis” girl, was to try to figure out what department I needed to transfer to to meet girls like her.

    • #7
  8. Casey Member
    Casey
    @Casey

    John Park (View Comment):
    @casey assigned Bloom’s book for discussion a couple years ago. I read it, but couldn’t come up with a post.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to the post and thank you professor for posting. I will eagerly follow your link this weekend.

    The post: http://ricochet.com/archives/2015-a-year-in-bloom/

    • #8
  9. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    Thirty years ago? Man, I’m gettin’ old.

    • #9
  10. Casey Member
    Casey
    @Casey

    KC Mulville (View Comment):
    Thirty years ago? Man, I’m gettin’ old.

    Not me. This book is about to pass me up.

    • #10
  11. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I’ve recently discovered the work of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU.  Haidt and Ricochet contributor Greg Lukianoff co-authored a 2015 Atlantic article called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which was plainly a follow-up on Bloom’s book.

    Haidt is a really smart guy and a dynamic speaker, who seems to be coming around from far Leftism to libertarianism.  I was surprised, listening to some of his earlier speeches, to hear him describe the problems with college students today as something new.  I immediately thought: no, this is nothing new, this is exactly what Allan Bloom wrote about 30 years ago.

    The situation on campus today seems worse than when Bloom wrote, but it’s just a bit further along the same path.

    • #11
  12. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I also rebelled against Bloom’s characterization of rock music.  If I remember correctly, he considered it to have “one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire.”  I think that this overstates the case, though I agree with him as to a great deal of rock music.  In fact, I’m now old enough to disapprove of much of my own music, and wonder what my parents were thinking when they let me listen to it.  Of course, I also have teenagers myself, so I know that they were thinking that there wasn’t much that they could do about it.

    I’m a fan of Christian rock bands, like Casting Crowns, in which I find no appeal to sexual desire.  And classical music is hardly devoid of sex.  Bolero is far more erotic than Pour Some Sugar On Me.

    • #12
  13. Franz Drumlin Member
    Franz Drumlin
    @FranzDrumlin

    I was working at a bookstore when Closing was published. Its status as a bestseller prompted a cartoon in the New Yorker: a bookstore clerk attempting to sell the book to a customer burbles “no, I haven’t read it but it’s wonderful!” Odd, since the attitude almost all our right-thinking customers had towards the book was “Nope, haven’t read it, but I’m certain it’s horrid!”

    • #13
  14. Damocles Inactive
    Damocles
    @Damocles

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    Bolero is far more erotic

    Umm now you’re getting weird.

    • #14
  15. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    I also rebelled against Bloom’s characterization of rock music. If I remember correctly, he considered it to have “one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire.” I think that this overstates the case, though I agree with him as to a great deal of rock music. In fact, I’m now old enough to disapprove of much of my own music, and wonder what my parents were thinking when they let me listen to it. Of course, I also have teenagers myself, so I know that they were thinking that there wasn’t much that they could do about it.

    I’m a fan of Christian rock bands, like Casting Crowns, in which I find no appeal to sexual desire. And classical music is hardly devoid of sex. Bolero is far more erotic than Pour Some Sugar On Me.

    I am probably the person here who is most ignorant of the rock music of my generation and beyond.  However, don’t try to tell me that J.S. Bach’s music is not sexual.

    • #15
  16. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I was amused by the excoriation of rock music because the same things were said of ragtime and every other form of jazz as it came out for a half century. Some critic no doubt had it in for Stephen Foster and “Oh! Susanna.”

    • #16
  17. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    Fredösphere (View Comment):
    I received The Closing of the American Mind as a birthday present (my request) in high school. It looked great on my shelf. Thanks to a stubborn streak, I read it from beginning to end. I absorbed absolutely nothing of the Rousseau parts, however.

    It would be interesting to know if the book would have ever become a cultural phenomenon if the editor had gone with Bloom’s original title, Souls Without Longing. Maybe not–but there’s no way to run that experiment.

    Just before seeing this post, I read the Lawler essay mentioned above, thanks to this recommendation.

    (Dr. Rahe: my eldest will be a Hillsdale freshman in the fall. If you find him in one of your classes, please be merciful.)

    Will do. Send him (her?) to me.

    • #17
  18. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Damocles (View Comment):

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    Bolero is far more erotic

    Umm now you’re getting weird.

    Bloom did point to the Bolero as an exercise in arousing eroticism-

    • #18
  19. Damocles Inactive
    Damocles
    @Damocles

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Damocles (View Comment):

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    Bolero is far more erotic

    Umm now you’re getting weird.

    Bloom did point to the Bolero as an exercise in arousing eroticism-

    Huh, you’re right!

    ‘Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That is why Ravel’s Bolero‘ is the one piece of classical music that is commonly known and liked by them.’

    My own opinion: they remembered Bo Derek in 10!

    • #19
  20. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    I think Peter Lawler pointed out the biggest problem with the account of rock in Bloom–he doesn’t talk about the anger. That, I think, is part of the book’s intention: He wants to show you certain American experiences through eros, not anger. His analysis of the American soul also suggests that anger is derivative of eros.

    • #20
  21. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    I tried to read the book a few years ago. I can’t remember at which point I gave up, but I found it horribly depressing, closed it and returned it to the library.

    • #21
  22. Captain Kidd Inactive
    Captain Kidd
    @CaptainKidd

    Fredösphere (View Comment):
    It would be interesting to know if the book would have ever become a cultural phenomenon if the editor had gone with Bloom’s original title, Souls Without Longing. Maybe not–but there’s no way to run that experiment

    Nor would ‘War And Peace’ have been as popular if it had been called by it’s original title ‘War, What Is It Good For?’.

    If you have to ask, then you need to watch more brainless television.

    • #22

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