By William Deresiewicz
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was published 25 years ago this month. The loudest salvo in the culture wars, the book sold nearly half a million copies in hardcover and sat atop the bestseller list for four months. Eloquent, elegant, erudite, frank, and ferocious, the book inveighed against feminism, relativism, political correctness, the ’60s and all its works, and the decline of the liberal arts education. Legions denounced it; legions massed beneath its banner.
A quarter century on, what strikes me most, coming to the book for the first time, is how little anyone seems to have read it. The criticism of popular culture, the assault on the professoriate and the universities, the prescription for a return to a Great Books curriculum (which occupies all of one paragraph): these were widely debated. Open the book, however, and you find that its broad middle half consists of a recondite survey of the history of philosophy. The crisis in American culture, apparently, is all to do with the way the Germans misread the Greeks.
But this is minor, the fact that most readers probably skipped the hard stuff. What’s astounding is how determined they apparently were to avoid understanding what was right in front of them, in the parts they almost surely did read. For Bloom makes it quite clear, at length and in a good number of places, not only that he disdains the hoi polloi, but that he disdains their interests, too—that is to say, the health of society and of the state. And by the hoi polloi he means you, me, and everybody else who isn’t a philosopher. “The real community of man,” he announces in his peroration, “is the community of those who seek the truth.” But, he adds, “this includes only a few,” as Socrates’s students were few. The sole reason to engage in political dispute (to write The Closing of the American Mind) is to make the state safe for philosophers. The truth matters, not people. And when it comes to the forms the state can take, one of the things he certainly had no use for was democracy.
Needless to say, Bloom’s fans did not exactly trumpet this dimension of the book, if they even registered it. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, in one of the pieces that launched the volume, the conservative critic Roger Kimball made a telling misquotation. Bloom, he wrote, “concludes that ‘a crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis’ for a modern democratic nation”—except that “democratic” is Kimball’s addition. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the Times’ daily critic, also gave the book an early boost. Quoting the passage about “the community of those who seek the truth,” he averred, with all the good will of his middlebrow sentimentality, that Bloom invites his readers, one and all, to join it.
I can’t completely blame them, though. Here is the book’s subtitle: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students—a phrase that surely wasn’t wrought by Bloom. Even before the book was published, its edge was being blunted. There is a bitter irony here. People hate the truth, Bloom says, because it shatters their illusions. There is no appeal from death, no solving the problems of human existence, and philosophers are noble because they alone are strong enough to look this in the face. “The intellectual,” by contrast, who enters the public realm, “attempts to influence and ends up in the power of the would-be influenced. He enhances their power and adapts his thought to their ends.” Bloom was not, by this definition, an intellectual. He did not adapt his thought to other people’s ends. And yet it was adapted for him nonetheless. To speak the truth as you conceive it—that is hard enough. To have it heard is even harder.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.