The Legacy of “The Closing of the American Mind”
by Wilfred McClay
There can be no question of the signal importance and influence of The Closing of the American Mind. Any future historian who proposes to explain the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s will have to contend with the looming presence of Allan Bloom’s grand and gloomy tome—along with the words and works of the other “killer Bs” of the era, William J. Bennett and Saul Bellow—as one of the chief rallying points for the conservative side of that conflict, and particularly the conservative critique of higher education. It should be admitted at once that many of Bloom’s criticisms were not entirely new. By 1987, the declining state of America’s colleges and universities as bastions of cultural conservation and liberal learning had been an object of public concern for a long time. Critics throughout the twentieth century had regularly scored the American university for its ever-growing weakness for vocationalism, utilitarianism, gigantism, and credentialism, and for its adoption of a chaotic elective system that all but conceded that the university itself no longer knew, or could say, what an educated person was supposed to know. But Bloom gave a fresh tone and new impetus to such criticisms.
It should also be admitted that Bloom’s book was idiosyncratic in the extreme, a most improbable candidate—as improbable as the man himself—for the major cultural role in which it was cast. Coming back to the book twenty years after its heyday, one finds this fact especially striking. It is an exceedingly odd book, a book that is at one moment possessed of qualities of monumental eloquence and high intelligence, but the next moment disappointingly clumsy or maddeningly petty. With its self dramatizing gestures, its rambling and unsystematic organization, its weakness for highly abstract argument (and consequent aversion to concrete or empirical detail), its fondness for epigrammatic phrasing (although the epigrams are often buried in mid-paragraph), and its penchant for opinionated pronouncements and sweeping social generalizations,Closing is surely an acquired taste. It may well be one of those books that will always be more admired than read by the larger public. Rarely has a book been more resistant to skimming, or more difficult to paraphrase. Never, I think, has there been a more unlikely manifesto.
But when it comes to the success of social or cultural criticism, timing is everything. The moment has to be right. And the fabulous success of Closing testifies to the prescience of the book’s editor at Simon and Schuster, Robert Asahina, who saw the potential market for a learned jeremiad on education—even a highly theoretical one written by an academic political philosopher, a student of Leo Strauss firmly ensconced in the ivoriest of towers at the University of Chicago. In retrospect, it makes a certain sense. There is a special weight given in American culture to critics who criticize from within, and Bloom sounded to most readers like precisely the academic mandarin he was. His diction signaled that here was no populist rant by an anti-intellectual yahoo, but a passionate defense of the very highest ideal of the university, presented to the world by one of its most distinguished members. For all that Americans are said to be paragons of anti-intellectualism and to distrust the academy, that has always been a half-truth at best. Americans may distrust the academy, but they also highly esteem it; they do not want to see it torn down gratuitously. Coming from a man of Bloom’s stature, a charge of trahison des clercs would have great credibility: he knew intimately whereof he spoke, and his criticisms were born of love.
What made the timing right? The book’s arrival corresponded, as did the culture wars themselves, with a noticeable deepening of American academia’s intellectual and moral crises. In the 1960s, conflicts over politics and curricula had been endemic and often nasty, but there was still a sense that there was more than one viable side to the arguments, and still a great deal of sensible disciplinary ballast left in most academic fields. By the late 1970s, this state of affairs had changed dramatically; and by the 1980s, with the ascent of the baby-boom generation into the most influential positions of academic leadership, accompanied by the triumph of a curious alliance of obligatory leftism, cultural relativism, careerism, hedonism, and consumerism as the reigning deities of the academy, the installation of the 1960s radical agenda was rendered complete—or at any rate, as complete as it was ever likely to be.
Did this great academic revolution usher in a state of perpetual excitement or revolutionary élan, an electric condition in which the intellectual life of the university was made vibrant by robust, sincere passion and high public purpose? Hardly. Instead, the post-1960s academy quickly became a case study in what Max Weber called the routinization of charisma. Its overriding mood became anxious and stiff, ever fearful of eating a peach or committing a racial or sexual faux pas or other ideological peccadillo. A surreal and deadening split mindedness began to settle like a dense fog over American campuses as the perspectives of the past fell silent, the radical became the conventional, formerly subversive ideas were transformed into a whole new generation of empty platitudes and tacit compulsions (“political correctness”), and the once-fearsome word “transgressive” was translated into a term of hearty commendation, the intellectual equivalent of a (now forbidden) pat on the back.
Nor was that the end of the matter. The term “tenured radical” is, after all, a paradoxical one, and the tension between the two words is not really sustainable for very long. By the mid-1980s, “tenured” was winning out, as the historian Russell Jacoby observed in his own 1987 book The Last Intellectuals, a penetrating account of how his once-radical and now careerist peers had sacrificed their bohemian ideals for bourgeois comforts and sold out their message for a mess of pottage, succumbing to the temptations of academic professionalization, institutional control, and obscurantism. The fact that they honestly believed they were doing something else, still remaining true to their radical roots, made their plight all the more pathetic and self delusive in Jacoby’s eyes. In fact, they had created a state of affairs that was just as damaging to radicalism as it was to academic values.
Bloom’s book offered an engaging account of what might be called the deep intellectual and social history of all this, and of how these changes in the professoriate played out in the attitudes of students and the atmosphere of the classroom. The central motif of the book is the interplay between two different ways of understanding openness and closedness, and Bloom exploited this dualism brilliantly. We all are likely to agree that “openness,” in the sense of a willingness to be self-critical and question one’s own premises and prejudices, is a good thing. It is, in fact, one of the chief intellectual virtues of the West. But the problem, in Bloom’s view, is this: the current understanding of “openness,” which entails the dogmatic teaching that all values are relative to the culture from which they spring and in which they inhere, has not produced in our students an alert, wide ranging, and critical engagement of diverse subjects and perspectives.
Instead, this understanding of openness generates in students a pervasive listlessness and yawning indifference, precisely because “relativism…extinguishes the real motive of education, the search for a good life” and “the truth about life.” Thus, as Bloom expressed it in one of his most famous phrases, “what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing,” (34) an attitude which regards the world as fundamentally unknowable, a congeries of incommensurables, of monads without windows, and which therefore regards ideas as mere byproducts of provincial, self-contained cultures rather than proud achievements of a truth-seeking universal civilization. What was once an openness that led to “the quest for knowledge and certitude” has become “the openness of indifference,” (41) which simultaneously humbles our intellectual pride (by telling us we are incapable of finding the truth) and affirms that we are okay just as we are (because, after all, there is no truth to be found anyway, only more or less pleasant experiences).
What was once “the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason” (Openness 1) is now the path that requires “accepting everything and denying reason’s power.” (Openness 2) The latter “openness” can only be called profoundly regressive, however, for “a culture is a cave,” (38) and the activity of philosophy rightly challenges us to resist the confinements of the cave rather than to submit to them. The allusion to Plato’s Republic is of central importance, for the openness taught by Socrates and promoted by Plato is, or should be, the paradigmatic enemy of all mere acquiescence in “culture.” By the same token, the openness taught by the partisans of “culture” is the enemy of philosophy, because philosophy must be an activity grounded in the search for the good and the true. The opposition between the philosopher and the city, so stressed by Bloom’s teacher Strauss, remains axiomatic. But this stance is of an entirely different character from the phony and superficial opposition between the “adversary culture” and the “establishment”— for the adversary culture of the present-day academy is also a culture, and therefore a cave. “Openness to closedness,” Bloom concludes, “is what we teach” in the present day academy. (39) Hence, the depth of his concern, expressed in his lengthy subtitle, for the “souls” of his students.