Allan Bloom’s Important Discussion

Allan BloomOn this day in 1930, the academic Allan Bloom was born. Now, I’m not really a fan of his. But I did read his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. And it is worth discussing.

If you are very smart and well education and inclined to write an old man’s rant about how everything is going to hell, then you would write The Closing of the American Mind. At its worst, it is a parody of what happens to people when they forget what life was like when they were young. It is also a parody of an old college professor who just can’t understand why his students think he is boring.

Although the book is extremely biased, it deals with an issue that is very important to me: social cohesion through shared cultural touchstones. This is why I think everyone should know Shakespeare and the Bible. It isn’t because I think that as literature goes these are especially great collections. But they are so important to our culture that not knowing them tends to marginalize an individual.

The problem with Bloom is that he hangs on too tightly to an absolutist philosophy. I will admit that the adoration of Shakespeare has something to do with the quality of his work. But it has far more to do with history and the development of the British empire. I take a more moderate view: there is no absolute values but it is a convenient social illusion. The books we know are largely a reflection of who we have been.

As a result of this, I agree with Bloom about the needs for standards. But this must be combined with a commitment to inclusiveness. One of the purposes of education (and higher education most of all) should be shaping what our cultural touchstones are. As a result, I would like to see things like “Chicano studies” courses taken out of the academic ghetto and placed more centrally into the curriculum. At very least, students should get a good introduction in foreign language literature in translation. The focus of literature on British and American writers does us great harm.

There is a bigger problem, however. The very idea of a liberal education is dying. Now the focus of education is on specialization and how it will make the student a more attractive employee. This is a sure way of destroying a civilization. And it is interesting that The Closing of the American Mind got its start as an article in National Review. Because the whole conservative movement is about destroying the idea of liberal education. Providing education as something intended only to enrich the learner is something that is supposed to be limited to the rich. Knowing multiplication and how to read technical manuals is enough for the prols.

So like everything, the closed American mind is yet another result of inequality. And it is a problem that starts before we learn to walk. There are those who are taken to museums and given other intellectually stimulating experiences as young people. And there are those who are not. And that affects everyone for their entire lives. What’s more, it cuts the “have nots” off from the cultural touchstones of our society. Those touchstones become yet another thing that cuts off poor from rich.

So Allan Bloom may think that everyone should read Plato. And I agree! But the reason they don’t has very little to do with relativism and a lack of interest on the part of students. Rather, it is a direct result of the centuries old efforts to keep the poor excluded from all parts of the lives of the rich. And that problem starts long before young people make it to college.

Allan Bloom was right to bring up the issue. It is important and worth discussing. But as usual with conservative thought, his book works the margins without ever coming close to the central issue. But in this age in which Education Reform has come to focus mostly on destroying the liberal nature of education, we dearly need to think about this stuff.

Happy birthday Allan Bloom!

2 thoughts on “Allan Bloom’s Important Discussion

  1. I read “American Mind” when I was at a very liberal university, some 20 years ago. It was the kind of university where you would be pilloried for using last month’s accepted hyphenation of a ethnic group; why aren’t you up to speed, you insensitive racist? That was political correctness, 20 years ago. It was a real thing.

    One has to trace the history and background of this stuff; of course, as a child, I couldn’t, and went “yeah Bloom yeah!” Liberalism on college campuses took a huge hit during the McCarthy era (McCarthyism hit colleges, moviemakers, and government employees much harder than it hit everyday people.) Then Reagan sent it reeling. Liberalism abandoned anything even remotely economic (socialism!) and focused on identity politics; hence, force-feeding alternative ethnic authors into lit curriculums and so forth. Even Naomi Klein, in “No Logo,” acknowledges that identity politics was a defensive, rear-guard action, and a huge mistake.

    The thing is, political correctness, so vilified today, did a lot of good. I remember, and so do you, the accepted workplace jokes from 20 years ago. That crap is simply verboten now, and that’s a good thing.

    Where it was bad is how it had little connection to results. Often, using the right hyphenations and including the right authors in curriculums was more important than assessing the real harm done by power. Because power, in our society, is largely economic power, and liberalism was terrified to mention that. It’s much more unafraid now to address economic power, but that misguided period of focusing on token inclusion instead of results still has a negative impact. You’ll read people reacting to the racist NBA Clippers owner, or the racist “Duck Dynasty” assholes, as though public condemnation of their scumminess is “political correctness run amok.” As though the widely-disseminated statements of powerful figures is just as unimportant as the professor who gave you a “C” for using the wrong hyphenation back in 1993. It’s not.

    Where political correctness on campuses failed was in avoiding economic issues. You didn’t get Richard Wright or James Baldwin in your lit courses; you got Maya Angelou. Hers is an amazing, courageous life story, but it’s not told with anger at the prevailing economic system. Baldwin and Wright were angry at all of it. Angelou read poetry at Clinton’s inauguration. It’s a safe bet Baldwin and Wright wouldn’t have. (Of course, they were dead, but you know what I mean.)

    I agree totally that we should teach Plato, and should teach Shakes, and we should teach them in the context of what their writing has meant to Western culture (how “Henry V” is beautiful patriotic propaganda, and how Plato approved of rule by elites.) We should have Baldwin, and especially Wright (how “Black Boy” and “Native Son” are not considered mandatory literature for every student boggles my mind; they are stunning books.) Malcolm X’s autobiography; mandatory. (Insert the Hispanic, Native, women’s authors you are probably more familiar with than I; I’d throw into the mix Willa Cather, not an economic writer but a great recorder of history. And why, when I’m mentioning authors about farming, did “Grapes Of Wrath” stop being mandatory reading?)

    Liberalism, up against the ropes, gave up for a while and put moral dudgeon above actual addressing of injustice. It’s come a long way since then. We’re still painted with the appearances-only, “politically correct” brush but that’s becoming less and less accurate by the year. (I notice I’ve used two hackneyed metaphors in this paragraph, so that’s probably an indication I should stop typing.)

    Oddly, I look quite like that Bloom photo. In a different, less vicious world, I would be a cranky old fart defending time-honored traditions. That would be fun!

  2. I think I lucked out. I got to read Maya Angelou in high school (where she belongs) and I had a great black English professor who made me read Black Boy and Grapes of Wrath my first semester of college. James Baldwin had to wait a while longer, but I now consider him essential reading. So is Ralph Ellison.

    You are right that liberalism has spent and still does spend far too much time on tokenism. And now we have economic tokenism. I am so tired of people trotting out Daymond John and saying, “See: rich black man! We aren’t racist!” And the whole “Hundred Great Books” is a kind of intellectual tokenism. We need more.

    It’s fine that you look like Bloom. I just hope you don’t smoke like him!

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