Allan Bloom was an elitist. He saw himself as a champion of excellence in an age of vulgarity. While a professor at the University of Chicago between 1979 and 1992, he sought to immerse his students in only the most classic works of philosophy and literature. Someone looking to define the “Western canon” could do worse than to dig up his course syllabi. In his personal style, he embodied high culture nearly to the point of caricature. His friend Saul Bellow captured him in the novel Ravelstein as a man who wore expensive European suits, lived in a Hyde Park apartment lavishly decorated with French art, and bragged of listening to Mozart on a state-of-the-art stereo system. A lifelong Francophile, he made regular jaunts to Paris over the course of four decades. Yet Bloom insisted that for all his erudition, he was merely a product of America’s democratic promise. Well into his fifties, he often spoke of himself as a simple “Midwestern boy,” the Indiana-born son of Jewish immigrants who received the best gift a meritocratic democracy could offer: a great education. Bloom thought of himself as proof that, thanks to its universities, anyone can make it in America.
So when thirty years ago Bloom addressed a group of Harvard students and faculty as “fellow elitists,” he was not being entirely ironic. The quip came in response to controversies surrounding his 1987 best seller The Closing of the American Mind, which defended an idiosyncratic vision of higher education in the United States. Bloom saw the liberal education traditionally offered at exclusive colleges and universities as the fulfillment of democratic ideals, but condemned his fellow professors for having abandoned this crucial responsibility. Closing received an onslaught of criticism for its “elitism,” particularly from fellow academics such as Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum, who also observed correctly that his book was at times rambling, historically sloppy and philosophically one-sided. Bloom in turn accused his critics of projecting their own intellectual privilege onto him. “‘Elite’ is not a word I care for very much,” Bloom explained. “It is imprecise and smacks of sociological abstraction.” But no matter how elites are defined—whether in terms of wealth, prestige or knowledge—it is clear that “bad conscience accompanies the democrat who finds himself part of an elite.” Bloom pushed back against this bad conscience by suggesting that academic elitism was in fact healthy for American democracy.
Like Tocqueville, whom he admired and cited incessantly, Bloom aimed to explore the ways in which the democratic principles of liberty and equality shape American society. Unlike the French aristocrat, however, Bloom based his observations on a far smaller sample: college students “materially and spiritually free to do pretty much what they want with the few years of college they are privileged to have—in short, the kind of young persons who populate the twenty or thirty best universities.” Bloom believed these students represented the best of a democratic society, mainly because they enjoyed an unparalleled form of liberty. One of the fundamental guarantees of democratic society is the freedom of self-determination, or the “pursuit of happiness.” Bloom saw the proper exercise of this freedom as something that a philosophical education can help teach—the pursuit of happiness, after all, presumably involves attempting to know what happiness is. An education in the humanities, like Chicago’s Core curriculum, allowed undergraduates to devote four years to literature and philosophy. Under the guidance of wise teachers and classic texts, they learned to challenge their most deeply held beliefs according to the highest standard of reason. This philosophical overhaul of the self, what Bloom referred to as “liberal education,” amounted to no less than the perfection of democratic autonomy. Not only, then, could elite college students choose a rewarding professional career after graduation, but more importantly, they had been given the most “authentic liberation” a democracy can provide.
It did not bother Bloom that liberal education was available in practice only to a privileged few. He took for granted that American democracy (or any society, for that matter) would always contain hierarchies of power, knowledge, income and wealth. The question for Bloom was not whether America should or shouldn’t have elites, but rather what kind of elite was most compatible with democratic ideals. He followed the ancient Greeks in thinking of liberal education as what separated “free men” from slaves. Like Plato, he believed that those capable of liberating themselves through philosophical education—the “potential knowers,” as he put it—were inevitably a small minority. But like many liberals and conservatives in twentieth-century America, Bloom was also a believer in meritocracy. Having studied alongside poor veterans during the days of the GI Bill, he praised the American system for extending what had once been an “aristocratic” education to anyone worthy of it.
For Bloom, then, the university was the most important institution of American democracy. Taking Plato at his word, he believed that the character of a society is best expressed by the people who rule it. It followed that colleges and universities, the training ground for America’s elites, had the task of ensuring that the country’s leaders embodied the basic principles of its political regime. As long as they practiced genuine liberal education, Bloom believed these institutions could continue to produce “statesmen” trained in the responsible exercise of democratic freedom. Though he praised democracy in principle, he believed it an “intellectual wasteland,” indifferent or even hostile to serious thinking. For a democracy to thrive, talented youngsters had to be exposed to a philosophical education that allowed them to transcend the “bourgeois vulgarity” of their surroundings, and to devote themselves to something other than mere self-advancement. If American society could not ensure this, it risked descending into rule by elites who were no better than the uneducated mob, and for this reason perhaps far more dangerous (such was apparently his assessment of the graduates of MBA programs). As a result, Bloom believed that a “crisis of liberal education” would amount to nothing less than “the crisis of our civilization.”