• Kindle
  • Jan Sand

    As much as I admire the ideals of American democracy they have always, from the inception of the nation, been a cover for the economic brutality of the nation’s agenda. From the vigorous genocide of the original inhabitants through the era of slavery to the obedience of the government to the outright rapacious greed of the powerful wealthy sector the democratic ideals proclaimed have always been a fragile cover for the small minority that actually ran the nation. As a WWII veteran from the US army I have watched the latest antics of the horrifying deaths of many millions of innocents throughout the world with despair. And the intellectual elites of the universities easily went along with much of it. There was little honor involved.

  • Michael Moser

    the article hints at why many students may have been put of from the ‘elite’ business:
    – rising inequality in America; (also that is very off-putting to the individual if has ever been snubbed the self declared elite). There is another reason: society has to make higher education available to a wider audience (out of necessity for qualified cadres) and this widening also comes with a democratization of education that is not compatible with the production of a detached elites.

    Another issue: the warriors against political correctness don’t acknowledge that it comes as a necessity if you need to integrate a more diverse public into the production process of a very racist society (the workplace has to ignore these problems by sweeping them under the rug)

    Maybe the large relative number of engineers moved the liberal arts into a more production friendly atmosphere that makes political correctness a must (the student loans did that too – now you have to pay off a huge mortgage at the end of studies, this fact turns most students of middle class backgrounds into proletarians who can’t engage in detached studies without potential practical application)

    Another issue in Europe the educated elite used to frame itselve as being in fundamental opposition to the “mob” (I wonder if the US public world has been spared this outlook for the time being). Maybe that’s more a position of the liberal arts – engineers can’t quite follow as they must integrate in the production process. (some things are both a curses and a blessing).

    Maybe another reason for the declining role of liberal arts came with the Russian Revolution : liberal arts types are part of the ‘elite’ by virtue of their education – this assumes they must ‘lead society’. Now revolutions assume that words and ideas can really move people, so keeping busy with the notion of revolution raised the profile of the talking classes (and makes them more important in the grand scheme of things as a defense against the ‘red menace’). With the end of the Soviet Union that took away some importance of the liberal arts in the grand scheme of things.

  • Benjamin David Steele

    Why not simply be honest in saying Paul Bloom had no clue what he was talking about?

    Western civilization has an old intellectual tradition of incorporating texts from other cultures. The classics weren’t always the classics. And anything that is taught long enough becomes a classic.

    Consider the Greek thinkers, many of whom weren’t ethnically Greek, and those Greek thinkers influenced non-Greek cultures. Early Greeks had more in common with other Mediterranean populations (in the Levant and North Africa) than they did with Western Europe. Greek texts only became Western classics because of non-Westerners who saved them, which allowed them to later become popular in Western Europe and eventually be seen as Western classics.

    The English language is symbolic of this act of incorporation in that it is a hodgepodge of numerous languages, as English society was built on millennia of waves of immigrants and invaders. And another example of this is the syncretistic formation of the Judeo-Christian tradition with one of the most well known Christian writers, Augustine, having been an African.

    What exactly is the Western classics that people speak of? The very idea of a West is a fairly recent invention in the big scheme of things. There isn’t anything particularly traditional about it. Mostly, speaking of Western civilization was propaganda rhetoric during the Cold War.

  • David Reed

    As an undergraduate and throughout my life since, as much as might have be possible for any individual I have absorbed, imbibed, the ideas that differentiated the University of Chicago from other Universities in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s of the last century. I kinow that Allan Bloom would have heard from his teachers,as I did from mine, that Plato’s dialectic was constantly in danger of being ‘frozen’ into the kinds of imposing unmoving structures that one finds in Plotinus and Hegel. Striving for intellectual rigor and depth is a lifelong endeavor, an endeavor for life and a life of endeavor, not an outcome to be embalmed, entombed and worshipped. Had Bloom ventured beyond the narrow confines of the few members Committee on Social Thought who shared a frozen and somewhat curdled view of intellectual activity and its role in the modern world he would have greatly benefited … and we all might be spared the lachrymose self-pity of his later books. Rorty and Nussbaum, to mention only those referred to in the article, are far more worthy of our attention and the attention of journalists and popularizers than Bloom. Let’s hear of them, and of many others who have messages of importance – and intellectual rigor – for our times.

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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.”

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    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Closing’s sub-chapter on rock music is perhaps its least well informed (Bloom is not nearly as convincing an authority on the Rolling Stones as on Plato), but it also contains one of Bloom’s rare attempts to connect his polemic about higher education to a critique of consumer society. For Bloom, “the rock business is perfect capitalism,” find-ing an ideal consumer base in America’s teenagers. With “all the moral dignity of drug trafficking,” rock executives exploit adolescents’ natural desire for sex and rebellion against their parents. Rock music is, in Bloom’s words, “a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy,” appealing directly to these impulses without any attempt to direct them towards higher things. This “junk food for the soul,” according to Bloom, “ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.”
  2. For example, Bloom’s papers at the University of Chicago contain a 1961 speech given in France in which he speculated, well before he published The Closing of the American Mind, that Keynesian economic planning was an alternative means of public pedagogy. Paraphrasing the left-liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, he suggested that through careful state management of consumer demand, the public “might be taught to spend more on schools and less on refrigerators.”
  • Kindle
  • Jan Sand

    As much as I admire the ideals of American democracy they have always, from the inception of the nation, been a cover for the economic brutality of the nation’s agenda. From the vigorous genocide of the original inhabitants through the era of slavery to the obedience of the government to the outright rapacious greed of the powerful wealthy sector the democratic ideals proclaimed have always been a fragile cover for the small minority that actually ran the nation. As a WWII veteran from the US army I have watched the latest antics of the horrifying deaths of many millions of innocents throughout the world with despair. And the intellectual elites of the universities easily went along with much of it. There was little honor involved.

  • Michael Moser

    the article hints at why many students may have been put of from the ‘elite’ business:
    – rising inequality in America; (also that is very off-putting to the individual if has ever been snubbed the self declared elite). There is another reason: society has to make higher education available to a wider audience (out of necessity for qualified cadres) and this widening also comes with a democratization of education that is not compatible with the production of a detached elites.

    Another issue: the warriors against political correctness don’t acknowledge that it comes as a necessity if you need to integrate a more diverse public into the production process of a very racist society (the workplace has to ignore these problems by sweeping them under the rug)

    Maybe the large relative number of engineers moved the liberal arts into a more production friendly atmosphere that makes political correctness a must (the student loans did that too – now you have to pay off a huge mortgage at the end of studies, this fact turns most students of middle class backgrounds into proletarians who can’t engage in detached studies without potential practical application)

    Another issue in Europe the educated elite used to frame itselve as being in fundamental opposition to the “mob” (I wonder if the US public world has been spared this outlook for the time being). Maybe that’s more a position of the liberal arts – engineers can’t quite follow as they must integrate in the production process. (some things are both a curses and a blessing).

    Maybe another reason for the declining role of liberal arts came with the Russian Revolution : liberal arts types are part of the ‘elite’ by virtue of their education – this assumes they must ‘lead society’. Now revolutions assume that words and ideas can really move people, so keeping busy with the notion of revolution raised the profile of the talking classes (and makes them more important in the grand scheme of things as a defense against the ‘red menace’). With the end of the Soviet Union that took away some importance of the liberal arts in the grand scheme of things.

  • Benjamin David Steele

    Why not simply be honest in saying Paul Bloom had no clue what he was talking about?

    Western civilization has an old intellectual tradition of incorporating texts from other cultures. The classics weren’t always the classics. And anything that is taught long enough becomes a classic.

    Consider the Greek thinkers, many of whom weren’t ethnically Greek, and those Greek thinkers influenced non-Greek cultures. Early Greeks had more in common with other Mediterranean populations (in the Levant and North Africa) than they did with Western Europe. Greek texts only became Western classics because of non-Westerners who saved them, which allowed them to later become popular in Western Europe and eventually be seen as Western classics.

    The English language is symbolic of this act of incorporation in that it is a hodgepodge of numerous languages, as English society was built on millennia of waves of immigrants and invaders. And another example of this is the syncretistic formation of the Judeo-Christian tradition with one of the most well known Christian writers, Augustine, having been an African.

    What exactly is the Western classics that people speak of? The very idea of a West is a fairly recent invention in the big scheme of things. There isn’t anything particularly traditional about it. Mostly, speaking of Western civilization was propaganda rhetoric during the Cold War.

  • David Reed

    As an undergraduate and throughout my life since, as much as might have be possible for any individual I have absorbed, imbibed, the ideas that differentiated the University of Chicago from other Universities in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s of the last century. I kinow that Allan Bloom would have heard from his teachers,as I did from mine, that Plato’s dialectic was constantly in danger of being ‘frozen’ into the kinds of imposing unmoving structures that one finds in Plotinus and Hegel. Striving for intellectual rigor and depth is a lifelong endeavor, an endeavor for life and a life of endeavor, not an outcome to be embalmed, entombed and worshipped. Had Bloom ventured beyond the narrow confines of the few members Committee on Social Thought who shared a frozen and somewhat curdled view of intellectual activity and its role in the modern world he would have greatly benefited … and we all might be spared the lachrymose self-pity of his later books. Rorty and Nussbaum, to mention only those referred to in the article, are far more worthy of our attention and the attention of journalists and popularizers than Bloom. Let’s hear of them, and of many others who have messages of importance – and intellectual rigor – for our times.

Leave a Reply

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