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.”
Bloom recognized, however, that his ideal picture of democratic education required a delicate social balance. Only under certain conditions will ordinary Americans put their trust in a liberally educated elite. A cultural conservative, Bloom saw America’s strong moral traditions as the key to its success in maintaining such a balance. Unlike Western Europe, where the collapse of traditional cultures had led to the crises of the 1930s, America had succeeded for much of its history in preserving an authentic attachment to both Judeo-Christian and civil religions. He wrote nostalgically of his forebears:
My grandparents were ignorant people by our standards, and my grandfather held only lowly jobs. But their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it, not only what was specifically ritual, found their origin in the Bible’s commandments. … Their simple faith and practices linked them to great scholars and thinkers who dealt with the same material. … There was a respect for real learning, because it had a felt connection with their lives.
For Bloom, the vitality of tradition, whether grounded in the Bible or the Constitution, meant that people of earlier times not only respected the authority of those with knowledge, but could also become educated themselves. Students raised in these traditions went to college full of deeply held “prejudices,” which Bloom counterintuitively saw as crucial for an authentic education. “One has to have the experience of really believing,” he wrote, “before one can have the thrill of liberation.”
Midway through Bloom’s academic career, he saw these social conditions for liberal education collapse. In 1969, he was on the faculty at Cornell when student radicals—including some he had taught personally—staged an armed takeover of the student union, demanding more student control over university affairs. When Bloom publicly opposed these demands, he received death threats, and later resigned in protest. As is patently clear throughout Closing, these events remained bitter memories many years later, but his assessment of the Sixties was not merely personal. The decade, he thought, was an “unmitigated disaster” for liberal education. Bloom saw the youth revolts of those years as an all-out assault on the special role of the elite university in American society. These institutions of higher learning were, in his words, “an alien and weak transplant, perched precariously in enclaves, vulnerable to native populism and vulgarity.” When student radicals launched their attack on the authority of professors and the Great Books, supposedly in the name of “democratizing” the university, they opened it up to these hostile forces. As a result, the Sixties fundamentally altered the meanings of democratic ideals in the context of American higher education.
For Bloom, the countercultural movements of the Sixties had perverted the meaning of liberty—by expanding it. Not only did students now come to college to enjoy the freedom of philosophical exploration; they came just as much to be released from traditional restrictions on sex and most other social “vices.” This new “liberation,” Bloom claimed, did more harm than good, destroying old social norms without putting anything in their place. He warmly remembered his students of the Fifties, who arrived at college full of firm convictions, but also eager for intellectual exploration that might challenge them. In contrast, students in the late Eighties, having grown up believing that all beliefs and ways of life are equally valid, were “easygoing” and “nice,” but almost completely indifferent to the profoundest aspects of human life. For Bloom, this was apparent in the way they thought about things like romance and culture. Closing depicted a generation of young people that had exchanged authentic love affairs for fleeting casual “relationships”—in which “sexual passion no longer includes the illusion of eternity”—and preferred commercialized rock music to great symphonies.1 Underneath a nonjudgmental relativism, Bloom saw a creeping nihilism: believing that all judgments of value had equal weight, the students ended up not believing or aspiring to much of anything at all. As a result, they no longer aspired to learn the truth, but rather to be “open-minded.” Incapable of treating moral questions and culture as anything other than matters of personal preference, they couldn’t be bothered to take seriously the task of self-reinvention that their education demanded of them.
But if liberty had been replaced by indifference, equality in post-sixties America had been hijacked by a form of fanaticism. Radical political movements like feminism and Black Power had introduced an absolutist notion of egalitarianism into everyday discourse. Bloom claimed his students had reverted to what Tocqueville called the “passion for equality,” a rudimentary instinct in democratic societies to insist dogmatically that all individuals are fundamentally the same. If they were “open-minded” on most questions of personal morality, they quickly became angry when this egalitarianism was questioned, particularly on questions of race, class or gender. Bloom’s favorite example was second-wave feminism, which he referred to as “the latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts.” Whenever discussions in his courses touched on the “natural” differences between men and women (needless to say, Bloom was no fan of gender theory), these students would respond with moral indignation. The “democratization” of the university had led to its “politicization”: all of education had to serve the aim of increasing equality. Bloom believed that liberal education was supposed to replace the instinctive passions with reasoned debate and thereby teach moderation. But now that sixties-era radicalism had become the norm, students were far less willing to engage in serious discussion of difficult subjects. And since professors across the country had “capitulated” to the new order of things—as Bloom wrote spitefully of his former colleagues at Cornell—few were willing to insist that they do so.
Bloom believed that his anecdotal conversations with students at the University of Chicago revealed the deepest instincts of the current generation of students. In one of his frequent comparisons between American culture and the cultivation of plants, he concluded that in the late 1980s, there was no longer sufficient “soil in which university teaching can take root.” In other words, post-sixties students had become indifferent to their training as a democratic elite, and therefore incapable of taking it on. Bloom did not pull his punches in describing what this decline of elite education meant for American democracy. “As Hegel was said to have died in Germany in 1933,” he wrote, ominously, “Enlightenment in America came close to breathing its last during the Sixties.” Shockingly, Bloom analogized the student revolts he witnessed at Cornell to Martin Heidegger’s famous rector’s speech praising Hitler. “As in Germany,” he wrote, “the university [fell] prey to whatever intense passion moved the masses.” In other words, in both cases the elite university compromised its isolation from the vulgarity of the general population (his description of the phenomenon of National Socialism was, to put it gently, understated). And the lesson Bloom drew for the present moment was the same: once the university falls, democracy itself is soon to follow. The “open-minded” relativism and fervent egalitarianism of his students convinced him that, after twenty years, this “crisis of our civilization” was far from over.
For Bloom, the only solution to the impending collapse of democracy was for elite universities to unilaterally withdraw from society, returning to a traditional humanities curriculum. Earlier in his life, he had thought that America was gradually becoming a more enlightened nation. The prestigious universities were by far the finest source of intellectual cultivation American democracy had to offer, but they could count on other institutions to assist them in achieving a sort of general progress.2 In Closing, he expressed a radically different view. “Never did I think that the university was properly ministerial to the society around it,” he wrote towards the end of the book.
In order to survive in dark times, Bloom called for the university to renounce its responsibility to society. His ultimate aspiration was for “a society that tolerates and supports an eternal childhood for some,” in the hopes that this “playfulness can in turn be a blessing to society.” In other words, to use a term he likely never heard of, Bloom longed to re-establish the university as a “safe space” for authentic philosophical learning. The greater the separation between the elite campus and the world around it, the better the chances for democracy’s survival.
The great irony is that Bloom’s emphatically elitist book helped spark a decades-long wave of conservative polemics against the academic elite. In 1988, the University of Michigan attempted to introduce “speech codes” regulating communication between students; the same year, Stanford revised its mandatory course in “Western Civilization” in response to student demands for more diverse authors. Sharing Bloom’s bitterness towards the former student radicals, conservatives cited these trends as evidence that the Sixties had indeed “closed the minds” of elite college students. Closing’s success created a new niche for conservative intellectuals like Roger Kimball and Dinesh D’Souza, who followed Bloom with their own books peering into college campuses with scornful delight. President George H. W. Bush used a 1991 commencement speech to warn of the dangers of “political correctness.” For many secular conservatives, these attacks on academia helped forge common ground with the traditionalist and religious populism of the Reagan coalition. College students and professors became a common enemy of the right, a “liberal elite” to blame for America’s cultural decline.
After a period of relative quiet, “political correctness” returned to the center of nationwide polemics around two years ago. The terms of the debate had changed slightly. With “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” campus egalitarianism adopted an emotional vocabulary relatively absent from the discourse of the Eighties and Nineties, one that sought to highlight the traumatic experiences of marginalized students. And centrist liberals began to take up the “anti-PC” role once occupied predominantly by conservatives. The main substance of the conversation over diversity at elite institutions, however, remains largely the same as in Bloom’s day. Around the time Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind” was making its rounds in the fall of 2015, it might have been reasonable to roll one’s eyes at this regurgitation of old polemics. But soon after, as the 2016 presidential campaign began, such debates began to take on a renewed political significance.
For Donald Trump, “political correctness” has long referred to whatever he does not like at any given moment. But Breitbart and the other alt-right sites his presidency has brought into the daylight have turned outrage over “social justice warriors” into the clarion call of a new political community. The idea that there is an epidemic of “political correctness” allows the new American right to perform a dangerous sleight of hand. When the president denounces “elites” or dismisses criticism as “politically correct,” he invokes the most extreme images from American college campuses, like the video of the “shrieking girl” at Yale, which the alt right has circulated with glee. The political danger is patent. Opposition to the cruelest of Trump’s proposals is, in this hijacked discourse, not a sensible moral position but a symptom of a decadent liberal elitism.
In the years before his untimely death, Bloom was happy to join the crusade against “political correctness” he helped to start, despite his stated disdain for “anti-elitist” rhetoric. He took the opportunity of Closing’s commercial success to travel the country speaking out against liberal academia, appearing in numerous conservative media and, on one occasion, lecturing a group of congressmen about the national security threats posed by Derrida’s deconstruction theory. In the process, he seemed to have forgotten some of his own pedagogical principles. Bloom had a more sophisticated understanding of the inner experience of elite education than many of his fellow polemicists against “campus culture.” He did not dismiss students’ emotional reactions to what they encountered in the course of their education, believing rather that their “longings”—a favorite term of his—could be guided towards true understanding. As students at elite colleges have struggled to sort out their place in an increasingly unequal American society over the last thirty years, one might have thought that the response of an educator like Bloom would have been to encourage further discussion. Classic philosophical texts can challenge students to ask why—or, for that matter, if—equality is desirable, as well as which of its forms are possible, and what individual and collective actions might be best suited to realize them. These sorts of questions might have helped Bloom’s students sort out the contradictions that go along with their roles as elites in an unequal democracy. Reading The Closing of the American Mind today, we are reminded of the delicate balance at the heart of democracy. No less than any other form of society, it has and requires elites, but at the same time it demands that they justify their existence in democratic terms. Bloom’s account of liberal education suggests one way of attempting to ground this justification.
Trump and his fellow populists claim that America’s elites have been corrupted beyond the point of saving: they promise not to turn them towards the true and the good, but instead to destroy them. In the context of this right-wing fury, Bloom’s attacks on the university may seem to only reinforce what has by now become a widespread anti-intellectualism. If the university campus is nothing more than an island of philosophy surrounded by the vulgar masses, an elite playground for “useless” learning, right-wing populists might have a legitimate case for dismantling it. But in the age of Trump, Bloom’s suggestion that elite education has a role to play in saving democracy from itself may nonetheless be worth returning to.
Art credit: Chrome Destroyer