Even in 1987, Bloom saw the way it was headed
Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind was published in 1987, which is now very close to 30 years ago. And yet its relevance has only grown in the intervening years. It describes the influence of the left on the university and what it teaches, and how it has affected subsequent generations of students and how they think about a host of things, including America itself.
Here’s an excerpt from the book that very much resonates today:
Contrary to much contemporary wisdom, the United States has one of the longest uninterrupted political traditions of any nation in the world. What is more, that tradition is unambiguous; its meaning is articulated in simple, rational speech that is immediately comprehensible and powerfully persuasive to all normal human beings. America tells one story: the unbroken, ineluctable progress of freedom and equality. From its first settlers and its political foundings on, there has been no dispute that freedom and equality are the essence of justice for us. No one serious or notable has stood outside this consensus…All significant political disputes have been about the meaning of freedom and equality, not about their rightness…
But the unity, grandeur and attendant folklore of the founding heritage was attacked from so many directions in the last half-century that it gradually disappeared from daily life and from textbooks. It all began to seem like Washington and the cherry tree—not the sort of thing to teach children seriously…The leading ideas of the Declaration began to be understood as eighteenth-century myths or ideologies. Historicism, in Carl Becker’s version (The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, 1922) both cast doubt on the truth of the natural rights teaching and optimistically promised that it would provide a substitute. Similarly Dewey’s pragmatism—the method of science as the method of democracy, individual growth without limits, especially natural limits—saw the past as radically imperfect and regarded our history as irrelevant or as a hindrance to rational analysis of our present. Then there was Marxist debunking of the Charles Beard variety, trying to demonstrate that there was no public spirit, only private concern for property, in the Founding Fathers, thus weakening our convictions of the truth or superiority of American principles and our heroes (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, 1913). Then the Southern historians and writers avenged the victory of the antislavery Union by providing low motives for the North (incorporating European critiques of commerce and technology) and idealizing the South’s way of life. Finally, in curious harmony with the Southerners, the radicals in the civil rights movement succeeded in promoting a popular conviction that the Founding was, and the American principles are, racist…
Students now arrive at the university ignorant and cynical about our political heritage, lacking the wherewithal to be either inspired by it or seriously critical of it.
Every sentence of Bloom’s usually contains more food for thought than most entire books do. The Closing of the American Mind is so dense with thought that the reader has to pause frequently to mull it over and digest it, as one would a particularly rich meal. And not only do I agree with most of it, but it’s expressed in prose so clear and yet so lively, so succinct and yet deeply erudite, so detailed and yet broadly linking widely disparate thoughts and knowledge, that my admiration for the author (who continued in his lifetime to identify as a liberal, by the way) is enormous. Bloom was a man who was not only unique in his thoughts, but courageously unafraid to speak and write them regardless of where that might lead him and who might disapprove.
If you read the above passage of Bloom’s and think about our political position at the moment, I think you may agree that Obama was no anomaly, no outsider come to undermine America, but the culmination (so far, anyway) of at least a century of hard work. The ground was prepared long ago, and what Bloom wrote in 1987 could be considered a sort of prophetic vision of things to come, but not one of the extra-sensory variety.
[NOTE: If you’ve read my posts regularly you know that I’m definitely not a Donald Trump admirer. But one of his main appeals to his supporters — and something about him that I do think both admirable and sincere—is the fact that he ascribes to the traditional vision of America described by Bloom, the one that so many people (including me) are angry at having seen undermined for so long. Ted Cruz and other GOP candidates ascribe to it as well, but I consider that neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton do.
By the way, when Bloom speaks of “equality” he’s not referring to the leftist idea of equality of outcome, but to the more traditional American idea of equality of opportunity.]
[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]