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Allan Bloom: Repelled by relativism

On December 10, 1982, a then-obscure academic from the American Midwest took to the pages of National Review magazine with a lengthy indictment of America’s intellectual class. Though this was the height of the Reagan Revolution — a heady time for the Review’s conservative editors and readers — the author had nothing to say about tax cuts or defence policy. Instead, he peppered his argument with references to Socrates and Nietzsche. A typical applause line was: “The Bible and Plutarch have ceased to be a part of the soul’s furniture.” 

Yet the piece hit a nerve. And in time, it grew into a bestselling book that made the author — Indianapolis-born philosopher and classicist Allan David Bloom — an academic celebrity.

Much of Bloom’s success no doubt was owed to his book’s inspired title, The Closing of the American Mind. But the timing was perfect, too, arriving on shelves in the fall of 1987, when political correctness was just becoming an acute force for censorship. I was a college student at the time. And reading Bloom’s book helped convince me that, no, it wasn’t just me: something really was wrong with the way my generation was being educated and politically programmed. 

Bloom was especially repelled by relativism, which he described as “the consciousness that one loves one’s own way because it is one’s own, not because it is good.” Though he was hardly the first postwar critic to abhor the fragmenting of cultural life and the marginalisation of the Western canon, Bloom went deeper with his analysis, showing how the emerging obsession with identity politics (as we now call it) left students glum and aimless — brimming with grievances, while lacking the sense of common purpose that once animated higher learning.

The author died in 1992, just before the advent of the world wide web exacerbated many of the problems he described. Social media, in particular, has reduced attention spans — making it difficult to teach students classic texts that are not immediately relevant to modern forms of self-identification. At the same time, these networks allow activists to shame heterodox ideas on a peer-to-peer basis.  

If Bloom spent a single day on Facebook or Twitter today, he would instantly recognise the “mixture of egotism and high-mindedness” that he detected among his own undergraduates. But he also would be shocked by the rigid ideological conformity that now is demanded of students on matters relating to race, gender and sexuality. The speech codes Bloom saw metastasising in the late 1980s and early 1990s have become largely unnecessary: university administrators can now rely on students to police themselves.

Unlike Bloom, I have never taught at a university. But in my capacity as newspaper and magazine editor over the last two decades, I have scouted and recruited dozens of bright twenty-somethings fresh out of journalism school and leading liberal-arts courses in Canada and the United States. In many cases, I have watched these young people struggle for a few years in the profession, and then move on.

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Moss Reumann
November 1st, 2017
6:11 PM
This is an excellent piece of criticism, and well written. In one place, however, I think Kay gets it wrong. He writes, "no one wants to write anything that gets them thrown out of a tribe they’ve inhabited, in good standing, since college, or even high school." Logically, and based on my own behavior, it's less about the spoiling of longtime allegiances than is about maintaining the ability to publish in a wide variety of outlets in the future, given the fact that one's entire bibliography is just a few keystrokes away from an editor considering one's work. It's easy to blame reluctant writers, but keep in mind that an editor's willingness or unwillingness to consider the work of writers who have in the past expressed diverse, non-orthodox viewpoints is just as important, if not more so.

Lubomir Poliacik
October 31st, 2017
4:10 PM
I don't believe that describing Professor Allan Bloom as an "obscure academic" prior to the publication of "The Closing of the American Mind" is quite accurate. When he taught at the University of Toronto in the 1970's he was something of an academic star, with a following of devoted student "Bloomites". But more importantly, he was the most prominent expounder of the work of his former teacher, Leo Strauss. You may recall that "Sraussians" in G.W.Bush's White House were held responsible by the liberal press for the invasion of Iraq, among other things.

Sal Scilicet
October 30th, 2017
12:10 PM
“Tell me where you come from and I will tell you what you are.” … We Jews have always been drawn to universalising creeds … the real community of man … of those who seek the truth … [where] the contact people so desperately seek is to be found.” When I lived in Israel, “the land of the Jews”, the burning question was, who is a Jew? In other words, who is “the stranger within thy gates”? Namely, the “goyim” (the nations) – for whose welfare and wellbeing the Torah prescribes certain guarantees. That is to say – who, living among us, may be legally, morally, emotionally [and safely] ostracised … thereby deemed to be most certainly not “one of us”? Whenever the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ [what it “means” to be me] comes up for discussion, the question of language is always deftly circumvented. Without hesitation or disquiet the words are taken for granted as representation, “standing for” something that is somehow assumed to exist quite independent of the text. But what is one to make of “The American Mind”? The vocabulary, grammar and syntax, of any language, determines, equivocates, defines, delimits, confines and rigorously dictates what can be said and what cannot. Ever since language evolved, grammatically logical dictums nave been habitually deployed to “make sense” – logically coherent narratives, that barely resemble lived experience. When “I” say what time it “is”, “I” am stating an indisputable, albeit fleeting, fact. [The present moment “now” has no dimension.] Just one of innumerable facts, with which each speaker/writer habitually confirms “the world as it is”. A popular, inescapable conceit. “Reality” can hardly be defined as a comprehensive catalogue of facts. Hence all the familiar rhetorical conventions – happiness, time, democracy, The Universe, gravity, economics, philosophy, freedom, humanity, civilisation … Without ever having to explain what any of the words mean. Not to mention such evocative confabulations as, “mind”, “personality”, “consciousness”, “awareness”, “soul” … Such is the beguiling, indispensable utility of language, that everybody knows what gravity “is”. What time “is”. What happiness and freedom “are”. Even though no two eminently useful, precise definitions will ever be exactly alike. Of course, if language really were such a reliable means of communication, establishing “The Whole Truth”, and nothing but the real nature of “Reality” … there would have been no irresistibly lucrative need, all these years, for those lawyers, theologians and academics … not to mention all those millennia of bloodshed. Whence this reluctance to examine the ineluctable function of grammatically regimented language? As thoroughly indispensable as it undeniably is – and at once so notoriously ambiguous – this wilful refusal is truly remarkable, just to glance but once through Galileo’s glass. Has the universal ‘group-think’ as to the wholesale disparagement of all things ‘post-modern’ become so deeply ingrained as to finally render such erstwhile provocations as Bloom’s, ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ thoroughly done and dusted? The incontrovertible conventions of public discourse create the persistent illusion that if, for example, the subject is ‘happiness’, then obviously happiness not only exists somewhere outside the strict confines of vocabulary, grammar and syntax. But the thing can actually be actively ‘pursued’. Much like ‘Life and Liberty’, inalienably made freely available, for all to have and to hold. Don’t we know? “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. But nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, if it’s free.” Whereas, while every individual person, once legally defined and duly promulgated by the State, as a solitary, self-determined moral agent, is thus, merely by dint of the rigours of literacy, privately persuaded that “I sure-as-hell know what happiness is”, not one is able to clearly define that most illusive of qualities for a certainty, to the satisfaction of all. Ergo – “Publish and be damned.” At the very real risk of ridicule, words such as ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ are just that, essential semantics. It seems to me part of the problem inherent to every language is that words are used to conjure – literally call into awareness – both abstract and concrete concepts alike. This invariably inspires the pervasive illusion that ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ are not only all of a piece, but also equally tangible. Suppose notions of ‘the self’, ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’ and ‘awareness’ are none other than indispensable, socio-culturally habituated, linguistically constructed figments of the imagination. Most words acquired during infancy as indisputable descriptors of experiential phenomena, such as ‘dog’ and ‘ball’, engender a deep-seated conventional belief that all words describe a grammatically signified experiential reality, whose ordinary apprehension is simply assumed to be common to all. Meanwhile, intensely private experience is messy, irrational and illogical. Which, by its very ephemeral nature is quite literally inaccessible to the inflexible discipline of polite discourse. Instead of giving an accurate account of what really happened and what it was really like, each individual is obliged to construct a coherent narrative, in compliance with the ruling conventions of grammar and syntax, which is then understood as ‘history and ‘reality’. Thus, common expressions such as, ‘changing my mind’, ‘going out of my mind’ and ‘The Closing of the American Mind’, create the illusion that ‘the mind’ is an experiential ‘fact of life’. And therefore routinely taken for granted as such.

Alex Kudera
October 30th, 2017
12:10 PM
Based on the author's ideas concerning Jewish writers as "the most influential and vigorous critics of liberal orthodoxy," I'm rebranding as Jewish and inviting critics to read Fight for Your Long and Auggie's Revenge in this tradition.

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