Alan Bloom

The Closing of the American Mind

VTR Date: June 7, 1987

Guest: Bloom, Alan


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Allan Bloom
Title: “The Closing of the American Mind”
VTR: 6/7/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. In my student days at Columbia College … those dim, dark days almost beyond recall … it was reported that across the street at Barnard, Dean Virginia Gildersleeve was warning her students: “Young ladies, have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out” … a caveat that today many thoughtful persons believe students, faculty and Americans generally have ignored, not so much to our shame as to our imminent peril, to a rapidly spreading moral illiteracy in our country, and, ultimately, inevitably, to “The Closing of the American Mind”, the title of University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom’s brilliant new Simon and Shuster volume. Now, I don’t know Professor Bloom. Yet who could help but admire any scholar who, in deploring what is happening (or not happening) in our colleges and universities, says; “Education is the sense that certain kinds of questions must be answered by a Hegle, and not Joyce Brothers”. Of course, the message most people seem to get from Allan Bloom’s enormously erudite “The Closing of the American Mind” is that essentially modernism is rotten to the core … a function mostly of minds so indiscriminately open that there’s nothing in them, no hard substance sufficient to help or perhaps even to permit them to choose productively between what’s meaningful and what’s not, between wisdom and garbage … what’s worse, between good and evil. But, deploring modernism doesn’t necessarily remove one from America’s mass culture schtick, after all. He’s here with me today! But, as one story about Allan Bloom puts it and let me read it: “The culture peddlers it seems are attempting to subsume the culture critic. On one recent day Bloom flew to New York City and signed copies of his new book, The Closing of the American Mind at Doubleday & Company, before taping a segment of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. Next it was off to a meeting with his publicist and a ‘round of interviews. The following morning, Bloom was a guest on CBS, The Morning Program. One sentence, Professor Bloom, on how we solve this problem,” the interviewer demanded. It was like Martin Heidigger being interviewed by Howard Cosell,” he says of his experience. So I hear you’ve got this new book, called Being In Time, what’s it about? He finds it all at once frustrating, embarrassing and exciting”. So goes this story. And Professor Bloom, thank you for joining me today. Why do you find it embarrassing?

Bloom: I’m not sure that I said that, but, of course

Heffner: But do you mean it?

Bloom: Well, no. I’m trying to think in what sense … what I might have been thinking of. Of course, as a Professor, I’ve been teaching Plato’s Republic a certain philosophic distance from the Agora even though one has to descend into it and my students watch me flying off to New York and seeing my picture in the popular press. But I have decided for these six or eight weeks that this is going to last, to put those things in brackets and try to digest them later. And rather enjoy this. Of course, I don’t consider coming to you part of a popular press barrage, but a serious discussion.

Heffner: But we are still taking the words that are so closely, tightly written in “The Closing of the American Mind” and I’ll ask you questions that are designed to satisfy my more plebian mind and perhaps the grousings of some people in my audience. Have you no sense that you’re participating in this “Closing of the American Mind”?

Bloom: No, because the book is not … I mean to return to your introductory statements, it’s not a … I mean I’m not sure how one defines “modernism”, but there’s always been a problem living in any society, keeping oneself free, while participating in its best. And I’m not a snob. And if one can still study and think and why my entire…the entire tension of me, as a teacher, is always to provide some inner standard which penetrates the whole of life. It’s not supposed to be separate from America. In some sense the book is a kind of celebration of America that allows you both to be comfortable and at the same time, to learn, which I feel is a certain … sense of risk. But I’m not speaking as a T. S. Eliot, or a Henry Adams and I think there’s nothing of that tone in the book. I mean that’s more attributed by, I think, certain kinds of readers than the real inner message of the book.

Heffner: Well, Professor Bloom, I must say though, as I read the book, and it’s so interesting to me that you mention T. S. Eliot and Henry Adams, I couldn’t help but think of another Adams and of the Degradation of the Democratic Dogma. Couldn’t help but think of the education of Henry Adams and of the “Ay de ml” quality of their writings. And what I find in The Closing of the American Mind You say a “celebration”, tell me what you mean.

Bloom: Well, I’m a boy that comes from … or I was once a boy, that comes from a family that’s not welt-to-do. Whose grandparents were immigrants. And within this society I got a chance for a marvelous education. It wasn’t part of the reigning idolatry, but it was distinctly possible. And it was that America the America in a way that I grew up with, from 1946, after the Second World War, you know when we all felt we had fought a just war and the G.I. Bill. I started at the University of Chicago at the age of fifteen. That was the Hutchins plan. I started off the second year of high school with veterans who were in their late twenties, thirties, who had been war heroes, but who had never had a chance to go to college. And who came to the University of Chicago and were reading Aristole and thrilled by it. That seemed to me an attempt to mix the best things that tradition has brought with a certain egalitarianism. I precisely think that Henry Adams and T. S. Eliot in trying to attach themselves to places and times which no longer exist, to attach themselves in their whole being, denied part of their own existence. As Saul Bellow says: even if you’re going to make the trip to eternity, you have to get … at least in Chicago … on the train at Randolph Street. You have to pass through the experiences of your own time and place. And I think I have a higher sense of the possible independence of the mind than Adams and Eliot do. Or did. That’s … what I mean to say is that anybody, at any time, can with proper resources touch what is highest humanly and that it is not in the reconstitution of other imperfect societies or in the longing or nostalgia for them that one becomes educated.

Heffner: Of course that’s a very hopeful comment that you make. And as I put the book down 1, in fact, wondered what your response would be to a question that I ask of so many of my guests. And that has to do with where your bet is. You say, my friends it is in your hands. You say it in other words, but it’s a Lincolnesque notion. Do you mean that? Do you not have some sense of the necessary direction of this country that

Bloom: No, I do not. Because I watched a certain kind of thought become vulgarized in America, which in my second chapter … a kind of what was once profound German philosophy became, I think with no inner necessity, a language which was subversive both of political freedom as it had been in Germany, but also subversive of intellectual openness. And I believe it was … precisely there wasn’t any kind of economic or political necessity for that. It simply succeeded because it was, at least in its origins, powerful and I don’t see any reasons why when I look at the liberal arts colleges, in principal they could not change again. I’m not very hopeful. I’m not very hopeful that they will because many of the old resources were exhausted. But the book is an attempt to at least offer a flag around which people of all political persuasions, but who have some sense of the rank order of things. As you began with, the difference between Hegel and Joyce Brothers. That’s the critical element.

Heffner: Of course, it’s so interesting to note here that you say you’re not enormously hopeful. I wonder if we’ll get to the point where someone will say, someone of your stature, “I am terribly much immersed in hopelessness about the present situation. Therefore, I think it incumbent upon us to structure a new social pattern or new social patterns that will encompass the best of what we want to preserve in recognition of the way our society is moving”. When I ask about a kind of determinism, you interpret that as meaning an economic determinism. Is that

Bloom: Oh no, I said economic or political.

Heffner: Social? Educational? Demographic??

Bloom: The kind of experience of which I’m thinking and, of course, I find it difficult in any way to confine myself to such models, is Thycydides who in a way, describes a terrible decline of those beautiful Greek things. But at the same time an enormous pleasure in the capacity of his mind to understand that. And that his book will contribute to the permanence. I think that cultural despair is a result of, perhaps it’s a pose, but a result of too much exploitation of the transformation of society. And that, particularly if you’re going to live in a democracy, you really have to decide what really counts. Men like … Goethe’s a good model for that. No snob. Knowing that modernity would bring vulgarity. But knowing also that it would provide him and his kind with certain kinds of freedoms. And that seems to me enormously healthy. When I read Henry Adams, I read something tight, knarled and deformed. And I feel something of the same about Eliot. I mean a kind of attempt to be something that he is not, that you have to change your accents and somehow believe that medieval England, with its limits, is superior to anything. My models would have to be men like Thucydides.

Heffner: Talking about models. When Charles Murray was here I found it quite interesting that he would not carry on as far the elaboration of his ideas as his readers and his disciples and his interpreters did. (Can’t get a light out of that, maybe we can get a match.)

Bloom: (Perhaps one could be brought to me. But it’s simply run out of fluid.)

Heffner: (Any chance of getting a match around here?)

Bloom: (It calls attention to my bad habit.)

Heffner: (Of course, nobody’s rushing.)

Bloom: (But, go ahead, yeah.)

Heffner: (But if somebody could get a match we can interrupt a program. What the …, you know.)

Bloom: (For the important things.)

Heffner: (One doesn’t do that.)

Bloom: (For the truly important things. (Laughter))

Heffner: Look, I wondered as I read the book and as I read the comments on the book whether you would feel that it is being used politically … it is being carried beyond the point you intended it to be carried.

Bloom: That’s not what I have seen. It might have been an expectation, but I found it extraordinary … maybe it’s being used politically. But it’s so much across the spectrum. As I told you before the show began, for me this is an enormous surprise. I really thought that it would be a, you know, like other academic books. Perhaps slightly broader, only it’s been certainly not more than ten thousand readers and the sort of thing that would be reviewed in the intellectual journals with an enormous amount of controversy, if reviewed at all. But what I have found is that it has touched a nerve of troublement and perhaps a certain exhilaration in seeing how we’re thinking … a new description of how we’re thinking, that has been not particularly political. You quoted from something that appeared in The Washington Times. But even in The Nation where there was a hostile review, it was taken very seriously indeed. I quite liked that review because it was somewhat angry in the sense that it said, well Bloom has everything except intellectuals ought to be of the left. I mean I’m almost quoting, it said, “Bloom has everything except …“ this or that. And reviewers of such various political tastes as William Krysto and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt have Liked it. And so thus far I don’t see it being used politically, but I could just throw that back at you. Do you see it?

Heffner: I had a sense, in terms of what you were saying at the beginning of this program, that again when you use that wonderful word “celebration”, I doubt very much that the people who have been applauding Secretary Bennett are people who automatically would find in your book a celebration. Rather they would celebrate it for what they would consider a definition of the inadequacy of what the problems have been in our schools. Of a relativism that … I mean that’s the basic point, isn’t it, that we

Bloom: Yes, but I’m not sure that the opponents of Secretary Bennett are all in favor of relativism. They are opposing his non-relativism, if it’s really developed, with their own. I am not sure that the tradition of the democratic university is ever a thing of the right. So, I’m not trying to avoid the political struggle in any way. But if you talk about the reception of the book, I’m sure that there are some people who say, “Oh yes, this is what I thought of those damn universities”. But I think that with others, perhaps older ones, they look back and say, “Oh, yes, I got certain kinds of things, which they can’t get now”. And certain kinds of younger people and this I know, not from my own students, of course. This is a special experience.

Bloom: But some younger people have interviewed me who were distinctly not of the right who said, “We felt a vague sense that the questions …“ not vague, I mean a perpetual non-definable sense when they were going to Harvard and to Yale, that they were not addressing those naive questions like, “What’s good. What’s bad”, as part of their university curriculum. They had to look elsewhere. So I’m not sure that this is a message. It’s a message that’s supposed to, I assume, to disquiet people. But I’m not sure that that’s definable on the political spectrum. Except to the extent that one group let me say that I think that both left and right have wanted to manipulate the university in the last … I mean always. But that the university’s separateness and its integrity is a message that can appeal to across political spectrum.

Heffner: Do you think that aside from the major universities, both private and public, that it is possible … or likely, fairer question … likely … that the universities will recapture what they meant to us.

Bloom: But you see in this sense I do concentrate on the major universities because I think they set the standard for the rest for the rest of the country, since they’re very egalitarian institutions. I mean to say is that perhaps most of their students are middle class, but there’s plenty of scholarship paid. There is … certainly the parents of those students were not necessarily middle class. They’re very egalitarian insofar as they can be, they follow test scores and a lot of the old kinds of distinctions have disappeared. In that sense they’re free for an intellectual life. And they are most likely to act as standards. I mean I follow Tocqueville in this. Tocqueville said, “Of all the things America most needs, it’s a few universities devoted to the classics because they will bring into American life something that would not otherwise be there. Something which is not in itself perfect, either, but acts as a counter-poise to leveling”.

Heffner: But Chicago, St. Johns.

Bloom: Yes.

Heffner: They were there and they didn’t do it. Whatever went on there…

Bloom: Well it depends on what they didn’t do. I mean … this is not a book with a notion of transforming this country into an image of ancient Athens.

Heffner: Why not, by the way?

Bloom: Because I think it’s important just to preserve some of the highest things always, and we’ll later see their political effect. But one loses … if everything has to be translated into a program. That was my objection to the University of Chicago tradition. They had a good university and they said … Hutchins and Adler … so let’s publish the great books and let everybody do it. I mean there’s nothing against letting everybody do it, but you can only concentrate in one place. And I think they did disperse their energies. And it’s important that there be a half-dozen, perhaps more, but really good places. And I’m speaking, you know, on behalf of a disadvantaged group, a certain kind of student in America who has longings … or philosophical longings … and I think is being deprived of the atmosphere.

Heffner: A very small group.

Bloom: It’s a very small group, but it’s always very important in a society. And that’s not an elitist reflection … I don’t say that defensively, but you know, if one says “a small group” then one says an elite. Most people aren’t philosophic, they’re too involved with other things. But it’s very important that there be a broader vision somewhere. Because that always … I mean the marvelous thing about American society is you can really be almost anything you wanted to be, at least in thought. But what you needed to have was the idea of what you might be. And my sense of the impoverished curriculum is its leaving anybody do what they want, but they have lost the alternatives, which would allow them to find out what they … what they could really be. If they haven’t thrilled with Napoleon or really for a vital moment thought of Socrates … well again use Tocequevillian language, a kind of dark place, horses with blinders on, that’s the image that conies to my mind.

Heffner: I totally approve of using Tocqueville’s language … absolutely, thoroughly approve of that. You know I don’t necessarily want to interpret this in political terms, despite the question that I asked before.

Bloom: I’ll be glad to discuss that, it’s just that I, myself, am completely astonished by the reaction to this book. And you see somebody who … a number one on the bestseller list … I never figured … it was not something I, you know, it was never longed for, prayed for, imagined even.

Heffner: So that’s its meeting some very real need, certainly some intellectual need.

Bloom: And you see what I’m struck by is I thought that the passages that would be most impressive would be the descriptions of young people, the descriptions of the effect of rock … the description of the effect of divorce on the minds of young students, the first chapter of the book. But what seems to be catching attention, at least what I can get from the reactions, is the second chapter, where I talk about the meaninglessness and the newness and at the same time, the meaninglessness of our language, the language of values, the language of lifestyle, charisma. That people seem to be saying, “We have been talking nonsense and there’s a possibility, a kind of exhilaration; We might use other words, we might re-think things”. And the notion that these terms which seem like, as natural as sun and moon, day and night, words like … well, the central one, itself, “value”, are of only well forty years currency in the United States and less than a hundred in Europe. And that this was somehow sold to Americans, the story seems to be exciting people because on the one hand it’s depressing the impasse that’s it’s brought them to, but also the possibility of reconstructing from themselves something outside of the psychological-sociological language which has become the language of the passions, the emotions, what concerns us.

Heffner: Perhaps you would expand for a moment on this question. I shouldn’t say, for a moment

Bloom: Yeah, because I have a tendency

Heffner: (Laughter)

Bloom: I think it’s wise because youth only get ten moments. (Laughter)

Heffner: Right. No, 1 meant it in terms of only having four minutes left.

Bloom: Oh my goodness.

Heffner: On this matter of values, why do you choose that word as

Bloom: Well, I think it is the central word. When words change … the use of words changes, that’s usually the indication of some enormous change in thought. And that the substitution of the word “value”

Heffner: For what?

Bloom: For good and evil. I mean the example I give is the shock at Reagan’s using the word, “the evil empire”. But then the approval he gets when he says “The Russians and we have different values”. There’s an extraordinary history there … it was Friedrich Nietzsche who changed this language saying that all good and bad was a matter of cultural creativity and those are values, that there is no quest for good and bad or good and evil or for knowledge of good and bad or good and evil, it’s an act of creativity or commitment. And somehow this so succeeded in our understanding that we don’t know how to use other words, that we have values. And as soon as we start using the word values, we know somehow or other that values are relative. I mean everybody knows that. And whereas you don’t say, you know, good and evil are equivalent. There was a whole transformation which was as great as the change from the classical antiquity to Christianity that’s taken place under our very eyes. When I was a child that was a thing of very special, elite education. People who had studied Max Weber in a, you know, a few universities, we thought we were on the inside. Now, everybody, the waitress, the garbage collector, the priest, the Pope, the President use the word “value”.

Heffner: But now, having gone beyond good and evil with Nietzsche

Bloom: Yeah, that’s the

Heffner: The question is, can we move back?

Bloom: I don’t see why we can’t ask ourselves and that would be what I think a university education would be about, what was the power, the real power or the real…that it had power, no question … but the certitude of Nietzsche’s destruction of the Socratic tradition which is really at the root of, you know, all modernity, all egalitarianism, that is rationalism, you know, to which all men have access. Nietzsche, very powerfully said this was destructive of roots, of poetic creativity and so on. Tore- think that question, are we essentially rational or are we essentially creative, committed, concerned beings. But it stopped being a question. That was all refuted. Reason is superficial, commitment, the Id, passion is profound. And that I believe is contained in everybody’s understanding of the world now.

Heffner: And the commitment I have is to end the program on time, unfortunately.

Bloom I’m so sorry.

Heffner: Professor Bloom, I appreciate your joining me today. And I’m sure that the incredible attractiveness of “The Closing of the American Mind” won’t set people against something called THE OPEN MIND.

Bloom: (Laughter)

Heffner: Thanks again for joining me. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share you thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.