Good news and bad news is found at the top of the best-seller list as summer begins. The good is that something other than a diet book is No. 1. The bad is that what's atop the list -- "The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students" -- is the intellectual equivalent of how to get a flatter belly.
The author of this unlikely best seller is Allan Bloom, a philosophy professor for more than 30 years and currently teaching social thought at the University of Chicago. He is a classicist who has translated Plato and Rousseau. For an educator who presumably has been exposed to the creativity of Greek and European thinking, there is something worrying -- a haughty negativity -- about Bloom's bombast.
Whimperings and biases are indulged: "students these days ... are not particularly moral or noble," "the latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts is feminism." Bloom vents with some quick-hit put-downs. Margaret Mead was "a sexual adventurer," H.L. Mencken "a buffoon" and Henry Adams "a crank." The 1960s, when faculties and students on many campuses sought to bring civil rights and antiwar issues to the classrooms, were, for Bloom, "an unmitigated disaster" and a "period of dogmatic answers and trivial tracts."
Unlike William Bennett, the ideological secretary of education whose idea of dialogue with college students is to trash them for owning stereos and then work to eliminate their loan programs, Bloom has a coarseness disguised by a familiarity with philosophers. A favored few, that is. He is a fan of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Bloom admires "these Columbuses of the mind" because they supported the idea of armies as a social good: "All found that one way or the other nature led men to war, and that civil society's purpose was not to cooperate with a natural tendency in man toward perfection but to make peace where nature's imperfection causes war."
The theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau "produced, among other wonders, the United States." Bloom promotes Americanism, not with a nationalist's crude expression of it -- we're number one -- but by recalling a fantasy America before it went sour, he is convinced with feminism, rock music, easy divorce, the black power movement and universities slack on the classics.
Looking back, Bloom recalls his grandparents who "were ignorant people by our standards." But they read the Bible: "A life based on the Book," says Bloom, "is closer to the truth" than one that isn't. "The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished."
After decades among the ivy walls, Bloom now sees the walls choked by poison ivy. He mocks women's studies and peace courses that lead students to think about "abortion, sexism or the arms race, issues the significance of which they cannot possibly understand." The old professor is aging to paternalism, not wisdom. He wanders around the quad, planting wrong trees and then barking up them, with appropriate elitist snarls.
"Young Americans," he writes, "have less and less knowledge of an interest in foreign places." His true bellyache is that their interest is in the wrong foreign places: "In the past there were many students who actually knew something about and loved England, France, Germany or Italy ... Such students have almost disappeared, replaced at most by students who are interested in the political problems of Third World countries and in helping them to modernize ... This is not learning from others but condescension and a disguised form of a new imperialism. It is the Peace Corps mentality, which is not a spur to learning but to a secularized version of doing good works."
Bloom's reactionary text shows a polemicist denouncing closed minds after padlocking his own. He sounds like the departmental crank who has lost too many faculty senate fights or is piqued that students sign up for courses other than his. No one doubts that higher education is troubled or that too many students enter college more familiar with Michael Jackson than Michelangelo. Bloom suggests few solutions, except to issue generalized calls -- "We need philosophy more than ever."
At some creative campuses, solutions are in place. Students are well-served by college presidents who teach a course or two in the humanities rather than degrade themselves as groveling fundraisers. They are well-served when the Pentagon -- whether trying to co-opt faculties with research grants or bribing kids with ROTC dollars -- is barred. Bloom the grouser is weak on reforms. Perhaps he needs a sabbatical. A break from Hobbes and the old-boy network -- white, male and European -- might open his Bloomsday mind.