This summer, Allan Bloom, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, published a pop polemic, a long and tendentious treatise on the decline of American youth. The book – gloomily entitled The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students – blames the waywardness of the young on, among other things, rock & roll and Mick Jagger, the lowlife satyr of dirty dancing. ”Rock music,” Bloom writes, ”has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire — not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.”
Rock & roll, according to Bloom, has only three themes: ”sex, hate and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love.” Bloom’s antirock diatribe hits full stride when he likens pop music to a ”pubescent child whose body throbs with orgiastic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercial prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”
As I read through the book, Professor Bloom actually made me feel young again. This is exactly what our parents and teachers warned us about in the Fifties when we first started listening to Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and tuning in black stations on the car radio. Rock & roll, they said, will rot your brain. Jungle music unleashes dangerous impulses that will lead to the Big Mistake.
I read on, and my nostalgia deepened. According to Bloom, American youth in the Eighties – even the best and the brightest at the leading universities, where he has taught for thirty years – are ”spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone.” That’s a fair summary of what was said about us – children who came of age in the Eisenhower era. We too were spiritless, ill educated, self-centered, timid and utterly without serious purpose. Our parents had given us everything they had lacked growing up in the Depression. In return, we frittered away our lives on sex, TV and cars. We did not read the great books that our parents claimed to have read Or listen to opera. Or study the Bible. Now Bloom comes along and enshrines my generation for poring over Plato and questing endlessly for the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
The professor is correct about one important distinction between kids of the Fifties and Eighties. In my youth we talked endlessly about sex. Today young people actually do it. And it seems to drive the fifty-six-year-old Bloom crazy, and no doubt rankles many others from his generation and mine. Underneath an ostensibly moral concern, many parents feel a strong current of jealousy as they observe their children exploring realms forbidden to them in their younger years. (Surprisingly this seems especially true of mothers and daughters.) Life is unfair. Even Bloom, an old bachelor himself, sounds a bit envious. He denounces Mick Jagger with such relish that one may wonder if the professor himself is turned on by Mick’s pouty lips and wagging butt.
Blooms other complaints – about television, movies, women and feminism, psychiatry, left-wing professors and Sixties political movements – seem silly and dated. It’s as though someone had dug up an old right-wing screed from the Nixon-Agnew era and published it twenty years late. Except for this: The Closing of the American Mind is probably the hottest best seller of 1987 and certainly the most surprising. With 350,000 copies in print, Bloom’s book has reigned atop the non-fiction-best-seller list of The New York Times more than four months, outselling all the fitness and diet books and the get-rich-quick manuals. Clearly the professor has touched a nerve, but of what sort?
Robert Asahina, Bloom’s editor at Simon and Schuster, was as surprised as anyone by the book’s commercial success. Trying to explain the phenomenon, Asahina pointed first to the literate, impassioned quality of Bloom’s prose The professor’s rhetoric is laced with high-blown discourses on his great-books heroes (Plato, Socrates, Descartes, John Locke and the Founding Fathers) and his enemies list, those villains whose twisted thinking he claims brought us to our present predicament (Freud, Max Weber, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, as well as Americans like John Dewey and Charles Beard). The average reader is undoubtedly flattered by Bloom’s intellectual name-dropping; it’s always fun to be high-minded about someone else’s ignorance.
The second reason for the book’s success is that by lucky timing, according to Asahina, the book’s appearance coincides with a surge of national concern about the disappearance of traditional education. Another current best seller, Cultural Literacy, by E.D. Hirsch Jr., also taps the same anxieties. ”There is a sense, even among young people…that there is something wrong with their education,” Asahina said.
Perhaps, but I don’t think that’s what the Bloom craze is all about Bloom’s jeremiad is ostensibly about the quality of education, a fervent plea for restoring to their rightful place the masterworks of literature, music and art. This is an inoffensive program that, at least in the abstract, sounds wholesomely intellectual.
But Bloom’s real agenda is much darker – to launch a nasty, reactionary attack on the values of young people and everyone else under forty. His multi-count indictment is a laundry list of cheap slanders made to sound vaguely authoritative, because, after all, Bloom is a teacher who supposedly hangs out with students. In fact, Bloom sounds bewildered by young people – and strangely out of touch with them.
Bloom’s ignorance is starkly revealed by his vicious comments on the children of divorced parents. They are, he claims, ”less eager to look into the meaning of their lives or risk shaking their received opinions… They tend to have rigid frameworks about what is right and wrong and how they ought to live.” Anyone who knows the children of divorce realizes that most of them are the opposite. They are constantly searching and testing every proposition about life. They are absorbed, sometimes obsessively, by the very questions Bloom claims they cannot face.
After a lifetime as a teacher, Bloom apparently detests the young. A lot of other ”grown-up” Americans seem to feel the same way. But Bloom’s lament is cleverly constructed so that it often conveys malign opinions he does not want to state explicitly. Young people today, he says, are universally ”nice” – tolerant and open, free of old prejudices based on race, sex, religion, class. Compared with past generations, this is probably accurate, but less so than Bloom thinks. (Where has he been for the past two years when so many campuses erupted in ugly conflicts over race and sex, including a gay-baiting scandal at his own University of Chicago?) Bloom, in any case, does not intend tolerant as a compliment. It’s meant as a put-down.
The decline of prejudice, he says, is nothing but evidence of ”nihilism, American style.” Today’s students don’t hate simply because they’re too vacant to believe in anything. ”It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholics and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another,” he writes, ”but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously.”
What exactly is that supposed to mean? That Bloom longs for the ”good old days” when people were up front about religious prejudice? He slides over the ugly implications of his argument with abstractions: ”Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are. They are divinations of the order of the whole of things, and hence the road to a knowledge of that whole is by way of erroneous opinions about it.” Does Bloom mean to suggest that anti-Semitism is really just a way to appreciate Judaism, that membership in the Ku Klux Klan is a prerequisite for racial understanding? This is mean-spirited sophistry. Part of Bloom’s disillusionment may be that few of his students are willing to buy his line.
Bloom’s portrait of his students is bigoted itself. Nobody reads Shakespeare or Plato or Homer anymore. He sees people on campus mostly watching videos on Mtv (in which Bloom detects a whiff of Hitler, but not to worry: these kids are too lazy to mount a fascist movement). His students do not care about foreign places, and the few who do are interested only in the third world, not the great European cultures. The only classical music known to die young is Ravel’s Bolero, because it has a strong, sexual beat. They are self-centered, whiny little brats who show no gratitude for the blessings that civilization – and their parents – have generously bestowed on them. They have no heroes, no ideas, no curiosity.
In my experience, this is rubbish. Every generation has an abundance of airheads and a minority of serious students. But my impression is that the kids coming of age in the Eighties are actually much better educated than my generation was. Bloom and a lot of others have forgotten what the good old days were really like.
The smart young people I know today have a brainy hipness that people like Bloom can’t handle. I know a young woman from Yale who manages to read Hegel while simultaneously watching Wheel of Fortune; a junior at Princeton who is absorbed by the Old Testament but also hooked on Oprah Winfrey; and a recent Ivy League graduate who reads the Greek philosophers in Greek and the Germans in German but who is also fascinated by African language and culture (and who really wants to play guitar in a rock band).
If I suggested to these young people that they were searching for the Good, the True and the Beautiful, they would laugh. They study philosophy, they would say, only because it is a challenging mind game. If Plato nourishes the soul, so does Vanna White.
Professor Bloom doesn’t get the joke. People like him never do. When young people refuse to genuflect before the same icons their forebears held sacred, earnest priests of tradition always rush forward to denounce them. Bloom’s true sympathies are with parents. And I suspect that’s the most important reason this book is a best seller. He panders to disappointed parents, people who resent their children, who can’t forgive them for doing with their lives other than what Mom and Dad had in mind. These poor parents ”spend all they have providing for the kids.” And what, according to Bloom, do they get in return? A bunch of zonked-out zombies, lost in masturbatory fantasies and in thrall to Jagger, Michael Jackson and Prince.
Bloom’s explanation of this social decay is less interesting, because it is so standard. Black-power activists traumatized him by flashing guns at Cornell in 1969, and like many neo-conservative professors, he saw them as the forerunners of fascism in America. Sigmund Freud gets blamed for spawning psycho-babble. Lefty colleagues in the academy are accused of subverting the classics, the Bible and the Constitution. Even Woody Allen slyly corrupts the impressionable young.
Bloom’s biggest complaint, though, is with women. The American family is crumbling because women abandoned it, lured away by the false doctrines of feminism and presumptions of equality. With a straight face, Bloom repeats all of the hoariest clichés about sex and marriage: ”Of necessity…it was understood to be the woman’s job to get and hold the man by her charms and wiles because, by nature, nothing else would induce him to give up his freedom in favor of the heavy duties of family.” In other words, once women started giving it away without matrimony, the family was doomed. Since men have no natural affinity for children and family, once free sex came on the scene, men had no incentive to accept the bondage of marriage.
But where have we heard all this before? Doesn’t Bloom sound an awful lot like Jerry Falwell and the other right-wing televangelists? Running down Bloom’s diagnosis of our social ills, I realized it is a perfect fit with the standard born-again sermon, covering the same ground from the Good Book to rock & roll. Maybe this, too, explains Bloom’s popularity – he is peddling fundamentalism for highbrows. It is the same bilious blend of prejudice, regret and resentment, the same simplistic appeal to the ”golden days” of memory, and it bashes the same targets.