Campus Watch in the Media
The New York Times revises Allan Bloom
by Roger Kimball
So now The New York Times Book Review is attempting to rehabilitate Allan Bloom for the Left. "Good luck!" you might say, "People's memories are short--but are they really that short?" Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in Political Science at Yale, obviously hopes so. For he brightened up the Book Review Sunday with an essay called "Allan Bloom and the Conservative Mind," an inadvertently humorous effort to enlist Bloom in the anti-capitalist cause of leftist piety while not-so-incidentally taking the time to pour scorn on various conservative critics--myself included--of contemporary academic life.
Sleeper's essay is a model of disingenuousness. But it does, in a short space, provide a preview of several rhetorical strategies that we will likely see a lot of in the coming months as public scrutiny of what goes on at our institutions of higher education increases. There are two governing assumptions. The first is that conservative criticism of the intellectual and moral deformation of cultural life is by definition 1) shallow and 2) ideologically motivated. The second assumption, cognate with the first, is that all virtue in the debate is on the side of left-liberalism. Their position isn't even a political one, you see, because it represents a state of natural purity. It is only opponents of leftish orthodoxy who have politics--nefarious, unenlightened, or some noxious combination of the two.
This mode of argumentation goes back at least to John Stuart Mill--one of Bloom's intellectual targets, by the way--but it has been constantly updated and refined to suit modern requirements for an intellectual posture that is at once latitudinarian and morally presumptuous. Sleeper's little essay is a textbook specimen of the genre. He begins with a grain of truth and builds from it a mountain of misrepresentation. The grain of truth is that Allan Bloom "was an eccentric interpreter of Enlightenment thought." The mountain of misrepresentation fills the balance of his essay. Sleeper was particularly exercised by my essay "Retaking the Universities: A Battle Plan," which appeared last spring in The New Criterion (a magazine, I am proud to say, to which Bloom contributed). In the course of that essay, I noted that "Traditionally, a liberal arts education involved both character formation and learning. The goal was to produce men and women who (as Allan Bloom put it) had reflected thoughtfully on the question "‘What is man?' in relation to his highest aspirations as opposed to his low and common needs." I went on to note that "Since the 1960s, however, colleges and universities have more and more been home to what Lionel Trilling called the ‘adversary culture of the intellectuals.' The goal was less reflection than rejection." Sleeper quotes bits of this -- he leaves out Lionel Trilling's name lest his readers conclude that such a liberal icon might actually endorse my observation -- and then thunders that such criticism
echoed across a growing web of conservative campus activists, including Daniel Pipes's Campus Watch, which tracks the utterances of leftist professors on the Middle East; the Collegiate Network, which trains combative conservative student journalists; the Intercollegiate Studies Institute of conservative campus organizations; and David Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture, whose "Academic Bill of Rights" . . .
Sleeper is correct. There is a growing movement to reform, to take back, the university. Indeed, it is a movement that can be dated back to 1987 when Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind appeared and inaugurated contemporary efforts to return liberal education to its traditional sources of inspiration.
At least, that is what virtually every commentator on Bloom has assumed. That is why Bloom--along with Lynne Cheney, William Bennett, and other critics of the university in the late 1980s--were so cordially disliked bu the academic establishment. According to Sleeper, however,
everyone [except the percipient Jim Sleeper, that is] seems to have missed the elephant in the room: Bloom's ostensibly conservative meditation in fact anticipated and repudiated almost every political, religious and economic premise of Kimball's and Horowitz's movement. Conservatives who reread Bloom today are in for a big, perhaps instructive, surprise.
Really? And what, pray tell, is the nature of that surprise? Quoth Sleeper:
Far from being a conservative ideologue, Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy who died in 1992, was an eccentric interpreter of Enlightenment thought who led an Epicurean, quietly gay life. . . . Far more than liberal speech codes and diversity regimens, the bêtes noires of the intellectual right, darkened Bloom's horizons: He also mistrusted modernity, capitalism and even democracy so deeply that he believed the university's culture must be adversarial (or at least subtly subversive) before America's market society, with its vulgar blandishments, religious enthusiasms and populist incursions.
Now this really is a masterpiece of insinuation. Until fifteen minutes ago, every bien pensant academic on the block was excoriating Allan Bloom as a "conservative ideologue" and worse. But now that Bloom is safely interred and can no longer do the left-wing cause any damage, we can forget the library of invective that was directed at him and begin the task of resuscitating him in a new outfit tailored to meet contemporary academic requirements. The irony is, of course, that Sleeper is right: Bloom was not a conservative ideologue. A review in (of all places) The New York Times Book Review put it well:
one of the chief things to appreciate about The Closing of the American Mind is that its dominant stance is interrogative, not prescriptive. Everything problematic that the term modernity implies, all the doubts about the meaning of tradition, the legitimacy of inherited values, the point of preserving high culture -- all this Mr. Bloom is perfectly cognizant of. He, too, has read Nietzsche, and his discussion betrays none of the naivete that many conservative treatments of such matters display. Nor does he imply that the answer to the problem of liberal education is to return to some simpler, less encumbered past. About changes in the American family, for example, he notes that he is "not arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them. I am only insisting that we not cloud our vision to such an extent that we believe that there are viable substitutes for them just because we want or need them."
Well, I would think that was well put: I wrote it. I suspect, in fact, that the success of The Closing of the American Mind in the wake of my enthusiastic review in the Times is one reason I was so seldom asked to contribute to its pages subsequently: we can't have the Times endorsing conservative polemics, even if (make that "especially if") they are sophisticated, intellectually rich polemics.
Sleeper was particularly incensed by my observation, in "Retaking the Universities," that "Many parents are alarmed, rightly so, at the spectacle of their children going off to college one year and coming back the next having jettisoned every moral, religious, social, and political scruple that they had been brought up to believe. Why should parents fund the moral de-civilization of their children at the hands of tenured antinomians?"
According to Sleeper, "Bloom wanted reason to overturn familial and religious commitments, if necessary, to forge deeper attachments to truth and civic-republican virtue." But this is both disingenuous and mistaken. Allan Bloom wanted students to take an interest in truth, all right, but his book was not a manifesto urging subversion of tradition but a blistering attack on those forces that had undercut tradition in the name of pseudo-openness and intellectual democratization. Bloom was horrified at the "nice," "passionless," "spiritually detumescent," "morally unpretentious" students he encountered in the wake of the 1960s assault on civilization -- "an unmitigated disaster," Bloom called it, which he compared, much to the consternation of academics like Sleeper, to the fascist movements of the 1930s. Bloom castigated feminism as "the latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts." He repudiated rock music for providing "premature ecstasy" and being, "in this respect, . . . like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially produces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavours--victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth." He lamented that "Country, religion, family, ideas of civilization, all the sentimental and historical forces that stood between cosmic infinity and the individual, providing some notion of a place within the whole, have been rationalized and have lost their compelling force." He noted that "Affirmative action now institutionalizes the worst aspects of separatism. The fact is that the average black student's achievements do not equal those of the average white student in the good universities, and everybody knows it. . . . A disposition of equal parts of shame and resentment has settled on many black students who are beneficiaries of preferential treatment." He worried about an America that championed "no-fault automobile accidents, no-fault divorces, and [which was] moving with the aid of modern philosophy toward no-fault choices" and he looked forward to the restoration of the traditional task of the university as "a resource against the ephemeral," a place where "the permanent questions" about what counts as the good life are "front and center."
Allan Bloom was a wry, gently ironical man. I got to know him shortly after my review of The Closing of the American Mind appeared in the Times. I was pleased that he agreed to endorse my book Tenured Radicals--an endorsement that helped place that book on the Index Prohibitorum of academics like Sleeper. The last time I saw Allan was at his apartment in Chicago some months before he died. He was already quite ill. But we had an amusing talk about the academic follies of the day. I am sorry he did not live to read Jim Sleeper's preposterous effort to subvert his masterpiece. He would have loathed it, of course, but he would have enjoyed lavishing upon it the contemptuous laughter it deserves.
[UPDATE 11:15 a.m.]: A friend wrote to acquaint me with an illustration of how Jim Sleeper discharges his pedagogical responsibilities at Yale. This from a story in The Weekly Standard by Hugh Hewitt:
Eliana Johnson and Jamie Kirchick are freshmen at Yale. They are members of Yale Students for Democracy. They are not professional pundits, though Johnson is a contributor to one of Minnesota's leading blogs, www.powerlineblog.com.
Read the whole thing here. There is more on the incident at Powerline.com here. Jim Sleeper vividly illustrates some of what I criticized in "Retaking the Universities." No wonder The New York Times Book Review was eager to publish his essay.
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