Allan Bloom (1930–1992) was a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago. He was considered by many to be "an eccentric interpreter of Enlightenment thought." Initially leading a quiet life, he was encouraged to write by his friend and colleague Saul Bellow. Bellow's book Ravelstein presents a biographical account and an indirect tribute to Bloom.
Bloom was an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Chicago. He received a doctorate in 1955 in the Committee on Social Thought. During this time, he came into contact with the teachings of Leo Strauss, who attacked historicism and relativism from an ancient philosophy standpoint. Bloom first began teaching at Yale, followed by Cornell, in the 1960s. The Cornell student uprising in 1969 prompted Bloom to resign and move to the University of Toronto. He returned to America and the University of Chicago in 1977.
Prior to the publication of Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished The Souls of Today's Students, Bloom was not widely known. Outside the circle of students who avidly attended his classes on Shakespeare and Rousseau, or through his translations of Plato's Republic and Rousseau's Emile, Bloom was relatively isolated from the public. He lectured students in an intense and idiosyncratic manner, and they were strongly encouraged to pursue a philosophic life. He promoted the study of the "great works of Western civilization" in order to address important questions pertaining to life and politics.
This changed dramatically when Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished The Souls of Today's Students appeared in 1987. Bloom's book became an overnight success. Controversy accompanied the magnitude of what he raised in his writing. Between March and December 1987, the book sold 500,000 copies and was on the bestseller list for a year. It also appeared as No. 1 on the New York Times' list for 10 weeks. Allan Bloom went from a position of debt on a teacher's salary to a multimillionaire. He was in demand as a lecturer on the college circuit, and journalists followed him on the campus.
Bloom attacked university life, its students and staff. He described the teaching as not differentiating between good and evil and being deficient in moral education. Attitudes related to the concepts of study and reading significant literature, the taste in musical styles and concepts of love and marriage were brutally criticized.
The theme of the book is encapsulated in the title: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. As a result of educational reform that was encouraged in the 1960s, a system of democracy, equality and "openness" was advocated. Bloom vilifies these concepts. In fact, he claims, the reverse has been created. Bloom asserts that while searching for openness and democracy, the educational system actually "closed off genuine thought and intellectual exploration, and in so doing had compromised the case for democratic institutions."
The context had manifested following upheavals in the education system, when students, brandishing weapons, threatened violence unless changes were made. Bloom addresses the educators who allowed the left wing to take over Cornell University without opposition: "Equality and liberty" ended up producing "self-satisfied relativism, which sees no need to aspire to anything beyond itself." He expounds on the "relativism" as justifying a relaxed "openness" to everything, resulting in the inability to be serious about anything.
Although Bloom did not specifically align himself politically as a conservative, given that he was against market capitalism and evangelical religion, he spoke in the mode of a conservative. He was against free sex outside the confines of marriage, detested rock and roll music and attacked aspects of modern thought such as relativism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, affirmative action, feminism and the open curriculum. Moreover, he advocated that the cultural obsession with the "here and now" affected any modicum of serious thought and application to life.
Critics were divided between liberal and conservative opinions on the book. Despite the controversy, everyone wanted to read it, either in praise or to castigate the writer. The Closing of the American Mind has been described predominantly as an American classic, but elsewhere by a critic as a "media event" with a "minor crank" as the author.
Bloom mistrusted modernity very deeply. He looked to traditional religion, family values, the old curriculum and boy-girl dating in a revered way. The onslaught he presented against students' cultural leanings and rock and roll music reflected his stance.