Allan Bloom and America by Thomas West

Thomas G. West, "Allan Bloom and America," Claremont Review of Books, 19 November 2007.


Nietzsche, one of Bloom’s authorities on the current malaise, rightly points out the debilitating effect of Great Books education in our world, in a passage I first read during a course I took with Bloom at Cornell in 1965. Such an education, says Nietzsche, promotes accumulation of knowledge of other times and places, without providing a direction. “It is not a real education but a kind of knowledge about education, a complex of various thoughts and feelings about it, from which no decision about its direction can come.” In healthier times, education in the best writings of the past is not for the sake of objective consideration, but “always has a reference to the end of life, and is under its absolute rule and direction” (Use and Disadvantage of History for Life, sec. 4). Bloom would agree, but he makes the end of life “philosophy,” forgetting, it seems, the lesson of the philosophers that all human beings except philosophers need a moral and political orientation. Without that, a Bloomian education will produce not Socrateses but pale shadows of Socrates — mere intellectuals.

In this Bloom opposes the Founders, particularly Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Jefferson’s conception of university education was public-spirited. Its main intent is “to form the statesmen, legislators, and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” This is to be done by studies in “the principles and structure of government.” “Political economy” is to be learned in order to promote the public industry. Students are also to be enlightened with “mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts, and administer to the health, the subsistence, and comforts of human life.” Finally, the university is to “develop their reasoning faculties” and “enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.” All of this is in order “to form them to habits of reflection and correct actions, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.”
Bloom is not indifferent to the needs of society. His final paragraph suggests that a return to the classics may also have a decisive effect on “the fate of freedom in the world.” But Bloom would make the public mission of the university anti-social or rather trans-social, any benefit to society being an accidental by-product, while Jefferson and I would make its public mission primarily political, allowing “the philosophic experience” to be cultivated without official sanction.

Is not Jefferson’s university closer to what Nietzsche, Plato, and indeed anyone of common sense, would consider appropriate for the future leaders of society, not to mention future philosophers? His university would certainly accommodate the chance philosopher in one niche or other of the curriculum. But does it really make sense to attempt to go beyond this, to institutionalize an education to the philosophic life in a conventional academic structure? In the end it is who happens to be teaching and who happens to be learning that will make all the difference. Philosophers, like Caesars, can appear anywhere, and they can take care of themselves. The attempt to plan for them seems to me to betray a tendency on Bloom’s part to equate, against the letter of his intention, the philosopher and the intellectual. Finally, is it really philistine to structure the university with a view to service to society, above all in attempting to educate future statesmen in the principles of republican government, but on a lesser scale training men and women to be useful to their society and to themselves? That is something that can be understood and done well by those who are far from the exalted heights of philosophy. As Rousseau, another of Bloom’s authorities, reminds us in his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, “Someone who his whole life long will remain a bad versifier or an inferior geometer, might perhaps have become a great clothier.”