Allan Bloom’s Guide to College

Matt Feeney, "Allan Bloom’s Guide to College," New Yorker, 12 April 2012.


I don’t point this out to suggest Bloom was blind to these ironies. I do so  to note that he is a less reliable ally in the partisan fight against relativism  than many conservatives believe. I do so also, I suppose, to clear the ground  for a better appreciation of his work. The weakest parts of “The Closing of the  American Mind” are those that send conservatives’ hearts racing, the first two  sections on “Students” and “Nihilism, American Style.” But the third section,  “The University,” is a masterpiece, and also a hand grenade. When I reread the  long chapter called, dauntingly, “From Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger’s  Rektoratsrede,” I find myself drawing back, shaking my head, and  thinking: “I can’t believe all this is in here, a number-one best-seller!”

Bloom’s light, urgent prose makes it easy to forget how audacious this  chapter is in its depth, breadth, and seriousness, and how defiant it is in its  defense of liberal education. Bloom’s knee-jerk opponents tend to be leftists,  but these people are merely symptoms of a deeper modern distrust of liberal  learning. It might be better, then, to reframe Bloom’s project, from a secretly  erotic quest for sublime knowledge to an existentially urgent battle for  nonconformity; real weirdness in a world that wants to co-opt everything, make  everything productive for and comprehensible to everyone….

Bloom’s esoteric project asks today’s students to estrange themselves from an  identity that they, their parents, and their teachers, along with their  ministers and rabbis and shrinks, their camp counselors and art tutors and  soccer coaches, have been constructing since these kids were born, and with a  degree of political and moral awareness that everyone involved is darned proud  of. These are good kids. Try telling a college sophomore who founded his  school’s anti-sweatshop movement that his enthusiasms are callow, his  convictions harmful to a true education of the soul, and that he should instead  join you on a freaky trip into the true mind of Thucydides.


New Yorker