An Intellectual Best-Seller Revisited

Sidney Hook, "An Intellectual Best-Seller Revisited," review of The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom, The American Scholar, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Winter 1989), pp.  123, 126-128, 130-132, 134-135.


This denial of the truth about the rampaging students of the sixties is reflected even in the most respectable of the critical reviews Bloom has received. Among the most disappointing of the reviews from a philosophical source is Martha Nussbaum’s in the New York Review of Books (November 5, 1987). Through a pedantic display of classical learning she seeks to discredit Bloom’s scholarship – scholarship that is not relevant to his central position. Her account of Bloom’s criticism of the riotous behavior of the students of the sixties is a travesty. She pictures Bloom as a resolute defender of the political and social status quo, opposed to the improvement of society presumably because he was critical of the student demands. She refers to his “bitter account of the student movement of the sixties, during which Bloom, lonely opponent of corruption, attempted to stop various changes he deemed pernicious, such as changing the curriculum requirements and even of faculty appointments. To this time of timidity and lowering of standards he traces today’s rootlessness and narcissism.”

So this is what the arson, firebombs, and violence was about – curricular disagreement. Extraordinary. The most charitable interpretation of anyone capable of writing this way about the demands and behavior of the rioting students of the sixties is that Professor Nussbaum is too young to have any memories of what occurred; or that for some odd reason she has not read the literature of and about the sixties; or she is fearful of the hostile judgment of those alumni of the sixties who, having escaped punishment at the hands of the cowardly faculties they intimidated, are now teaching in the universities. I don’t know what explains Professor Nussbaum’s case. She must have read Bloom’s book with ideological blinders on if she failed to understand that the chief corruption Bloom was opposing was that of academic freedom. Despite my fundamental differences with Allan Bloom – and we are separated by an abyss – and despite the easy and frequent charges of his critics that his views would lead to the curtailment of academic freedom, I have much more confidence that my academic freedom is safer in an institution governed by him and his Straussian colleagues than in one governed by his critics.

Bloom indicts American students of the current generation for many things: a lack of understanding of the perennial ideals of Western civilization, an absence of coherent intellectual outlook on the world, an addiction to novelties in cultural life, a hypersensitivity to mind-numbing modern music, the pursuit of sex as a kind of organized sport, a glorification of freedom and an openness of mind whose consequences in fact close the student’s mind to moral, metaphysical, and religious truths which constitute the true legacy of liberal civilization. It would not be unfair to ask him for empirical evidence of actual changes over the years in the basic beliefs of the American student body. Certain student practices, of course, are new and different – the vogue of new music, drugs, the flaunting of sexual promiscuity. But what seems to outrage Bloom most is what he calls the students’ moral and historical relativism. Sometimes he calls it “cultural relativism,” sometimes “relativity,” sometimes the belief that “truth is relative.” His opening sentence reads: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” Students, he writes, “are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality.” Here we focus on his views about relativity and disregard the fact that he is talking about students in our elite universities and not the vast numbers still enrolled in religious and church related institutions