Chicago Philosophy Professor Allan Bloom Warns That America's Universities Are Crumbling

updated 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

One critic likened the experience of reading Allan Bloom's devastating critique of American universities and culture to being hit with the "approximate force and effect of...electric-shock therapy." The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, $18.95) is quirky, provocative and studded with erudite references to philosophers such as Plato, Nietzsche and Heidegger. No. 1 on the nonfiction best-seller list for more than three months, Bloom's impassioned polemic examines what he perceives as the increasing shallowness of American life—the demise of the family, religion and pursuit of knowledge—through the prism of the university. Bloom, 56, professor of social thought at the University of Chicago and translator of Plato's Republic and Rousseau's Emile, revels in flouting the reigning orthodoxies of the day. ("I am a committed smoker," says the bachelor gleefully, exhaling a cloud of pungent smoke from a French cigarette.) He argues that the American university, in capitulating to student protesters' demands for "relevance" in the late '60s, effectively abdicated its role as the conveyor of the highest values of Western culture. Senior Writer Susan Reed discussed Bloom's theories with the author in his two-bedroom apartment overlooking the University of Chicago campus.

Are today's students being deprived of a proper education?

Yes. The first rank of colleges and universities today offers no vision of what an educated human being is. The teenager leaving home for the first time has four years of freedom to discover himself—a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after graduation.

What is the biggest problem in American universities today?

The desire to be all things to all men. Each department makes a pitch for itself. The student must navigate among a collection of carnival barkers, each trying to lure him into a particular sideshow. There are Black Studies, Women's Studies, Peace Studies and courses like "Learn Another Culture." The latest item is computer literacy. It would make some sense to promote literacy literacy, inasmuch as most high school graduates nowadays have difficulty reading and writing.

How did the student protests of the '60s contribute to this problem?

The university lost public esteem, as well as self-esteem. Prior to the '60s, the university represented everything positive to Americans. Suddenly the student movement told the American people that universities were sellouts, part of what they perceived to be a bourgeois system of exploitation, racism and sexism.

What changes came about as a result of student demands?

By the mid-'60s, universities were offering students every concession other than education. While I was a professor at Cornell, I sat on various committees and continuously and futilely voted against dropping one requirement after another. The old core curriculum was abandoned. The openness was to "doing your own thing." The reforms were without content, the source of the collapse of the entire American educational structure.

What was your personal reaction to the student protest movement?

In the spring of 1969, student demonstrations brought the administration at Cornell to its knees. I had already been concerned by reports of intimidation that the administration responded to with hypocrisy and lies. Finally, militant black students seized the student union with guns. The administration acceded to their demands. This capitulation showed an overwhelming loss of inner conviction about academic freedom. At least five of us resigned. We were a small minority, but we were on the right side.

How do today's students differ from those you knew when you began teaching in the late '50s?

Most students today seem less full of the powerful longing to find happiness, to take on life, to figure out what really counts. There is a real spiritual paralysis. Today's select students know so much less, are so much slacker intellectually, that they make their predecessors look like prodigies of culture.

What effect do you think rock music has on today's youth?

Rock music has one appeal only—a barbaric appeal to sexual desire. Rock gives children everything parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up. Picture a 13-year-old boy doing his math homework while listening to his Walkman or watching MTV. He is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind. His ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.

Are the most popular liberal arts colleges today the ones that provide the best education?

Not necessarily. A young person going to one of the first-rank colleges today cannot be assured of a certain kind of result—the kind that Harvard or Princeton once produced. The result depends on the accident of individual teachers or friends.

What kind of curriculum do you advocate?

The only serious solution is the one that is almost universally rejected. I'm speaking of the good old Great Books approach, which means reading certain generally recognized texts—just reading them—and letting them dictate what the questions are and the method of approaching them. At universities where the Great Books make up a central part of the curriculum, like the University of Chicago and St. John's College in Maryland, the students are excited and satisfied. However, even these programs are far from perfect.

What made you care about the pursuit of knowledge?

I grew up in Indianapolis. As a young Jew during the rise of Hitler, I had to confront serious issues about the world. Also, my parents were interested in the new intellectual life that was coming to America, Freud in particular. I remember when I was 6 saying to my mother, "Mommy, are you a Freudian?" The university brought me, like all American "intellectuals," to life. If I hadn't read Plato or Rousseau, I think I would be like a dead fish.

Do you think today's parents challenge their children intellectually?

Many parents have nothing to give their children in terms of a vision of the world. Families sup together, play together, travel together, but they don't think together. Hardly any homes have any intellectual life whatsoever. Educated discussions about justice and injustice have virtually disappeared. Educational TV marks the high tide for family intellectual life.

Why do you think your book has struck such a responsive chord?

People are worried. The confidence Reagan brought in is on the downswing. They're in favor of many of the changes that have taken place: Women, the family, the workplace, but they are also aware that some terrible dislocation has occurred. I haven't articulated the solutions, but I have articulated some of the problems. I think there is a sense of lostness in the generation between 30 and 50. I think college students, conscious that they are not being challenged, are wondering, "Is that all there is?"

What's your prognosis for American education and society?

We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part. All that is necessary is a careful excavation to provide them with life-enhancing models. We need history, not to tell us what happened or to explain the past, but to make the past alive so that it can explain us and make a future possible. This is our educational crisis and opportunity.

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