If Allan Bloom appears an unlikely best-selling author, it is because his book "The Closing of the American Mind"--with the less than catchy subtitle "How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students"--seems an unlikely candidate to crack any national best-seller list.
But there he was last week--a tall, slightly awkward professor from the University of Chicago, the honored guest at a champagne gala organized by his publisher Simon & Schuster celebrating his No. 1 spot on this week's New York Times best-seller list. (It reached No. 3 on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list.)
Guilt by Association
"The book I just displaced is called 'Communion' (in which) a professional writer describes the visit of intelligent non-humans to his home," Bloom said, laughing at the very idea of it. "If there's something to guilt by association," the chain smoker trailed off, and began a new thought and a new cigarette.
Bloom's book is a weighty critique of American education and culture, a doorstop of a book that assumes a familiarity with the likes of Plato, Nietzsche, and Rousseau as well as Woody Allen and Mick Jagger.
"It is not a book that makes enormous concessions to its readers," said Bloom's editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Asahina. "You can look at the best-seller list for the past five years and try to come up with a comparably serious book and I don't think you'll find one. This is unprecedented."
It has generally won highly favorable reviews and--now in its seventh printing--has captured an audience far larger than ever anticipated by author or publisher.
In what he calls "a report from the front," Bloom contends that American universities have abandoned the important questions they have historically posed--What is man? What is good? What is truth?--in favor of a moral and cultural relativism that masquerades as openness and makes one point of view as worthy as the next.
"I do argue that Plato is better than Joyce Brothers and responds to deeper needs. If a university cannot say that, then it just ought to fold up its tent," said Bloom last week from his comfortable Chicago apartment.
"Look," Bloom said, "I'm not trying to establish a school of belief--that's not what a university is about--but if you know before you get to the university that everything you study is just an infinite variety of values in which one is as good as the other, a lot of the motivation (for learning) is gone."
Bloom's criticism goes beyond the university. He attacks parents with no beliefs to pass on to their children and feminism, which with a flick of the hand dismisses centuries of great Western thought as so much sexist reading fare. He hits the '60s for politicizing universities and dismantling the classical curriculum and charges rock music with zapping the intellectual, spiritual and physical longings of the young that he sees essential for learning.
Bloom makes no claims as a reformer. At best he hoped the book would strengthen the study of the classics and "perhaps give encouragement to some lonely people who are themselves inspired" by them. He does not profess to have all the answers but as a teacher feels obliged to raise the questions.
Take the matter of family, for example. "The fact that parents don't seem to believe in anything has been infuriating kids for 25 years," he said.
Before, students arrived at college eager to challenge the beliefs their parents had passed on to them. Today, said Bloom, "they're asking why their parents don't have any conviction to pass on to them." Too often their search for "community" or "roots" or a "quick fix" turns into a "sinister and desperate search to close themselves off."
"One can hardly prescribe that people suddenly believe in something because it's good for the kids," said Bloom. But he does suggest that when these young people arrive at the university that they are offered enlightenment from civilization's greatest thinkers.
"Look, there are plenty of opportunities in our society to see the advantages and pleasures of business, the law and medicine," he said, sounding slightly peeved. "But it's really hard to find living examples of a serious intellectual life."
Bloom argues that too much time and energy is taken to teach popular culture in an effort to be relevant.
"We don't have to teach kids that television exists. But the joys of classical music or classical literature, those are things that don't come immediately on the breezes," he said. It should be the business of the university to make sure that students are exposed to them in the course of four years of liberal arts education, he said.
Unlike many current prescriptions for education, Bloom's analysis doesn't concern itself first and foremost with literacy. It is a refutation of the idea that morality is a matter of personal choice.
"I don't care about literacy if people are not going to read good books," he said. "And if they're going to read good books without posing serious questions and taking them seriously for their lives, I don't particularly want them to read good books.
"We're always asking is this going to work, is it going to be understandable to a lot of people, and that's the wrong thing," he insisted.
"The first and most important thing is the absolute, unabashed, total dedication to the truth without thinking about how relevant it's going to be or how many people can appreciate it."
The book seems to have hit a nerve. When Secretary of Education William Bennett recently spoke to a group of 50 businessmen at the White House, their second question was what he thought of Allan Bloom's book.
For Bloom, who like his close friend Saul Bellow was educated at the University of Chicago and teaches in an interdisciplinary department there called the Committee on Social Thought, this kind of celebrity has been the cause of concern as well as pleasure.
"I don't feel any professorial coquetry, that I ought to say 'oh I don't care about such things' when it's such good fun," he said in a conversation punctuated by abundant gestures, the snap of his lighter, and the ringing of the telephone with calls from friends, well-wishers and business types interested in syndicating "The Closing of the American Mind."
The book is also selling like hot crepes in France.
For the 56-year-old professor who has made pilgrimages to Paris since his 20s and who regards the French intellectual scene with great admiration, "suddenly becoming a figure in this world, you know, it's really funny."
And, he quickly added, the words sputtering out in little explosions, it carries with it responsibilities.
"It's quite one thing if you write a book that's going to be noticed in a small circle.
"Suddenly I find myself a product, a thing of short media interventions," he said. "(I get) three minutes on the CBS morning show where they say what are we going to do about this problem and the guy doesn't even know what problem I'm talking about. Yet I feel responsible to say something."