Jonathan Kay reflects on the publication thirty years ago of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind only to note sadly just how much worse things have gotten in the course of three more decades.
Much of Bloomâ€™s success no doubt was owed to his bookâ€™s inspired title, The Closing of the American Mind. But the timing was perfect, too, arriving on shelves in the fall of 1987, when political correctness was just becoming an acute force for censorship. I was a college student at the time. And reading Bloomâ€™s book helped convince me that, no, it wasnâ€™t just me: something really was wrong with the way my generation was being educated and politically programmed.
Bloom was especially repelled by relativism, which he described as â€œthe consciousness that one loves oneâ€™s own way because it is oneâ€™s own, not because it is good.â€ Though he was hardly the first postwar critic to abhor the fragmenting of cultural life and the marginalisation of the Western canon, Bloom went deeper with his analysis, showing how the emerging obsession with identity politics (as we now call it) left students glum and aimless â€” brimming with grievances, while lacking the sense of common purpose that once animated higher learning.
The author died in 1992, just before the advent of the world wide web exacerbated many of the problems he described. Social media, in particular, has reduced attention spans â€” making it difficult to teach students classic texts that are not immediately relevant to modern forms of self-identification. At the same time, these networks allow activists to shame heterodox ideas on a peer-to-peer basis.
If Bloom spent a single day on Facebook or Twitter today, he would instantly recognise the â€œmixture of egotism and high-mindednessâ€ that he detected among his own undergraduates. But he also would be shocked by the rigid ideological conformity that now is demanded of students on matters relating to race, gender and sexuality. The speech codes Bloom saw metastasising in the late 1980s and early 1990s have become largely unnecessary: university administrators can now rely on students to police themselves.