AN AMERICAN VIEW

A best-seller’s puzzling sizzle

Fred Bruning August 31 1987
AN AMERICAN VIEW

A best-seller’s puzzling sizzle

Fred Bruning August 31 1987

A best-seller’s puzzling sizzle

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Fred Bruning

Allan Bloom, a college professor, finds himself with a best-seller, and well we might take a moment to ponder what summons such fame and fortune. Did the good fellow discourse on undergraduate ingenuity in the age of sexual apocalypse? Did he explicate the significance of Elvis Presley, Oliver North, Gary Hart, Japanese management techniques or the decline of the .300 batting average? Was he so crass as to have brought forth a romantic melodrama set in Sausalito, Calif., or a novella about a seagull who scores 1600 on the college boards?

As might have been expected, the answer is a resounding “no” to all of the above. Prof. Bloom attains his celebrity in a most unorthodox, not to say ironic, fashion. He has written a bold and ambitious book that announces the death of rational thought in the United States. He complains that intellectual and moral precepts have been sacrificed to the woolly demands of “liberal” education. He fears that we confuse tolerance with tastelessness, that we are self-absorbed and immature and that, in short, we are in danger of becoming a nation of vulgarians.

Among Bloom’s chief worries is the aversion of even the smartest young people to the written word. College students, he says, are transfixed by movies and music and have “lost the practice of and the taste for reading.” The kids are nonanalytical, easily distracted and utterly uncommitted. Family dysfunction and casual sex have siphoned away their emotional energy. Curiosity is a thing of the past. Thinking they have seen it all, young people simply have stopped looking. Little wonder that Bloom called his work The Closing of the American Mind.

Oh, it is a tempting thesis, especially when developed by a fellow with such formidable credentials. Bloom is co-director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago. He has taught at Yale, Cornell, the University of Toronto, Tel Aviv University and the University of Paris. The man whiles away his spare hours translating Plato and Rousseau and is the author of a volume called Shakespeare’s Politics. Imagine standing next to this individual at a cocktail party. Imagine leaving the cocktail party with great haste.

Not only is Bloom’s background

daunting, but his argument obviously is based on careful observation and shrewd analysis. Besides, Americans are very much in the mood to believe what he says. Anyone whose home is invaded during the summer months by college-age persons may wonder what, exactly, transpires in the halls of academe. The contemporary college experience, after all, does not seem an exercise in classical investigation. Students seem more apt to be strolling through campus discussing the durability of Benetton sweaters and the plot line of General Hospital than the nature of existence or the elusive qualities of objective truth.

If, between semesters, your daughter spends inordinate amounts of time gazing at Springsteen videos and your son prefers weight lifting to Beowulf you, as parent, indeed may come to suspect that the rigors of college have largely to do with adaptive behavior of the

Allan Bloom is a star. Soon someone will market a T-shirt— Tm a Blooming Idiot—and the residuals will accrue

most fundamental sort. Socializing is important; the social sciences are secondary. Exigencies of dress and decorum may exhaust the student even before the knotty anthropology professor who demands a 10-page paper on sibling rivalry among Malaysian adolescents.

Oddly, though, while everyone seems downhearted about the future of America’s college population, the price of a first-rate education appears to be racing toward infinity. A recent survey indicates that four years at a prestige institution might exceed $100,000 and that tuition and fees at four-year public universities are moving ahead at an annual rate of six per cent. “It’s sobering when you look at the figures,” said Kathleen Brouder, director of information for the College Scholarship Service.

Sobering, absolutely sobering, Ms. Brouder, and yet officials at highpriced schools report a strong spring season. Applications arrived in goodly number, and the young people ultimately found acceptable seemed eager to attend. Isn’t that good news amid

the glum? Even though Prof. Bloom finds our children naïve and intellectually attenuated, even though many young folks squander their educational opportunities, even though Saturday night at the frat house may present a scene suggesting that the civilized world has been split asunder, even though these kids can’t read Latin and, in some cases, English either, can’t we at least take solace in the simple fact that they apply to college and, when accepted, pack up their soft luggage and trudge off in the general direction of adulthood?

Prof. Bloom has his doubts. But then, he is a conservative man, pledged to traditional values and still not recovered from the 1960s. To be sure, as he notes, there was a fair amount of posturing in those days, and plenty of egotripping as well, to use the vernacular of antiquity. But it may be a mistake for the professor to relate too closely the age of activism with the decline of the American mind. Some would say just the opposite.

As Bloom and everyone else knows, campuses in the United States are quiet as cathedrals these days. He recalls with horror the time at Cornell when students commandeered a building at gunpoint. Politics does not arouse such passions any longer, and from the point of view of public safety, we can be thankful. To what extent tranquillity has enriched the academic atmosphere, however, is not so certain. Likewise, it is far from clear that the chaos of 20 years ago was an altogether destructive force.

This is not to impugn Prof. Bloom. Not in the least. His work is complicated and provocative and deserves our consideration, which, curiously, appears to be precisely what it is getting. Here, the U.S. citizenry encounters an academic who lambastes our offspring as hopeless troglodytes. There are no drawings in the treatise, no color plates. No TV mini-series helps us traverse the thicket. Sex, scandal, foul language—zip. But in this nation of nincompoops, the book sells and sells and sells. No fewer than 325,000 copies are in print, according to the happy publisher. Allan Bloom is a star. Surely, someone will market an appropriate T-shirt—“I’m a Blooming Idiot”— and the residuals will accrue. As the professor himself might say: only in America.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.