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This item is taken from PN Review 61, Volume 14 Number 5, May - June 1988.

When Professor Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago - encouraged by Saul Bellow - expanded an article he had written for the National Review into a book called The Closing of the American Mind, neither he nor his publishers anticipated a major success. But for ten weeks his impassioned account of what had gone wrong with American education and culture topped the New York Times best-seller list. Few books have aroused such heated debate: like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bloom was generally reviled by the critics but embraced by the public.

What's wrong with the public? Or what's wrong with the critics? The public that turned to Professor Bloom's book may have consisted of parents wondering what was wrong with their children's education. And the critics consisted largely of the educators responsible for the liberalisation of American education who were dismayed by Bloom's suggestions that contemporary students were by and large ignorant, ill-read, corrupted by an insidious and carefully packaged culture which is intellectually reductive and impoverishing. The book indicts American culture broadly. Bloom is a classicist by training (some critics cast aspersions on his classicism) and for him, a boy from the mid-West who was traumatised by his teaching experience at Cornell in the late 1960s and who has his own strong streak of vulgarity, culture is rooted in the classics.

Is he anti-egalitarian? He believes the best should be generally available, but he fails to take the leap into believing that all can benefit equally from the best. Is he elitist? Judging from his own faculty at the University of Chicago, the answer might be yes, except that many of his colleagues have come up a very hard way to where they are. It is not a social or elective elitism he recognises.

Like many impassioned educationalists distressed by the decline in university education and what they perceive as a general (and perhaps irreversible) cultural decline produced by the compulsory relativisms of our time, his vehemence can run away with him. He can write with alarming coarseness. He can fall into the jargon of his disciplines. His culture has been acquired, as most culture nowadays must be acquired, laboriously; nothing is second nature to him, and he defends even as he desires to share the riches he has acquired. Though he is a "man of ideas", his book does not read like the work of a philosopher or a social critic. His essay is in an older, laboriously acquired tradition, the tradition of Rousseau, whose Emile he has translated.

Gottfried Benn said that as soon as Germans started trying to define Geist, Geist was dead. The act of deliberate preservation, or re-evocation, led to terrible distortions; what had been an animating force became a catalyst for reaction. The same might be said of our culture. The problem is - as Bloom insists - that we are now accustomed to talk of cultures, to value them equally, and as educators or as students to give like weight to them all. This may be politically expedient in a diverse society. But for those who are less interested in the politics of culture and more interested in the elements of our language, liturgy, literature and the other threads which connect us with our past and with one another, Professor Bloom has a certain plausibility. James Atlas has dubbed him "Chicago's Grumpy Guru". His voice is foreign, yet his concerns are close to those which have animated PN Review. A church can be so broadened that the roof falls in. The accommodation of disparate new cultures into our perceptions should involve an acknowledgement not only of their value, but of their different value. Assimilation is a political goal, not a cultural goal. To destroy the distinctive qualities of new cultures is an act of colonialism. To abandon our own cultural perspectives is a form of reverse colonialism, a wilful impoverishment of what is ours which impoverishes the new cultures with which ours should coexist.

This item is taken from PN Review 61, Volume 14 Number 5, May - June 1988.

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