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Allan David Bloom

Allan David Bloom

Allan David Bloom (1930-1992) was an American political philosopher, professor, and author. An advocate of the Western philosophical tradition, he translated classic authors such as Plato and Rousseau, but he was best known for his criticism of American higher education and what he felt was the decline of liberal education.

Allan David Bloom was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on September 14, 1930, to Allan and Malvina (Glasner) Bloom, both of whom were social workers of Jewish descent. The parents nurtured their son's intellectual curiosity and encouraged him to excel educationally. When the family moved to Chicago in 1946, 15-year-old Allan was immediately impressed with the University of Chicago and, as he later said, "somehow sensed that I had discovered my life" (Closing of the American Mind, 1987). At the age of 16 he entered that university's special program for gifted high school students where he studied the classics of Western literature in a curriculum strongly influenced by Robert M. Hutchins, a former president of the university.

Bloom received a B.A. degree from the University of Chicago in 1949 and began graduate work in cross-disciplinary studies with the elite Committee on Social Thought program. Here he came under the influence of Leo Strauss, a German immigrant and political philosopher who taught that some truths did not change but endured across the generations. Bloom came to believe that the goal of a truly liberal education should be to help students define themselves by those truths.

After completing his M.A. degree in 1953, Bloom attended the University of Paris in an exchange program with the University of Chicago, and he earned a Ph.D. degree in 1955. He then joined the faculty at the University of Chicago as a lecturer in political science, a position he held until 1962. In the 1957-1958 academic year he was a Rockefeller fellow in legal and political philosophy and did postgraduate study at the University of Heidelberg. In 1960 he published his first book, Rousseau's Politics and Art: Letter to M. D'Alambert on the Theatre.

Leaving Chicago in 1962, Bloom next served as a visiting assistant professor at Yale University, but in 1963 he moved to Cornell University as assistant professor of political science. He completed Shakespeare's Politics in 1964 and was tenured in 1965. At Cornell, Bloom developed a provocative and stimulating teaching style that could make students feel that learning was a rare privilege. As one student observed, "Allan did not just make old texts speak, he made them sing" (Clifford Orwin, "Remembering Allan Bloom," 1993). In 1968, he completed his translation of Plato's Republic.

The late 1960s was a time of widespread student protest, and at Cornell an armed group of students seized a campus building and demanded that the traditional humanities curriculum be changed in favor of more "relevant" studies. In Bloom's opinion, the Cornell authorities made cowardly concessions and dropped courses that were essential to the curriculum. Dismayed, he took leave and went to the University of Tel Aviv and then to the University of Paris as a visiting professor during the 1969-1970 academic year. In 1970 he resigned from Cornell and accepted a professorship in political science at the University of Toronto, where he completed his translation of Rousseau's Emile (or, on Education) in 1979. That same year he returned to the University of Chicago as a full professor with the Committee on Social Thought, and remained there until his death on October 8, 1992.

For most of his career, Bloom was known in academic circles mainly for his translations of Rousseau and Plato, but the publication of The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 brought him fame and fortune, praise and vilification. In this best-seller, Bloom argued that cultural relativism threatened to extinguish the "real motive of education, the search for the good life." Furthermore, relativism was "unproven and dogmatically asserted" for mainly political reasons, and it would destroy "the West's universal or intellectually imperialistic claims, leaving it to be just another culture." Too many Americans embraced a view of "openness" that made "surrender to whatever is most powerful, or worship of vulgar success, look principled;" instead, Bloom called for a university that stood "intransigently for humane learning," a place where "True openness means closedness to all the charms that make us comfortable with the present." What students needed, Bloom argued, was immersion in the enduring works of Western culture such as Plato's Republic, which was "the book on education" because it showed how "the real community of man" was a community of "those who seek the truth …, of all men to the extent they desire to know. But in fact this only includes a few."

A storm of controversy followed publication of The Closing of the American Mind. Some readers accepted Bloom's views as accurate descriptions of American colleges and universities. Advocates championed his defense of traditional Western values as a forceful support of cultural and political conservatism. Numerous critics attacked the book for advocating an elitist education, and others criticized its failure to recognize historical change. Some critics saw value in studying classic philosophers but argued that this was inadequate in a modern world plagued with problems such authors could not possibly have foreseen or understood. Opinion on the value of Bloom's book was heated and divided, but if Bloom intended to spark debate on higher education, he was highly successful.

Bloom completed two other books before his death in 1992: Giants and Dwarfs (1990) and Love and Friendship (1993). The first continued some of the themes of educational criticism, while the second, published posthumously, explored the classical theme of eros and its modern interpretations. Both were analyses of Bloom's favorite authors, but neither approached the popular appeal of The Closing of the American Mind.

Further Reading

Allan David Bloom is listed in Who's Who in America (1988). For a sympathetic but balanced treatment of Bloom as a teacher, see Clifford Orwin, "Remembering Allan Bloom," American Scholar (Summer 1993). For a critical review of his educational philosophy, see Nancy Warehime, To Be One of Us: Cultural Conflict, Creative Democracy, and Education (1993). A number of obituaries were written on Bloom, and one of the more accessible is Anthony DePalma, "Allan Bloom, Critic of Universities, Is Dead at 62," New York Times Biographical Service (October 1992). Literally scores of reviews were written on Bloom's The Closing of the AmericanMind (1987), and at least two journals devoted complete issues to the work: Modern Age (Winter 1988) and Interchange (January/February 1991). □

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