Bloom, Allan David

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Bloom, Allan David

(b. 14 September 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana; d. 7 October 1992 in Chicago, Illinois), teacher, philosopher, and author who gained wide attention with his best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind (1987), an erudite and passionate meditation on the state of higher education in the United States.

Bloom was one of the two children of Allan Bloom and Malvina Glasner, both of whom were social workers. His father served as executive secretary of the Jewish Community Center Association of Indianapolis, Midwest regional director of the American Jewish Community Association in Chicago, and executive secretary of the Rockford (Illinois) Jewish Community Board.

Bloom’s future as a scholar was set when he first saw the University of Chicago at the age of fifteen. “I had discovered my life,” he disclosed in The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987). He entered that institution after the family had moved to Chicago, and he subsequently received bachelor of arts (1949) and master of arts (1953) degrees there. He capped off his studies at the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in social thought in 1955. His doctoral dissertation, “The Political Philosophy of Isocrates,” illuminated his lifelong veneration of that philosopher.

Bloom then embarked upon an academic career that led him from lecturer at the University of Paris (1954-1955) to lecturer at the University of Chicago (1955–1960). This was followed by teaching posts at Yale (1962–1963) and Cornell (1963–1970), where he was critical of administrators for giving in to the demands of African-American students for curriculum changes after major turmoil on that campus, which included threats to faculty members. After Cornell he was a visiting professor for one semester each at the University of Tel Aviv and the University of Paris before settling in as a professor in the department of political science at the University of Toronto (1970-1979). He returned to his first love, the University of Chicago, in 1979, and remained there until his death. His teaching and writing led him to the role of codirector of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy (1983-1992). He was given the title of John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought, an elite interdisciplinary graduate department, at the University of Chicago in 1992.

Living the life of a devoted academic, Bloom’s major focus was political philosophy. He was a disciple of Leo Strauss, a conservative, German-born philosopher who, like Bloom, spent most of his career at Chicago. Bloom mastered both French and classical Greek, using these skills to read classics in the original languages, a practice he advocated for serious students. He wrote numerous articles and several books, acquiring a reputation as a serious critic of education and as a translator. Among his best-known translations are Politics and the Arts (1960) and Emile; or, On Education (1979), both by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and The Republic (1968), by Plato.

Bloom was little known outside academic circles until the publication of The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987). With a foreword by Saul Bellow, a Nobel laureate and close friend, the book made Bloom an instant celebrity and sold more than one million copies. It held the number-one spot on the New York Times best-seller list for ten weeks and made Bloom wealthy.

The major theme of the work was that the study of the classics, with emphasis on theory, is the hallmark of a good education. Bloom argued that undergraduate students should concentrate on major questions of life and being. He maintained that the concept of relativism, including cultural relativism, that had emerged on college campuses in the 1960s—that is, giving equal weight to a wide variety of subjects and cultures—and the emphasis on the practical application of information were ultimately leading to the downfall of democracy. He postulated that opening up curricula to include every current fad topic was, paradoxically, leading to the closing of the American mind.

In his review of the book in the New York Times (23 March 1987), Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote, “By turns passionate and witty, sweetly reasoned and outraged, it commands one’s attention and concentrates one’s mind more effectively than any other book I can think of in the past five years. Even its most devout enemies will learn from it.” Roger Kimball, also reviewing the book for the New York Times (5 April 1987) wrote, “The Closing of the American Mind is that rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book, born of a long and patient meditation on questions that may be said to determine who we are, both as individuals and as a society.” In 1999 the National Review placed the book at number forty-eight on its list of the one hundred most significant nonfiction works of the twentieth century.

Bloom’s celebrity in the years following the publication of the book was double-edged. Fame and wealth were accompanied by countless verbal attacks by academicians who labeled his views of education ultraconservative and elitist. In doing so they overlooked contrary evidence. For example, although he appeared antifeminist, he wrote, “I am not arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them. I am only insisting that we not cloud our vision to such an extent that we believe that there are viable substitutes for them just because we want or need them.” In 1996, with Bloom’s thoughts still goading academicians, The Opening of the American Mind, by Lawrence W. Levine, was published as a counterpoint to Bloom’s book.

Bloom went on to publish Giants and Dwarfs (1990), a collection of essays written from 1960 to 1990, but it did not add luster to his reputation. Love and Friendship, his final book, was published posthumously in 1993.

During his career, Bloom accumulated many honors and awards, including the Clark Distinguished Teaching Award at Cornell University (1968), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1978–1979), and the Prix Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1987), granted by the City of Geneva. In 1992 he was named the University of Chicago’s first John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor.

Bloom dedicated his life to his teaching and writing. A tall, balding man, he tended to stutter when he was excited. He was a bachelor and lived a very private life. He was almost constantly engaged in conversation with his friends and students, both in person and on the telephone. He had a passionate interest in classical music and had an enormous collection of classical compact discs. The publication in 2000 of the novel Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow, created a stir as the title character is undeniably a thinly veiled portrait of Bloom. Bellow received negative press for betraying his friend by revealing deeply personal traits.

Bloom’s death at the University of Chicago’s Bernard Mitchell Hospital was attributed by university officials to peptic ulcer bleeding complicated by liver failure (although statements were made about the cause of death being AIDS-related complications). He was survived by his mother, his stepfather, and his sister. He is buried in his family’s plot in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

By writing The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom provoked educators to examine seriously the state of higher education in the United States. Although his detractors were vociferous, Bloom also garnered many accolades for his unpopular stance, and some colleges reestablished core curricula. More than a decade after its publication the book continued to serve as a reference point for serious debate.

There is no biography of Bloom. His curriculum vitae is available at the John M. Olin Center at the University of Chicago. Bloom makes several personal comments in The Closing of the American Mind. Numerous reviews of the book have appeared, and scholars have made many references to it, but none reveal anything about Bloom’s personal life. On the significance of Bloom’s work see (in addition to the New York Times reviews cited above) a review by Frank Kermode in the New York Times (27 Oct. 1996) of The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture and History (1996), by Lawrence W. Levine; “The University Is Not the U.S. Army: A Conversation with Lawrence W. Levine,” in Humanities 18, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1997): 4–9; and “The Closing of the American Mind, Revisited,” by S. J. D. Green, in the Antioch Review 56, no. 1 (winter 1998): 26–36. D. T. Max, “With Friends Like Bellow,” in the New York Times Magazine (16 Apr. 2000), offers a glimpse into Bloom’s friendship with Saul Bellow. An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Oct. 1992). For the present essay Nathan Tarcov, director of the John M. Olin Center, provided family information through personal correspondence.

Myrna W. Merron