Allan Bloom

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740

Allan David Bloom provoked a firestorm of controversy in the United States with the publication of The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. His spirited critique of the effects of relativism on university students touched off a long debate about the methods and content of higher education. Bloom was the son of Allan and Malvina (Glasner) Bloom, both social workers and both Jewish immigrants. By 1946, the family had moved to Chicago, where Bloom enrolled in a liberal arts program with a strong emphasis on the classic texts of Western civilization at the University of Chicago.

After earning his Ph.D. from the university in 1955, he remained as a lecturer in liberal arts until moving to Yale University in 1962, where he taught political science for a year. In Chicago, Bloom had been profoundly influenced by the head of the university’s political science department, the German émigré Leo Strauss (1899-1973). Of central concern to Strauss was the nature of the political regime necessary to promulgate the unchanging virtues elucidated, in part, by Plato and whether such a regime was truly compatible with democratic pluralism.

Bloom’s first book, a translation of a long letter on politics and the arts written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1758, was published in 1960. His second book, a collection of essays on William Shakespeare called Shakespeare’s Politics, was written with Harry V. Jaffa and published in 1964, the year Bloom received tenure at Cornell University. Another translation, this time of Plato’s Republic, followed in 1968. Bloom emphasized that his was a literal translation so that the reader would not mistake the ancient Greek conception of virtue with the rather flaccid modern notion of “values” that mar other, sloppier translations.

By 1969, Cornell was swept up in a tide of student unrest, which abated only (to Bloom’s disgust) when the Cornell administration capitulated to a group of armed students and eliminated traditional requirements in favor of more “relevant” courses. In 1970, Bloom resigned from Cornell, after which he taught political science for two years at the University of Toronto until suffering a heart attack when he was forty-one years old. He spent his recuperation time translating Rousseau’s Émile (1762).

At the invitation of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Bloom returned to Illinois to join the faculty as a full professor in 1979. His critique of the American university, in a cover story for the conservative magazine National Review on December 10, 1982, motivated the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, Bloom’s colleague on the committee, to encourage him to expand his thoughts into a book. The result was The Closing of the American Mind, for which Bellow provided an introduction. The book rocketed to best-seller status, and the ten-thousand-dollar advance paid to Bloom by publisher Simon and Schuster was more than repaid. Bloom himself, a lifelong bachelor, became a millionaire.

Early reviews of the book were almost universally laudatory, but a second wave of reviews questioned Bloom’s interpretation of Plato and other philosophers and their influence on the American ethos. A third wave of reviews, mostly by friends of Bloom’s thesis, faulted him for his adherence to the controversial views of Leo Strauss but praised him for raising public concern over the plight of higher education in the United States. Bloom relished the fame brought to him by The Closing of the American Mind, but he was shocked by the vehemence of his critics, many of whom he believed had either never read the book or intentionally misinterpreted it.

Bloom became an adjunct scholar of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (a conservative think tank); he also became codirector of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, which provides student fellowships at the University of Chicago and grants for visiting professors. In 1987, Bloom received the Prix Jean-Jacques Rousseau awarded by the city of Geneva, Switzerland. In 1988, he announced the formation of a summer institute to teach the “great books” to a small group of college students.

In 1990, Bloom’s health began to deteriorate. He died in Chicago on October 7, 1992. In spite of his declining health, he had been hard at work on his last book, for which he wanted to be best remembered. Love and Friendship, which was published by his estate in 1993, searches the writings of Plato, Rousseau, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, and many other writers to rediscover the true meaning of classical love and friendship.

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