The Closing of the American Mind appeared at a time when several books were raising serious questions about American education. Like E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), Bloom’s book suggests that American education has lost a common core of learning. At one time, these books argue, there was a shared concept of what it meant to be literate. Schools taught basically the same texts, and a student was graduated from college knowing roughly the same things as graduates from other colleges. Critics have attacked these books for exaggerating the degree to which Americans have ever shared the same college education, but many colleges have in fact reinstituted prescribed lists of classic works on the assumption that it is important to have a coherent curriculum.
The Closing of the American Mind is certainly not the first book by a professor to reach the best-seller list. In 1960, Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (1960) also took American education to task— although his argument might be characterized as embodying the very relativism Bloom attacks. Goodman and Bloom are on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, but both of their books call for radical changes in American education. They both see education as the one institution capable of transforming society.
Bloom has translated and edited editions of Plato’s Republic and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile: Ou, De l’education, (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763). He is also the author of a book on William Shakespeare’s politics and a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. The Closing of the American Mind thus reflects both his scholarly and his teaching interests, which are wide-ranging and somewhat unorthodox. That he chose to address a broader audience in a provocative style suggests how urgent and important he now finds the problems confronting American education. His publisher, Simon and Schuster, was not prepared for the overwhelming success of this important book. Part of its appeal, surely, stems from Bloom’s willingness not simply to share his knowledge but indeed to present himself as an authority. Very few professors, as Bellow suggests, would dare to present their ideas with such absolute conviction or to choose a title that engages a subject as broad as “the American mind.”