Allan Bloom: Prophet of Doom

23 May 2012

9:14 AM

23 May 2012

9:14 AM

Allan Bloom’s famous book, The Closing of
the American Mind
, opens with the following sentence:

‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.’

In the twenty-five years that have passed since the book’s publication, that belief has become, if anything, even more ubiquitous. It’s not simply true of American universities, it’s
true of British universities as well. Indeed, this all-encompassing relativism — which Bloom says is regarded as ‘a moral postulate, the condition of a free society’ — is
shared by the educated and uneducated alike. The only people in contemporary Britain who don’t believe it are religious fanatics, such as Islamic Fundamentalists, and they’re regarded
as peculiar — insane, even — precisely because they think their particular beliefs are true.
How did this happen? The superficial answer is that children are taught to believe this. If they happen to be studying the International Baccalaureate, they are literally taught it. One of
the core requirements in the IB diploma is something called ‘Theory of Knowledge’ — or TOK for short — which is essentially a crash course in epistemological relativism. On
the IB’s official website, it’s described as follows:

‘It is a stated aim of TOK that students should become aware of the interpretative nature of knowledge, including personal ideological biases, regardless of whether, ultimately, these
biases are retained, revised or rejected.’

But children in the West don’t need to wait until they’re 16 to be exposed to ‘the interpretive nature of knowledge’ – they absorb this theory with their
mother’s milk. A couple of years ago, I attended a parenting course. The person running it didn’t describe herself as a ‘teacher’ because that would have been too didactic.
It would have carried the unwelcome implication that the relationship between her and us was hierarchical — that she knew something we didn’t. So, instead, she was a
‘learning facilitator’.
One of the central themes of the course — sorry, interactive learning experience — was that we shouldn’t judge our children. Thus, we were told to replace the words
‘right’ and ‘wrong’ with ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’. Badly-behaved children weren’t ‘naughty’ — they were
‘spirited’ — and instead of ‘problems’ they had ‘issues’. Even describing a child as having a ‘short attention span’ was too loaded. Rather, he
or she was ‘distractible’.
In this woman’s view, good parenting consisted of ‘validating’ your children’s feelings. If little Cosmo has a tantrum, you shouldn’t tell him off and you certainly
shouldn’t punish him — God forbid!. Rather, you should engage in ‘reflective listening’, which consists of helping him articulate his feelings: ‘You’re upset
because you didn’t want to share the bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk with your sister, aren’t you Cosmo?’ If they repeatedly behave ‘inappropriately’, the most
severe reprimand the ‘learning facilitator’ would allow was: ‘That’s not acceptable in this house. That’s not the way we behave in this house.’

Obviously, not all children in the West are brought up in this way, but this type of relativism permeates all material aimed at the very young, from Waybuloo to The Gruffalo. (Dr. Seuss does a nice line in
environmentalist propaganda, too — see The Lorax.)
But even those children lucky enough to avoid exposure to this dogma as toddlers will soon be introduced to it at nursery. And on it goes, through primary and secondary school, until, by the time
they reach their late teens, they’re thoroughly indoctrinated.

But, as I say, that’s only a superficial explanation. Why do responsible grown-ups feel a moral obligation to impose this doctrine? What are the deeper, underlying causes of the ubiquity of
moral and epistemological relativism? Why did the ‘learning facilitator’ of the parenting course I attended think it so important to avoid anything that even hinted at a value
? How did the ideas of Nietzsche and Heidegger become such an integral part of the fabric of liberal democracy?

Bloom believed it was a species of the radical egalitarianism that Plato warned of in The Republic. The problem with democracy, Plato argued, is that it’s based on the principle that
one person’s opinion about what constitutes the good life is no more valuable than anyone else’s. After all, if we didn’t believe that, why should we choose between two courses of
action solely according to which one receives the most votes? One man, one vote inevitably leads to the belief that all points of view are equally valid. So egalitarianism is always latent in
democratic societies and the danger they face — the risk they nearly all succumb to — is that this principle becomes dominant. (Bloom: ‘The leading principle of our regime is the
equal worth of all persons, and facts or sentiments that appear to contradict that principle are experienced by a democrat as immoral.’)
In an essay published before The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom quotes a passage from The Republic about ‘the democratic man’ — a passage he translated
himself. It’s worth re-quoting at length:

‘… he doesn’t admit it if someone says that there are some pleasures belonging to fine and good desires and some belonging to bad desires … He shakes his head at all
this and says that all are alike and must be honoured on an equal basis … He lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the
flute, at another downing water and reducing; no practicing gymnastics, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though we were occupied with philosophy. Often
he engages in politics and jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him.’
(VIII, 561c-d)

We all recognise the democratic man in this passage. I certainly recognise myself. The central image here is of a man who has lost his way — who has given up on the search for the good life
because democracy has taught him that no particular version of it is truer than any other. But here’s the rub: This loss of meaning doesn’t lead to a general lassitude, but to
a misplaced sense of purpose. The passion that would otherwise be occupied in the search for truth finds expression in a desire to promulgate the new, egalitarian doctrine. ‘To Plato’s
account must be added a somewhat more sinister element,’ writes Bloom. ‘A rage at the emptiness of this life, and a desire to commit oneself to acts of revolutionary
The obvious thing to mention at this point is the anti-capitalist movement that, in the past 12 months, has been responsible for outbreaks of civil unrest in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. But
I’m thinking of a more inchoate movement — not even a movement really, more of a harbinger of things to come.
Last summer, as feral youths set a shopping centre ablaze not two miles from my home, I thought I detected a connection between the hollowness of young people’s lives and the orgy of
destruction engulfing England’s cities.

The root of the problem, I think, is that the bonds of Western civilisation have become too weak. In our increasingly diverse and multicultural society, the only values that command anything like
universal assent are procedural ones — ethics, rather than morality. We’ve been taught to value tolerance and mutual respect and to abhor racism and homophobia — essential conventions
if all the different ‘communities’ are to get along — without being asked to believe in anything substantial to anchor those conventions in. On the contrary, as Bloom observed,
the prevailing orthodoxy that’s taught in our schools and universities is that one set of substantive moral values is no better than any other and to claim otherwise is to risk appearing racist or
sexist. Indeed, there’s a widespread belief that the survival of the procedural conventions depends upon a general scepticism about anything deeper or more meaningful — that the one
strengthens the other. (Bloom’s ‘moral postulate of a free society’.)

In fact, as we witnessed in England’s cities last summer — and as Plato pointed out in The Republic — relativism does not lead to peace, love and understanding but to a kind of
nihilism. Far from propping up the procedural values we’ve come to depend on, relativism has left them fatally weakened. As Yeats observed in his prophetic poem, the best lack all conviction, while
the worst are full of passionate intensity. (And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Athens to be born?)

Perhaps I’m being unduly alarmist. As a cheeky young graduate student in the Harvard Government Department, I used to pour cold water on the theories of the visiting professors who would warn
us of the fragility of liberal democracy or predict the decline of Western civilisation. ‘Okay,’ I would say. ‘How long have we got? Ten years? Fifteen? At what point can we
conclusively say that you’re talking balls?’

This was in 1987 and I can remember the excitement I felt when I first cracked the spine of The Closing of the American Mind, sitting in my dorm room in a building designed by Walter
Gropius. Bloom himself thought that nothing less than the future of freedom was at stake — that if the great tradition of liberal education couldn’t be saved from the levelling scythe
of rampant egalitarianism, America was doomed and with it, in all likelihood, Europe as well. Had he given a paper to my graduate class, I probably would have asked him the same question:
‘Ten years? Fifteen?’

But twenty-five years later, I’m no longer so sanguine. Liberal democracy, having triumphed so gloriously over Soviet communism in 1989, now seems more enfeebled than ever — and this
crisis of faith is coinciding with a period of economic turmoil that looks less like a cyclical downturn and more like a permanent shift in global power from West to East. Not quite a
perfect storm, but a storm nevertheless.

At the time, I thought of Bloom as just another Cassandra, albeit one who could write with extraordinary clarity and power. Now, as the forces of chaos gather on the darkling plain, I’m
beginning to think I was wrong. Today, he looks more and more like a prophet.

This piece appears in the latest edition of The Allan Bloom Journal

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