Thoughts on Bloom’s Rhetoric

I graduated from college a vaguely unhappy liberal relativist; unhappy because I sensed that my (Catholic) university experience had been intellectually vapid, and relativist because I had not been taught anything else. One night several months after graduation, for want of anything to do, I picked up a friend’s copy of The Closing of the American Mind and began to read. From the first page I detested Bloom—his intolerance, his traditionalism, his elitism, and above all his outlandish assertions. Between spasms, I decided that I would finish the book out of spite and thereby prove my mind was open enough to face and thwart the arguments of his pernicious absolutism. And so, red-faced and fuming, I read on. All through the book I disagreed with Bloom. Triumphantly, I snared his exaggerations; furiously, I composed refutations to his arguments; and disdainfully, with all the hubris of a well-travelled youth, I wondered if he had ever left Chicago, if he’d ever seen another culture, if he understood the value of tolerance. I shook my head sadly. “Poor devil,” I thought, “he belongs to an age that is long past.”

I approached the final chapters nearly gloating—my triumph was imminent. Then, not 50 pages from the final leaf, Bloom launched into a caustic description of the modern

American university. I recognized it as the same university that had left me feeling intellectually empty: an institution with no rudder, no standards; an institution compromised by trendiness, mindlessly tolerant (read, “indifferent”), and thus lacking the esprit critique which Bloom demonstrated was so necessary for real learning and wise action. I slowed my reading pace and actually started to think, not just react. Upon reflection, I found that no matter how outlandish or outdated his arguments had seemed, my refutations of them were based on principles of dubious validity and baleful consequence. After that modest epiphany, my relativist worldview began to crumble.

Bloom’s rhetorical strategy was not to cajole but to enrage, and by enraging to force the reader to examine his unconsidered preconceptions and then either to strengthen or abandon them. He forced me, for the first time, to engage in an honest Socratic dialogue with myself. It is for that simple lesson that I am most grateful to Bloom. And though his death is a loss to all of us, it is some comfort to know that he now resides in the pantheon of great thinkers and that his light, like Tocqueville’s before him, may help Americans to see the shoals that threaten our democracy.

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