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Alan Bloom. (Illustration by Pablo Delcan, photo via Getty Images)

The Prophets: Allan Bloom

Nearly 40 years ago, a University of Chicago professor warned that higher education was closing Americans’ minds. Today, he could be called the grandfather of our culture wars.

Welcome back to The Prophets, our Saturday series about fascinating people from the past who foresaw our current moment. Last week, Emily Yoffe wrote about Mary Ware Dennett, a woman born in 1872 who fought a government ban that has far-reaching consequences for women’s reproductive rights today.

Now, Thomas Chatterton Williams spotlights Allan Bloom, an academic who decried the moral relativism he saw on campus in a book that became a huge bestseller—and a harbinger of the future.

The Closing of the American Mind is Allan Bloom’s 1987 cri de coeur about the collapse of higher education—and young people set adrift intellectually and morally. It is a strange and surprising book written by an eccentric and surprising man. A professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, Bloom was definitely a snob, sometimes a crank, surely a sexist.

Yet his book’s title struck a note so catchy and compelling it continues to spawn a small industry of volumes that examine and lament some aspect of American life. More than three decades after publication, its cultural influence endures, its obsessions and concerns (most of them, at least) ever more prescient. You could say Bloom is the grandfather of our culture wars.

The book that made him unexpectedly rich and famous elaborated on complaints he’d expressed for years about what had gone wrong with universities and their students. Its subtitle is, after all: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. In our own day, the campus trends Bloom described have only gotten worse and, as he warned, seeped into society at large, corroding the institutions that support an open society in the first place.

As the 2020s got underway, like many people, especially those working in media and academia, I felt something essential was shrinking. The ability to freely express oneself about the issues of the day—on which reasonable people could genuinely disagree—had become increasingly fraught. As Bloom had described decades earlier, the pressure to advertise fealty to a set of dogmatic beliefs had become ever more intense.

There were many alarming instances. But the catalyst for me was when James Bennet, The New York Times’s editorial page editor, was scapegoated in 2020 for the thought crime of publishing a conservative U.S. senator’s op-ed calling for the military to control rioting and looting. Some Times staff members made the specious argument that the op-ed put black reporters covering the riots “in danger.” Bennet’s forced departure, in part on such safety grounds, showed how campus concerns had migrated to the workplace.

Shocked by this and other events, four friends and I drafted an open letter in defense of equal treatment and free speech.

The “Harper’s Letter,” as it became known, noted the “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” The 153 signatories warned that “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” 

Our letter received an explosive response, just as Bloom’s book had decades earlier.

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