On December 10, 1982, a then-obscure academic from the American Midwest took to the pages of National Review magazine with a lengthy indictment of America’s intellectual class. Though this was the height of the Reagan Revolution — a heady time for the Review’s conservative editors and readers — the author had nothing to say about tax cuts or defence policy. Instead, he peppered his argument with references to Socrates and Nietzsche. A typical applause line was: “The Bible and Plutarch have ceased to be a part of the soul’s furniture.”
Yet the piece hit a nerve. And in time, it grew into a bestselling book that made the author — Indianapolis-born philosopher and classicist Allan David Bloom — an academic celebrity.
Much of Bloom’s success no doubt was owed to his book’s inspired title, The Closing of the American Mind. But the timing was perfect, too, arriving on shelves in the fall of 1987, when political correctness was just becoming an acute force for censorship. I was a college student at the time. And reading Bloom’s book helped convince me that, no, it wasn’t just me: something really was wrong with the way my generation was being educated and politically programmed.
Bloom was especially repelled by relativism, which he described as “the consciousness that one loves one’s own way because it is one’s own, not because it is good.” Though he was hardly the first postwar critic to abhor the fragmenting of cultural life and the marginalisation of the Western canon, Bloom went deeper with his analysis, showing how the emerging obsession with identity politics (as we now call it) left students glum and aimless — brimming with grievances, while lacking the sense of common purpose that once animated higher learning...