Jim Sleeper: Allan Bloom and the Conservative Mind

CONSERVATIVES in 1987 may still have been basking in Ronald Reagan's ''morning in America,'' but nothing prepared their movement, or the academic and publishing worlds, for the wildfire success of Allan Bloom's ''Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.'' Amid a furor recalling that over William F. Buckley Jr.'s ''God and Man at Yale'' in 1951, Bloom indicted liberal academics for betraying liberal education. His attack sold more than a million copies.

But everyone seems to have missed the elephant in the room: Bloom's ostensibly conservative meditation in fact anticipated and repudiated almost every political, religious and economic premise of Kimball's and Horowitz's movement. Conservatives who reread Bloom today are in for a big, perhaps instructive, surprise.

Far from being a conservative ideologue, Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy who died in 1992, was an eccentric interpreter of Enlightenment thought who led an Epicurean, quietly gay life. He had to be prodded to write his best-selling book by his friend Saul Bellow, whose novel ''Ravelstein'' is a wry tribute to Bloom. Far more than liberal speech codes and diversity regimens, the bêtes noires of the intellectual right, darkened Bloom's horizons: He also mistrusted modernity, capitalism and even democracy so deeply that he believed the university's culture must be adversarial (or at least subtly subversive) before America's market society, with its vulgar blandishments, religious enthusiasms and populist incursions.

''The semitheoretical attacks of right and left on the university and its knowledge, the increased demands made on it by society, the enormous expansion of higher education,'' Bloom wrote, ''have combined to obscure'' the universities' mission ''to maintain the permanent questions front and center'' and ''to provide a publicly respectable place . . . for scholars and students to be unhindered in their use of reason.''

Some conservatives may insist they are saying exactly that. But Bloom warned that liberal education is threatened as well by ''proponents of the free market,'' whose promise of social well-being ''no longer compels belief,'' and by religious belief that, ''contrary to containing capitalism's propensities, as Tocqueville thought it should, is now intended to encourage them.''

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