The 1980s have not been good to American intellectuals of the Left. The election of Ronald Reagan brought neo-conservatives to power, and with them a host of new institutions—most notably, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute—that set about rewriting the intellectual agenda. In the ensuing debate about the purposes and failings of American education, the New Left found itself the principal scapegoat. Johnnie can’t read, Susie can’t write, Dick and Jane haven’t a clue when the Civil War took place or why tea was dumped into Boston harbour or what books make up the Great Tradition. A semi-literate citizenry was graduating from America’s high schools. Blaming this on the 1960s was easier than teaching Susie to write or Dick to think. But then, the debate was not really about education. At stake was the meaning of Americanism, the subversion, as the Right saw it, of young minds by liberal ideas of pluralism, individualism, and equality. To the chagrin of neo-conservatives, young Americans knew more about Sojourner Truth and the slaughter of the Indians than about Teddy Roosevelt’s rough-riding imperialists and America’s manifest destiny. Kids like these would never fight the next Vietnam War.

With Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind,footnote1 trashing the New Left has become a suburban pastime. Thirty-eight weeks (as of 1 March) on the New York Times best-seller list, the book takes its readers on a journey through the highways and byways of philosophy to prove what Americans already know: that the New Left destroyed the university as an ivory tower of intellect. Bloom has splendid credentials for his role as a Jeremiah of the Reaganite middle class. He is a professor at the University of Chicago, co-director of its John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy. Before that, he taught philosophy at Cornell University. With four books to his credit (never mind that three are translations), he is Middle America’s image of a blue-ribbon scholar. Bloom’s brief is simple: cultural relativism, which has rushed to fill the intellectual vacuum created by the student rebellions of the 1960s, has ‘extinguished’, as he puts it, ‘the real motive of education, the search for a good life.’

Bloom’s rather ascetic good life, a philosopher’s symposium of the elect, won’t appeal to many of his readers. But what is seductive is the way Bloom represents—or misrepresents—its demise. In the opening and closing sections, he rounds up the usual suspects: radicals in the civil rights movement, who ‘succeeded in promoting a popular conviction that the Founding was, and the American principles are, racist’; the ‘advanced Left,’ which, in advocating individual self-fulfilment, made ‘country, religion, family, ideas of civilization . . . [lose] their compelling force’; rock music, which exalted sexual desire at the expense of love, eros, shame, and parental authority; black power, which gave ‘the license for a new segregationism.’ But Bloom reserves his harshest words for feminism, which not only destroyed the ‘vitality of classic texts’ (by declaring that ‘all literature . . . is sexist’), but in advocating equality, demystified sex relations and gave us ‘reproduction without family.’

Bloom’s method is as loose as his prose. His book has no footnotes, and most of the time he doesn’t bother to indicate sources. But what makes his claim to truth so spurious—and so appealing to readers who equate feminism with unisex toilets and affirmative action with keeping white males out of medical school—is the way he rewrites history to reinforce old prejudices. The most egregious instance of this is his treatment of racism. Bloom baldly states that ‘racial justice is an imperative of our theory and historical practice.’ ‘Under pressure from students the Founding was understood to be racist, and the very instrument that condemned slavery and racism was broken.’ Obviously, Bloom hasn’t read the Constitution too closely, or not at least those provisions—the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the African slave trade clause—that directly or indirectly made the entire country complicit in maintaining the stability of the slave system. His discussion of the effects of McCarthyism is equally specious. In major universities, he asserts, the ‘barbarians’ had ‘no effect whatsoever on curriculum or appointments. The range of thought and speech that took place within them was unaffected.’ This may have been true at some institutions, including Bloom’s alma mater, the University of Chicago. But as Ellen W. Schrecker makes clear in No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities,footnote2 McCarthyism on campuses of the 1950s is no myth: at scores of institutions, professors were dismissed and their colleagues pressured into conformity. To state, as Bloom does, that ‘professors were not fired, and they taught what they pleased in their classrooms,’ is simply to falsify history. But Bloom is not interested in the Right’s suppression of intellectual freedom, only the Left’s.

Again and again, Bloom returns to the seminal event of his adult life: the student rebellion at Cornell in 1969, when gun-toting adherents of black power and thousands of white allies turned the university over to the ‘mob’. For Bloom the consequences of that takeover—a symbol for student uprisings throughout the country—were tragic. Standards were lowered; requirements abolished; the distinction between educated and uneducated levelled. The entire American educational structure collapsed. The sins of the sixties had lasting effects. In today’s classrooms, Bloom writes, students ‘are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality’—moral imperatives that constitute the sole claim to virtue. Truth has no meaning; absolutes are greeted with horror. ‘The point is not to . . . really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.’

As Bloom himself admits, relativism has a long history. The Enlightenment made it a touchstone of modern thought, and it is embedded in the tradition of heterodoxy that began with Renaissance humanism. Bloom doesn’t reject the Enlightenment (which, after all, gave rise to his beloved university), but he is determined to prove that absolutism in thought and elitism in social practice are compatible with its theory of natural rights. This he never quite manages. Craving heroes, he trots out Homer, Buddha, and Achilles, as if these real and imaginary figures were the makers of civilization. And again and again, he rues the absence of an aristocracy, as if inherited privilege were a condition for free thought and the existence of an intellectual elite. The contradictions don’t trouble him. Nor is he troubled by the political implications of his argument: the buttressing of right-wing ideology and plutocratic privilege.

The book’s popularity stems from a widespread sense that American education has failed. Professors stunned by students incapable of writing a term paper, suburban parents who cannot understand why their children can’t read (even as they park them in front of a television set for six hours a day) are mesmerized by Bloom’s combination of apparent erudition and simplistic Reaganite solution (a return to the Great Books). But the book’s success also reflects a more disturbing phenomenon. The 1960s have passed into history. The wounds they opened, however, continue to fester. Just as society at large has yet to come to terms with the vast social changes of that decade, so on campuses there are many who yearn to turn back the clock to the ivied eden of the 1950s. ‘We are two nations,’ Vag says at the end of John Dos Passos’s usa. At today’s universities, Left and Right gaze at one another across an unbridgeable divide.