The gist of Bloom×?Ts polemic×?’and the book was nothing if not a long, erudite, and hyperbolic polemic×?’was a brief against the cultural revolution of the 1960s. He said out loud what liberal elite culture could only regard as heresy: The supposed idealism of the 1960s was, in fact, a new barbarism. Whatever moral and spiritual seriousness the long tradition of American pragmatism had left intact in university life, the anti-culture of the left destroyed.
The result? Higher education has become, argued Bloom, the professional training of clever and sybaritic animals, who drink, vomit, and fornicate in the dorms by night while they posture critically and ironically by day. Bloom identified moral relativism as dogma that blessed what he called ×??the civilized reanimalization of man.×?? He saw a troubling, dangerous, and soulless apathy that pleasured itself prudently with passing satisfactions (×??Always use condoms!×?? says the sign by the dispenser in the bathroom) but was moved by no desire to know good or evil, truth or falsehood, beauty or ugliness.
I remember reading Bloom in 1987, feeling as though he was describing what I was experiencing as a young graduate teaching assistant. Bright, energetic, ambitious Yale students could master material with amazing speed. They could discuss brilliantly. They could write effective, well-researched papers. But they possessed an amazing ability to understand without being moved, to experience without judging, to self-consciously put forward their own convictions as mere opinions. On the whole, they seemed to have interior lives of Jell-O.
I have since learned that students are often not as they appear. Quite a number have steely souls and passionate convictions, but they have learned that the proper posture of higher education is either soft diffidence or its counter-image, snarky critical superiority. At times, a cultivated moral passion is OK, even desirable, especially if it is sincerely felt, unconventional, and asserted as an imperative of personality. An urgent vegetarianism expressed with a vehemence bordering on taboo, for example, can be quite acceptable. What is positively discouraged, however, are reasoned, principled commitments. So students who have real and serious moral or religious convictions hide them and cordon them off from their educational experience.
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