The Weekly Standard‘s current cover story reminds us that Alan Bloom’s treatise on education (and, really, culture), alternately prophetic and infamous, is now a quarter-century old. Andrew Ferguson, in his essay celebrating “the book that drove them crazy,” begins by recounting The Closing of the American Mind‘s improbable ascent to the top of the bestseller charts. Few people–perhaps least of all Bloom himself–thought that a book delving into academic politics, extensively analyzing Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Heidegger, and lamenting the contemporary state of university life would penetrate beyond a few friendly academic circles, much less enter into everyday American discourse:
The course that Bloom’s classic took on its way from the higher mental life to boffo box office is notable even among the endless eruptions and craterings of the American book business. Bloom adapted his proposal for Closing from an article he’d written in National Review. At Simon & Schuster the proposal was bought by one editor and midwifed into print by another, with no more than modest expectations. The original title, Souls Without Longing, was lovely, everyone agreed, but also uncommercial, so it was changed and outfitted with one of those clanky, hyper-explanatory subtitles that were soon to be essential for nonfiction books. The first print run, in February 1987, numbered 10,000 copies.
By late spring it was selling 25,000 copies a week. It hit the bestseller list in April, reached number one by summertime, and stayed there for two and a half months. You saw people lugging it around on vacation, bumping in the bottom of the beach bag against the tanning oil and the extra pair of flipflops and the latest waterlogged paperback from Ken Follett.
Bloom’s work entered the mainstream and shaped the country’s conversation because it hit upon a deeply-felt, though unvoiced, sentiment in American culture, and one that was officially off-limits, too: something was seriously askew in our universities, and students’ souls were being kept (or made!) “flat” by the experience. Tolerance and liberation, values sermonized about by the establishment for several decades, had devolved into mere relativism, and our future citizens were losing touch with the Western heritage that had made education possible in the first instance.
Read the rest of Ferguson’s essay here.