Thursday, December 02, 2004

Sullivan: Not Very Subtle

There are others who could speak with infinitely more intelligence about this, but I can't resist. What's the point of having a blog anyway?

So, Allan Bloom a Nietzschean? Now Andrew Sullivan's on the bandwagon. All you have to do is like the description of the last man, maybe also find the Use and Abuse of History fascinating, perhaps think John Dewey is superficial, and they call you a Nietzschean.

I'm not equipped to enter into a debate on being or any other such thing, so I'll limit myself to Bloom's one practical proposal -- the Great Books solution for the better universities.

There are passages and phrases in the Closing of the American Mind lifted from the Use and Abuse of History. These occur especially when Bloom is taking on the critiques of the Great Books approach to education, the most serious of which come from Nietzsche and with which Bloom clearly has considerable sympathy. Nevertheless, Bloom ultimately recoils from accepting Nietzsche's critique (that the approach fosters superficiality -- the bourgeois with his shelves filled with fancy books that he never reads, Homais in Madame Bovary), and persists in recommending a Great Books education anyway. It appears that Bloom thought that these books are simply there for the taking, that they belong to anyone who can put in the effort and has the talent to understand them, and that even brief but earnest introductions to them can provide the inspiration necessary to set at least some otherwise uncultivated but serious people on the course of a lifetime of learning. I never met him, but I suspect the chain-smoking guy in the fancy European suits really believed in opportunity.

When you consider Bloom's defense of this pedagogical prescription, it seems a mistake to call him simply a Nietzschean. Anyone who calls him that either can't really have read the Closing of the American Mind or can't have taken its main (only?) practical recommendation very seriously.

The irony regarding Sullivan has to do with his smugness. He thinks he knows something about Bloom that more innocent or dim-witted readers have missed.

Impressed by Nietzsche? Sure. Taught serious things by Nietzshce? Unquestionably. But simply a Nietzschean? I don't think so. The joke's on Sullivan.


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