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Monday, July 4, 2011

Flowers Bloom (5)—Meeting Bloom

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Flowers Bloom."
[a] Storied halRF
During the summer, I will be posting segments of a memoir project I have begun that discusses teaching, learning, scholarship, reading...and the venerable, odd University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, whose bestseller The Closing of the American Mind rocked American education almost twenty-five years ago. I have already written a little bit about Bloom on this blog, and had promised to start posting more pieces starting in June. Read the introduction to the series if you want the full context, but the individual posts are meant to be read on their own (with hints throughout of the larger context).

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6

Flowers Bloom—A Teaching Memoir
Meeting Bloom
I read The Closing of the American Mind three times in just over a week. I could not stop myself. I did not like very much of it. Allan Bloom puts the words “history,” “anthropology,” or “culture” together no fewer than a dozen times in just the preface to Closing. Encomia they are not, and that can be said even without adding the term “relativism” to the argumentative mix. He also has faint praise for those who have chosen to devote their lives to the study of other peoples, and courses meant to introduce students to them.
            One of the techniques of opening young people up is to require a college 
            course in a non-Western culture. Although many of the persons teaching 
            such courses are real scholars and lovers of the areas they study, in every 
            case I have seen this requirement—when there are so many other things 
            that can and should be learned that are not required, when philosophy and 
            religion are no longer required—has a demagogic intention. The point is to 
            force students to recognize that there are other ways of thinking and that 
            Western ways are not better.[1]

It had been one of the first passages that gave me pause when I first read the book that spring. Barely had the joy sunk in that I had been asked to join a venerable group of scholars in Chicago when I read—from pages written by a faculty member at “the Committee”—that I was to be, in his eyes, little more than a cog in the grand indoctrination into moral and cultural relativism.

[b] Noodles  RF
I wanted to argue with him right there, while sitting at a corner table at my favorite noodle shop on Tianmu North Road in Taipei. To me, it was perfectly easy to see why I could have it both ways—embrace the core texts of my own tradition and study deeply the ways and writings of other societies. Of course, that was not exactly what Bloom was saying, but the “problem” of studying the world beyond the West was not one that had eluded me in my preparations. 

I had consulted several venerable graduates of the Committee on Social Thought, all of whom had focused their studies on the world beyond the West. They returned my letters (this was an age before e-mail) with long, thoughtful replies. All had spoken of the rich experience of the Fundamentals Examination—the dozen or more books with which I would live for the next three years—as well as the body of free-flowing discussion that the Committee on Social Thought provided them during their educations studying Islamic historiography, Russian literature, Indonesian anthropology, and Japanese novels. 

These formidable scholars spoke of the Committee on Social Thought in ways that inspired me—that made me know that Bloom was stating the case too narrowly. I still treasure my letter from Muhsin Mahdi (Ph.D., 1954), then the Jewett Professor of Arabic at Harvard, who included in his letter a paragraph that has inspired me as much as any I have ever read.  It remains my ideal of teaching and scholarship.
            ….The Committee made it possible for me to pursue my philosophic 
            and historical interests with as much freedom as graduate students 
            can expect to have, while the University at large provided all the training 
            in the various disciplines necessary to deal with [the Islamic historian Ibn 
            Khaldun], a thinker who could not be easily pigeonholed according to 
            current departmental divisions.  Preparation for the fundamentals 
            examination helped keep attention focused on significant questions and 
            initiated a dialogue which continues to be alive.  And having non-specialist 
            readers meant that one wrote to a wider audience than one is apt to write 
            for within [disciplinary] circles.  Above all, however, it allowed me to be 
            free of the constraints and ideology of [my field] at a particular stage of its
            development, and to remain child-like and inquisitive about things scholars 
            in the field thought either settled or no longer interesting.  Frankly, I have 
            not felt as part of the profession, regardless of how often I have been honored 
            by it; yet I feel the best service I can render it is to keep my distance and act 
            as a friendly critic.  You can see how corrupting an influence the Committee 
            on Social Thought can be![2] 

Reading this—and I still get chills of excitement when I reach the passage about being an outsider—I was sure that the Committee was the place for me, and that I would have rich, wonderful discussions with its faculty members. I especially thought that I would connect with Allan Bloom, who surely understood the concept of childlike curiosity—it was evident from the parts of his book that I admired, as well as the translations of classics that he had undertaken. I was sure he would agree with his classmate (Mahdi and Bloom graduated from the Committee in 1954 and 1955, respectively), and that I was misinterpreting Bloom’s somewhat angry message on the pages of Closing.

I packed my bags, and preserved the carefully underlined books that had made me into a student with at least a little bit of potential to succeed at the still-mysterious Committee on Social Thought. I left Taiwan on July 15, 1987. As my United Airlines carrier reached international airspace, I later learned, the Republic of China authorities lifted martial law. It was legal to dance and gamble again on the little sub-tropical island off the China coast. No matter. I was off to a different kind of island called “The Committee.” 

***  *** 
[c] Chicago autumn  RF
So there I was, on a warm Friday afternoon in early October of 1987, at the first of what would be many Committee on Social Thought “sherry hours,” being introduced to Allan Bloom. “Now which one are you?”, he asked, his whole long face—from the rear of his bald head to his very nose, regarding me in a way that told me my answer mattered. It seemed to matter more than it should. He must have better things to do, colleagues at whom to stare, than to stand, gazing at me and seemingly caring about my answer. Every year since the 1940s, the Committee on Social Thought admitted a handful of students. I was told that admission depended upon a combination of factors, beginning with the commitment to see all admitted students through to the Ph.D. From there, the final decisions on admission depended upon the quality of the application and, this was as serious at the Committee as any other graduate program I have since seen (and probably more so), the interest of faculty members in working with you. 

Bloom, I already knew, took students seriously. It was in the book.
            This essay—a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of 
            the young, and their education—is written from the perspective of a teacher. 
            Such a perspective, although it has grave limitations and is accompanied 
            by dangerous temptations, is a privileged one. The teacher, particularly 
            the teacher dedicated to liberal education, must constantly try to look toward 
            the goal of human completeness and back at the natures of his students here 
            and now, ever seeking to understand the former and to assess the capacities 
            of the latter to approach it. Attention to the young, knowing what their hungers 
            are and what they can digest, is the essence of the craft. One must spy out 
            and elicit those hungers. For there is no real education that does not respond 
            to felt need; anything else is trifling display.[3]

Trifling was the last thing that came to mind when I first spoke with Bloom. Display, however, was another matter. He was every bit the showman, and he reveled in his booming question and the line that followed. “We take these things very seriously here, you see.” 

I paused. This was the moment I had longed for. “I am the one who spent the last two years in Taiwan studying classical Chinese. I am interested in Chinese historiography and political theory.”  I had especially thought that the last phrase would have an impact. I imagined an immediate segue into a discussion of the parallels between Plato’s Statesman and Confucius’s Analects. Or Rousseau’s and Mencius’s views on the original nature of human beings and the consequences of social degeneration. This was the very moment, I thought, when it all begins—when my years of longing and study come together; when East meets West and I take my place at the Committee on Social Thought. I had arrived.

“Oh…you.”  Before I could respond, Bloom was swept away by another faculty member needing to talk about another matter. It was over in an instant, but the scene cast a peculiar—and useful—shadow over the first years of my education at the Committee on Social Thought. For Bloom, I was not exactly the enemy (I could figure this much even in the otherwise deflating context), but I surely was peripheral.

If I had begun with any particular desire to “please” the now famous author—or to join the small group of Committee students who seemed to play the roles of acolytes—it was extinguished in those moments. This was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. I was free to begin the long process of figuring out exactly how and where I did “fit” into the Western classics and the liberal arts. Clearly, I would not be starting from the center. I finished my sherry and returned home to begin crafting the list that would determine my path at the Committee.

[1] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 35-36.
[2] Muhsin Mahdi/Robert LaFleur. Personal correspondence 1987.
[3] Bloom, Closing, 19.

Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
LaFleur, Robert. Personal Correspondence.

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6

Settling In
A year later (1988), join me at my second year-opening Committee on Social Thought sherry hour. A great deal has changed, and several other University of Chicago icons join the picture in a stunning story of one-upmanship worthy of a Northwest Coast potlatch.

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