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SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to the Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends.

I'm Shilo Brooks, from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Paul Ulrich, associate professor of political science and director of the Intellectual Foundations program at Carthage College. Ulrich also developed the Western Heritage course at Carthage and was director of the college's honors program for many years.

Our conversation today explores Allan Bloom's 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. We discuss Bloom's view of American higher education, the souls of American students and the effects of popular music on the formation of the American mind.

Paul Ulrich, welcome to the Freemind podcast.


PAUL ULRICH: Thank you, Shilo. Thanks for having me.


SHILO BROOKS: I wanted to have you on, because you are working on a figure that I find endlessly fascinating and that is, a great teacher and professor by the name of Allan Bloom and I understand, that you had a class with him, that you've done some writing on him. And so, I want to have a conversation about him today, that will focus mostly on his views on education. He wrote a very famous book called, The Closing of the American Mind, which I'll let you tell people about. But before we get to those things, can you tell us who Bloom was, both as a scholar, as a teacher, as a man, as you knew him and have come to know him through his writing?


PAUL ULRICH: Sure. I can start with that. I did take a class with him. In fact, I took quite a few classes with him. Starting in the beginning of my second year of college, I think I took just about every class that I could with him, until he died about nine years later. At that point, I was beginning early work on my dissertation. That was at the University of Chicago. So, I think of him as primarily a teacher above all. A classroom teacher. He was an unbelievably inspiring presence in the classroom and by no means was I the only one who was inspired by him. He spent the last part of his career at University of Chicago, but he famously spent about a decade at Cornell University in most of the '60s, then was at University of Toronto and then of course at Chicago and in each of those places, he attracted some of the best and the brightest students there were and many of whom, went on to become extremely influential teachers and scholars themselves.

So, when I think of Bloom, my first thought is of him as this powerful, overwhelmingly inspiring, penetrating presence in the classroom and his professional record really, is a testament to that. That is just the sheer number of professors in political philosophy, who were his students directly. Some of your professors [crosstalk 00:02:43].


SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, many.


PAUL ULRICH: Yeah. Right, exactly. Many. Even other professors at University of Chicago, when I was there, were his students from Cornell days. So, I think of him that way, primarily. As a scholar, he had an interesting career. By no means am I an expert on everything that he wrote, I think it's fair to say the most prolific scholar. He didn't have stacks and stacks of publications. For a long time, he was most famous for his translation of Plato's Republic, which had an extended commentary at the end or he might call it interpretation, explanation of the book that ran almost to a small book in itself. So, for a long time, he was really known for that and then for a translation of a book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or On Education, which maybe was foreshadowing of things to come, with the Closing of the American Mind, that his interest in education was already shown there actually. Really in, The Republic, too.

But I would also say that, when I think of him as a scholar and we're not yet getting to Closing of the American Mind, but when I think of him as a scholar and one of his great contributions to the scholarly world, I know many people would point out his work on Rousseau, but I also really think of his work on Shakespeare, which many people wouldn't think of at all, but really there's pretty much a subfield, I think. It's not an exaggeration to call it, in political theory, in political philosophy, a subfield of Shakespeare studies. It's not unusual to see whole volumes of essays devoted to Shakespeare as a political thinker. To see panels at conferences on Shakespeare as a political thinker and he really single handedly started that, with these masterful essays on Julius Caesar and Merchant of Venice and Othello, above all and then in his last book, Love and Friendship, there were a number of other essays on Shakespeare.

So, when I think of him as a scholar, Plato's Republic, for sure, which is still really, really widely used. That translation people find it extremely helpful as well as the commentary on it. But I also think of him as a Shakespeare scholar of a peculiar kind.

I might just say one more thing about his translation on, The Republic, because that in its own way was groundbreaking because it was an attempt to be a literal translation. And that really started something which now is very much taken for granted, that you will expect to find translations, especially of Greek philosophers, that are literal. Doesn't simply mean word for word. That's not exactly right, but the idea was, to not interpret through the translation, but to as closely as possible, mirror the text. Show it exactly as it is, as closely as you can in English. So, as to distort it as little as possible.

So, in other words, that's not just a quirk, "Hey, why not have a new translation?" It really went hand in hand with the respect for the art of writing that the philosophers practiced. And so, the translation itself too, it wasn't, again, not just the translation, but it came loaded with a thought behind it. You can really read each of these authors with tremendous care and that the translation will not really be enough, but it will get you pretty far if you do the translation in the right way

So, I think of him again, above all, as an incredible teacher in the classroom, extremely inspiring and again, it wasn't just me, but as you know, many, many great unbelievably influential teachers of genius, really, I don't think that's an exaggeration to say, were first inspired by him.


SHILO BROOKS: Yeah and continue to be. I know, I take him as a model for myself and for people who are interested in hearing Bloom, seeing him, you can get on YouTube and you can search Allan Bloom and you can see him giving interviews or lecturing on various topics. So, he's still out there for you to find.

I want to talk in particular about what was his most famous book, Closing of the American Mind, in particular because higher education is again under siege. Maybe it's always been under siege. Maybe it's certainly been under siege since the '80s, but this is in the headlines today. More than I can recall it being in the headlines, say the past 10 years, or so. What are our colleges good for? What exactly are they teaching there? What's happening to the students? Who exactly are the students? These sorts of questions and Bloom, given that he was a teacher of great capacity and of great sensitivity, was plugged in to some of these questions, very early on and in a way gave rise to some of this, but as you'll point out, some of this existed before he came along.

So, can you tell us briefly, what is The Closing of the American Mind? What's the purpose and the intention of the book? What message does it try to communicate? And by way of addressing what themes, so just a summary of the book. I know that's hard to do.


PAUL ULRICH: As I went through it for the first time, it's just a couple of years ago. First of all, I went through it. It's about 350 or so very long, very dense pages. So a summary, thank you. If we have about 50 more minutes, I can summarize it in 50 minutes. So, it's an extremely long and difficult book that covers, holy smokes, the history of philosophy on the one hand, a overview of the character of students today, on the other hand.

It really is a remarkable book, in that it gets very hard to summarize because Bloom, in a way, is able to in fact, summarize the whole history of philosophy. So, thinking enormously broadly in a way, literally from Socrates to Heidegger. In fact, one of the sections is called from Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger's Rektoratsrede, but at the same time, these fine grained observations of individual students, who are in his classroom, or that he just knows. So, it's a really remarkable mix that showed maybe his mix of talents. His incredible ability to boil down and synthesize and piece together all kinds of different elements of Western philosophy and at the same time, to really watch students with great care. So, as to see them as clearly as possible, without preconceptions about what he was going to find.

And so, I think it was a mix of things in this book. On the one hand, he was watching students really closely. To put it bluntly he was distressed by what he saw and then, on the other hand, he saw what could be offered to these students, given his knowledge of the history of philosophy. What could be offered to them? What is there in fact on offer for them? And so, in a way, what are they missing?

So in a way, here's what the university at its best can offer, because the history of philosophy is so rich and fascinating, especially as he presented. And so, what's going on with students? Why are they, I wouldn't say exactly resistant to it, but why are they blase about it? Why are they not intrigued by it, excited by it? Maybe that would be a way to sum up this really, really long intense book, is to say that, he's showing you both of these things. What you could get from the study of philosophy if you apply your mind to it and then, what seems to be going on with students, such that they don't seem to be pulled into it.




PAUL ULRICH: I think it, in a way, that may be the way to sum up the book.


SHILO BROOKS: Is it true that, The Closing of the American Mind, wasn't the original title?


PAUL ULRICH: I believe that the working title really was, “Souls Without Longing”.


SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. That's what I thought, yeah. “Souls Without Longing”.


PAUL ULRICH: In fact, I think, in French, I'm not going to try to give you the French title with a French accent, but I believe it is translated, The Disarmed Soul.




PAUL ULRICH: The French translation. And he worked, I think, pretty closely with the French editor.


SHILO BROOKS: Well, I've read some of the work that you're doing on Bloom and I'm interested in and maybe these two things are connected. What exactly does it mean, that the American mind is closed? What would it mean for that mind to be open? I suspect this is tied to something like, “Souls Without Longing”, that this title would've been as apt as, Closing of the American Mind, but why does Bloom think that democracy has, in a way, failed to foster the openness of mind required to take in these great works? What does that openness look like?

PAUL ULRICH: Yeah, that's a really tough question, because the book starts with a paradox, because the title of the book of course is, The Closing of the American Mind. The book begins with a section called, Our Virtue, which is openness. In other words, Bloom is again, a great observer, not only of students, but of just regular American adults and everyone else. And he says, "Yeah, we Americans believe that openness really is our virtue." And so, he asserts a paradox, that what Americans believe openness to be, is in fact closedness. So, there's already... So again, as you asked me to summarize it. Well, okay, so you have to go step by step, even through some of these paradoxes. So, maybe the way to begin would be to say, "Well, what does he observe that Americans think openness is?"

So, he says openness really means something like, accept everyone and never judge anyone and that is their version of openness. If listeners are hearing that and saying, "Well, you got to be kidding me. He's going to criticize people for not being judgy and being accepting." That sounds like a good start for a peaceful, welcoming, equitable society, where you treat everyone fairly and believe me, I don't really think at all that he's objecting to that, as a way to interact with other people. In no way, do I think he's anti-democratic and that he wishes we were more authoritarian or that people were more alike, or believed more of the same things. I don't think that's what he's saying at all. Rather, I think that what he's saying is that, in American hands, acceptance and openness becomes a determination never to even believe judgments are possible.

So, it's one thing to say, "Look, I accept you as you are." It's another thing to say, "It's not even possible to make distinctions." Maybe a way to say it is that, judging of course does sound harsh, right? A little bit insulting, to say someone is judgy. But it's a little different to say, "Wow, you can't even distinguish one thing from another." You just sort of shrug your shoulders and say, "Well yeah, underneath it all, everything's the same."

I think that's the way to think of what he means by our notion of openness. That we are so determined to accept everything, that we don't even bother to look for what actual real differences could be and in fact, are. Does that start to make sense or am I... Is it too roundabout of an answer.


SHILO BROOKS: That makes sense to me. So, he has in mind more profound differences than we often think of.


PAUL ULRICH:  I think this is part of what he's getting at, is that we start with the idea that we should accept everyone and should never judge, but that means then we have to close our eyes to actual real differences.


SHILO BROOKS: Right and so, why is this then... If this is the American character, which, you've been in the room with students for a lot of years. I've been in room students for seven or so years. Why is this an obstacle to education, this thing that you've described? What is it that education needs that it's not getting from this pseudo openness?


PAUL ULRICH: Yeah. I think that the way that he comes at it is, for example, to talk about what goes on in the very typical American home. And he, again, is not necessarily singling out broken homes or impoverished homes. He doesn't pretend to know about the problems in those places. He says, "Look, I've been teaching at these top tier universities. These are the people I know about, and I'm going to write about the people I know about." He says, "People in other places have other problems, for sure, I'm just not familiar with them so I'm not including them. Not because I'm excluding them out of principle, but because that's not who I know."

So what is the problem with the students in those schools? It is that they come to a great book, let's say, Plato's Republic. And they say, "Why would I even bother with this? The topic of Plato's Republic is justice. Justice sounds an awful lot like judging. Don't we have to pass judgments in order to come to a definition of justice? Or if I come to a definition of justice, doesn't that mean then I will be judging?" It's as though from the start you've decided that the subject either isn't worth pursuing or if you could get an answer to the question what is justice, that would kind of give you the creeps. I don't want to be in a position to be passing judgment on people. That just seems morally offensive. That just doesn't seem to fit with what a Good American does. We're accepting and so we shouldn't be doing that.

So in other words, it's as though that kind of disposition, that open, accepting disposition, in fact closes you off to the quest for answers to certain kinds of questions because you sort of fear in advance that it's going to turn you into the kind of person you know in advance you don't want to be. Does that start to make sense?


SHILO BROOKS:  Yeah. So in other words, you have to have a certain sort of longing for answers. True, definitive, final answers to very profound questions. But there's something uncomfortable for American students in, not just... Well, is it in the search itself, or is it in the thought that they might possess an answer? Not to tell other people that they're wrong? What is it about them that doesn't want... Why push away the answer? Or the search, even?


PAUL ULRICH: Yeah. I do think that he is saying this is a feature of democracy as we live it. In a certain way, because we think every voice should be heard. And believe me, I don't think he's saying some voices should not be heard. That's not right. But we have that belief, and that belief comes with consequences. So again, I'm sure we'll get to this question eventually. It's not as though he thinks, "Oh, there's something better that we could have rather than the democracy that we all take for granted." And that he himself says, "Look, I bless this society. It allows me to do what I do." He's not looking to change it. But that doesn't mean it doesn't mean it doesn't come with sort of harsh consequences. And so we start with that, that we believe because everyone is equal, everyone's voice is equally valuable. And therefore, you are very, very hesitant to even delve into questions that you sense in advance could lead you to really doubt that. To really become someone at odds with that position.


SHILO BROOKS:  Right. With respect to this position and sort of this general sentiment that's in the air in America, let me ask you this. What year was Closing written?


PAUL ULRICH: I want to say it was published in 1987, as I recall.








PAUL ULRICH: Took a few years to write.


SHILO BROOKS: So it's interesting to ask, I mean, given all that you've said, to ask the question. I wanted to ask you, what about students' disappoints Bloom? You've kind of said some of that in so far as they lack a certain sort of openness that would be required for a genuine search for answers to very profound and deep human questions. What else about students, is there anything else that you can think of that disappoints Bloom or the kind of equipment that he thinks needs to learn but don't have? And the reason I asked you about when Closing was written is because I'm curious whether, in your view and my view, both of us as teachers today would say our students still smack of some of these things? Or whether this has changed now in the 2020s? In general, what disappointed him? There's this general closed-ness. Are there other features of the young soul or the young mind as it's shaped by American democracy that he thought?


PAUL ULRICH: He has idiosyncratic, let's call it evidence, that supports his thesis. So there's a famous section which I teach my students. I actually start many of my first semester freshmen with this little passage on books in which he says, "I ask my students, what books comfort you?" And it seems like he tries to pose the question to younger students and not the students who have already been at the university for a few years, but the younger students. In other words, have you grown up with something that really matters to you? And I think that it's easy to hear that question and think, "Oh, well he just wants to know are students cultured? Or are they well-read in some vague way."

But what he really means is, is there some powerful presentation of a set of ideas, or powerful presentation of a character that really sort of lives in your soul and that you... I don't know. Maybe you compare yourself to that hero. Or maybe you wrestle with the same kinds of questions, let's say, that someone might read in Crime and Punishment, right? Dostoevsky. That you really wrestle with this. If I can get away with it, does it matter whether it's right or wrong? Is there such a thing as right or wrong, or is it just a question of what can I get away with? That kind of thing. He looks at students and asks them, "Do you have a book that matters to you?" And finds they almost never can say, "Yes, there is something." And so he's saying, again, not, oh well you're insufficiently cultured or you're not educated in a conventional way, but that you're not already alive to consequential questions, something like that.

So the question about books really is that. Do you have the furniture inside, in your mind, in your soul, that makes you such that you look at the world and see moral decisions have consequences? Or whether there is morality or not is consequential.


SHILO BROOKS:  Right. Yeah, yeah. That makes sense to me. I mean, I'd be eager to hear what your students say when you say, "Is there a book that matters to you?" Because I had a similar experience. I just read with a reading group the book Fahrenheit 451. And at the end of the book, this is not too much of a spoiler, they're burning all the books, this is the premise. And so people who love books have to memorize them. And so the character gets out to this place where there are people who are book sympathizers. And they ask him, "What book are you?" And he's like, "What do you mean what book are you?" And he said, "Well, Joe over there is the Gospel of Matthew. And Sally over here is Plato's Republic." That means they've memorized those books. And so whenever they can get to a place where they can write them down, they'll write them down to preserve them.

And so I asked my students, "What book are you?" And I get, often, young adult literature. And so I'm curious, given Bloom's how he fostered a love of books in so many of the teachers who you mentioned and in yourself and in my teachers and these kinds of things, what do your students say to that and how do you respond to them?


PAUL ULRICH: I do, actually, ask them that as they read this. It's a pretty interesting range. It's sometimes not too surprisingly Harry Potter.


SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, I get that a lot.


PAUL ULRICH: Things like that, right?




PAUL ULRICH: And I actually make use of that. I say, "So you read that, what? In order to learn spells? Why do you read it?" And they'll sort of, "Well no." "So why did you read it?" "Well it's fun." "Okay, it's fun. But also, doesn't it really make you think in some ways?" In other words, even books like that students will admit, "Sure, of course I read it because, in a certain way, it opened up a world to me. It might be a fantasy world, but not simply a fantasy world." In other words, with many books like that, students will admit that they read it and they did not find it useful in any meaningful way, any practical, applicable way, right? But they just loved having their mind expanded.

But then it's when you say that, aha. So then when you pursue that same logic throughout your college education, there's, "Oh, are you crazy?" "Of course not, I'm going to be an accounting major because I know that I have to do that." So I get these mixed responses. On the one hand, you will find students who love a book that is of no practical value to them. But in some ways, it does open their mind to all kinds of possibilities that aren't in normal life.

But then many students will say, well I read, I don't know, I don't even know if this is an actual book, Walter Payton's autobiography or something like that. "Why'd you read that?" "Well, because he really got the most out of himself." So you'll often hear students offering that kind of book. But it tends to follow a pattern, right? Well, this is someone who the odds were against them but they fought and they came out on top and they showed what potential they really had. Again, I'm not knocking that. That would be really kind of nasty and mean of me to knock that. But the point is that they believe that is the key, right?




PAUL ULRICH: I have my potential as an individual, as me. I want to be the best me I can be. The best version of myself I can be. And that, I think, is very consistent with what he's observing. That there's no thought of being taken outside of yourself, but rather simply, no, this reinforces all of the thoughts I have about my own potential, and again, living up to my own expectations, my own standards that I'm putting on myself and no one else put them on me.

And again, we may ask, "Well, what the heck is wrong with that? That sounds like exactly what we want students to do, and that's very American." And I don't think Bloom is really knocking it either, in a way. But in another way, he's saying, "Yes, but if that's all that matters to you, you're never pulled outside of yourself. That you really just believe, I am me, no one should judge me. I am going to just live up to my potential in the way that I define that potential, in the way that pleases me. And there is never any need for me to look left to right, up, down. It will just look within and see who am I and what can I become?"




PAUL ULRICH: Again, we may ask, "What the heck is wrong with that?" But I think he's saying that there are all kinds of possibilities then that you will never become aware of if you only look within yourself and think only of the potential that you yourself have without ever thinking about what others who are, let's say, much superior to you, what kinds of potential that they find in themselves. There's an anecdote about Bloom which I believe to be true, but I can't verify it. That he said something like, "I started to study philosophy because I wanted to learn more about myself. Well, one of the first things I learned is I'm not that interesting." And I think, in a funny way, he really meant that. He was such an interesting person. That's a remarkable thing to have said. But I think he really did mean it, that that is really what it means, in a certain way, to have a decisive educational experience.

To read a book and say, "Wow, there is a whole world of possibility that I never knew of, and that I need to sort of overcome my concern for my individual self. In certain ways, even, to, again, to judge myself, really." Is a way he might say it. To judge myself as sort of too closed, too small-minded, too petty, too concerned with my own abilities and not open to the possibility of all kinds of other things I have never thought of, I never knew existed.


SHILO BROOKS: Right. The benefits that could come from a student thinking they're not that interesting, I mean, it would bloom a thousand flowers because, today, I think students are told perhaps by their teachers or their parents that they are the most interesting people in the world. And pedagogically, that seems like a great sickness. I want to return to one of what I think is sort of the most important themes of The Closing of the American Mind, and talk about Bloom's understanding of it. You've already touched on this in a way with the discussion we had about openness and closed-ness and students not wanting to judge. But this comes out in a kind of theoretical way, the term relativism. And you see Bloom using this term. And you hear it some today, although I think it's fallen by the wayside a bit.

And Bloom thought, as reasons you've already touched on some, relativism was paralyzing pedagogically. And I'm curious if you could elaborate on why he thought that or if there's any more to say other than what you've said about openness and closed-ness. And I'm also even more deeply curious about the following, and that is, it seems to me as somebody who's spent a good while now in higher ed that there's still a bit of relativism, certainly. But it seems to me more and more now that students, faculty, and administration, especially when it comes to morals, they know what's true. They'll tell you what's true. And it's a certain sort of politics or moral view that's popular in the university that everyone should adhere to. A certain kind of orthodoxy. And so while there's this sort of pervasive relativism, there's at the same time, and you see this in commentary in the news coming from people on the right and these... sorts of things. There's also an orthodoxy and no one should depart from what's true ,at the university. That's the dang problem with it.




SHILO BROOKS: It's this peculiar combination. I'm curious whether in Bloom's time, was this orthodoxy? Or, at least was it there? Was it lamented? Is the relativism still here? Is the orthodoxy and the relativism, are they related somehow? Can we make sense of this phenomenon through Bloom?


PAUL ULRICH: I think that there are ways in which it's very much the same as it was then. I think that the orthodoxy or the sort of certainty, really continues to be. We shouldn't be judging people. Maybe the terms change a little bit every few years. Maybe the new groups that we're aware of every few... Or, maybe new groups are added every few years of new people we shouldn't be judging, things like that.

I think the sentiment is the same. Although, it's true that you hear those criticisms, I think mostly coming from conservatives, but I really think that he isn't saying this is a problem caused by the left in America. I think he was in a certain way painted as a conservative, but on examination, on reading the book, it's not really clear to me why that is so. There's a lot in the book. In fact, I would say probably a lot of conservatives might not like too much. What is the orthodoxy? The orthodoxy continues to be that, right? Everyone must be accepted. Again, it's not as though he thinks, "No, some people should not be accepted." I don't think, politically, that's his position at all.


SHILO BROOKS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


PAUL ULRICH: I really do think that he's saying to some extent, reiterating, that he really is saying, "You come convinced of that truth. That you should not judge." It's as though you believe something about very character of your own mind, that you believe that is a misuse of my intellect to make a judgment. If you refuse to make judgements, as he's sort of saying, you sort of deny, as you put it earlier, a quest for clarity is even possible. Or, a quest in which you discover, what am I convinced of, that isn't correct? Where am I wrong? You would never even embark on that quest, because it doesn't really matter. There is no such thing, really, as right or wrong.


SHILO BROOKS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


PAUL ULRICH: So, you just don't even bother beginning on that quest for clarity. In certain ways, I don't think the basic idea has changed. I think Bloom would say, of course it hasn't changed because really in a basic way, it's essential to democracy that we have this great variety and that really everything be accepted.

He really does, I think, in certain ways, come back to this principle that really in a democracy, we're in a regime, a country in which you understand yourself to be a democracy. Putting aside the quibbles, we're really a representative Republic, and these kinds of things. The principles are democratic principles.


SHILO BROOKS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


PAUL ULRICH: The principle is everyone is equal. Everyone is free. He really does think that if you believe that it is possible to become more certain, that you may be in violation of those principles, and that is extremely difficult. There's a way in which he's... Maybe I would say it this way. He's not exactly condemning students. Nor, in a way is he condemning any of their teachers or their parents, the people who raised them to think this way. He's not really condemning them, but at the same time, he's dismayed by them, if that makes sense.


SHILO BROOKS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


PAUL ULRICH: Maybe when the book came out, this was a real misunderstanding. It looked as though he was condemning all people, students, their professors, and so on. I think that's not quite the way to say it. It is really that he's dismayed that they're not open to the quest.


SHILO BROOKS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


PAUL ULRICH: Again, that's not even the same as saying he's sure that certainty is possible, as he puts it in one place, don't believe we're in possession of absolutes, nor could we ever be in possession of absolutes. Boy, that sounds almost like an assertion of relativism. I do think he thinks you can, at the very least, scrutinize what you think.


SHILO BROOKS: Mm-hmm (affirmative)


PAUL ULRICH: And that you can become less certain of what you think. Relativists though we are, we're certain about all things.


SHILO BROOKS: Right. I suppose relativism and what I've called orthodoxy, would have the same outcome, namely inhibiting a certain curiosity. What I have in mind is the following. I've heard this wonderful phrase that students come to college, knowing what they're supposed to think about everything.


PAUL ULRICH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


SHILO BROOKS: This might be from social media. When an event happens out in the world, there are a variety of ways to think about it. Everyone on Twitter knows there's a thing you're supposed to think. In that sense, students come... I don't know if this is true, from the eighties to today, but they come with a certain social pressure to think a certain thing, a certain political position, a certain view of a political problem, or something in a civic conversation. They think a certain way about it.




SHILO BROOKS: That's what you're supposed to think. It sounds like what you're saying is this position, while in a surface way is different from relativism, is in some ways an outgrowth of it or related to it. Is that?


PAUL ULRICH: Well, I think that we could say this, Americans are torn. On the one hand, wanting to have a great diverse and varied society.




PAUL ULRICH: I don't know, I go through my catalog of different Americans and I think, is there anyone who wants a monoculture? Anyone who really is against diversity? That seems highly unlikely, that people would be willing to say, "No, I really don't want diversity." On the other hand, I think Americans are very wary of being too far out of line with what they think they're supposed to think.

I think that what Bloom is pointing out is that the diversity tends to be in very small details. Right? People dye their hair a funny color, or they get tattoos and things like this. They can't really even think of another way to be different. I think those go together.

On the one hand, we really want diversity, maybe in a way we feel the presence of diversity will enable us to show how open we are and how accepting we are. Then, we can feel good about ourselves. On the other hand, we really do believe everyone is equal and everyone's the same. If they're too different, we maybe start to worry that they could become a challenge to democracy. I think the orthodoxy, in a funny way is, yes, we believe we all should accept everyone, no matter, regardless of different they are from us. Yet the reality is we have a very hard time seeing much in the way of real significant differences.


SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that makes sense to me. It would be wrong of me not to ask you this next question.




SHILO BROOKS: I guess it gets to what are the causes of this way of thinking? This way of thinking about diversity that you've put it. More than that, I have an interest in this philosopher named Nietzsche. I recall that there is a section on Nietzsche in The Closing of the American Mind. We've done a podcast with Jeremy Fortier. When you talk about some of these things, I haven’t read closing in a few years. My mind goes back to Bloom, pining certain aspects of the American character on a certain Nietzsche way of looking at the world.

I'm curious if you could address, what is the chapter on Nietzsche doing in The Closing of the American Mind? What is that there for? And why is Nietzsche, in particular, devoted, given a chapter?


PAUL ULRICH: That is something that caught me there a little flat footed, to be honest. I'm going to have to take a stab at this because-


SHILO BROOKS: Give us your best shot.


PAUL ULRICH:... something off the top of my head.


SHILO BROOKS: Give me your best shot.


PAUL ULRICH: Certainly, Nietzsche... You probably discovered this yourself or had this experience yourself and certainly see it in students, that Nietzsche is often the entry point to philosophy for many young students. Right

Certainly was for me, before I knew Bloom. I read Nietzsche and found that exciting. I think there's a way in which I would argue... How about if I argue it from my point of view




PAUL ULRICH: I would argue that Nietzsche, in a certain way, encourages what I think Bloom would see as democratic impulses, democratic instincts. I think there's a reason why young people can feel so drawn to Nietzsche, as though Nietzsche is speaking to him or her, individually saying, "You have this power in you," Right? "And this homogenizing society around you is stifling you, is squashing your creativity, and your inner force that you surely have.




PAUL ULRICH: Nietzsche appeals to people, precisely because they feel so suffocated and lost in a democratic society.




PAUL ULRICH: Is Bloom blaming Nietzsche? I'd have to go back and [crosstalk 00:34:27].


SHILO BROOKS: Well, I don't know. Maybe that's an overstatement of it




SHILO BROOKS: My view of that, and I think I mentioned this to you before, it has always been, you're right and Bloom's right. There is this impulse when Nietzsche... I always thought, well, Nietzsche had a favorite American author and that's Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nietzsche carried Emerson everywhere he went. It was among the most marked up copies of any book that he had, was his Emerson.


PAUL ULRICH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


SHILO BROOKS: There are letters home to his sister that say, "I've lost my Emerson. Can you send me Emerson?" In German translation. It occurs to me that rather than Nietzsche sympathizing, bringing it to America, in a way America brought it to Nietzsche. I don't want to get into this.




SHILO BROOKS: I want to talk more about Bloom. I just encourage listeners to think about Emerson, the great American writer's role in Nietzsche, and some of the things that Bloom says are in Nietzsche that ring true in the American heart. He might not dispute this, that those were in the American heart long before Nietzsche gave voice to them, because Emerson, Whitman, and others give voice to them. Nietzsche was an avid reader of Emerson.


PAUL ULRICH: I think that a way to think about that, is that he talks a lot about what becomes of things in the American hand. If I remember correctly, there is a section... Is it in Zarathustra? Called the Pale Criminal, on this man who wants to kill for the joy of the knife, right? Isn't that the phrase? Bloom points out, "Yeah. That's how Nietzsche presents this figure, right? Someone who kills for the love of killing and how awful, but powerful that is." In American hands, it becomes something very tame. Mac, the knife. This sort of Diddy, this catchy number, and that this is what Americans tend to do. They have this ability to do it, right? To take some very daunting and perhaps awful thought, and make it into something very tame and even pleasant.

I would have to go back, and as in proper Bloomian fashion, check the text.


SHILO BROOKS: I don't want to, yeah.


PAUL ULRICH: I think that his view typically is not, "Aha, see what Nietzsche did to us." Rather, "Look at what we did with this Nietzsche idea."




PAUL ULRICH: Of course, we had to have been open to it in a certain way, in the way that it seemed to suit us, in the first place.




PAUL ULRICH: Which is to say again, each of us feeling. Yes. I, as an individual, have this power, if I can just cut through the stifling harm of democratic conform.


SHILO BROOKS: Right. Yeah, that's fair. It's also fair to say there's a certain brand of American nihilism, which Nietzsche gives voice to. I think, even today, especially in the youth... Just as somebody who teaches Nietzsche to teenagers and early 20-somethings, Nietzsche's diagnosis of what nihilism is, means, does to you, and makes you feel, brings very true with a lot of my students. I always stupefy and I marvel at that. It doesn't surprise me, but I'm moved by it every time it happens. I suspect you might see something of that nihilism, too.


PAUL ULRICH: Yeah. I think there's a reason why he may focus on Nietzsche a bit. He did teach Nietzsche, sometimes. That is, because I think the right student could see, "Okay. There's a way in which I feel like Nietzsche is speaking to me. Okay, let's see. What is he really saying?"




PAUL ULRICH: Is this something benign? Is this about your creativity? Or, is it something much more consequential than that? If this is really the case, it's the powerful individual who should be completely free to express his or her power. Well, does that really fit with democracy? In this art?




PAUL ULRICH: In a certain way, it feels like it does. Maybe if we read Nietzsche very carefully, or maybe you don't even have to read that carefully, you just have to not miss what he's saying. Maybe that's exactly the thing Bloom is saying. There's something very anti-democratic, in that it looks just benignly, a little at odds with democracy, or something like that at first.


SHILO BROOKS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


PAUL ULRICH: But really, it's profoundly anti-democratic. Maybe that's a thing he actually thinks an open mind would at least consider.




PAUL ULRICH: This great thinker could really be anti-democratic.


SHILO BROOKS: Right. Yeah, this makes sense to me. I'm going to go back with you. Maybe we can do it together and look at the Nietzsche sections of Closing. I want to ask you about another section of the book, and it's one that when I'm in conversation with friends, when we talk about Closing, we always wind our way back to it. Closing is a book you've got to read every three or four years. I'm about due. I think it's been three or four years.

This section on popular music, Bloom is critical of popular music. I'll never forget the line, "Mick Jagger tarting it up on stage, he seems to not like the stones. We can say that much, but he's critical of rock and roll. Although you have said to me before that he has a certain appreciation of students interested in rock and roll. So I'm curious, why does Bloom think that popular music inhibits the imagination and also makes it difficult to have a real true relationship with the great artifacts of liberal education?


PAUL ULRICH: It is true that he says when rock, I think, as he puts it, when it first came on the scene, right, and some of the better students that he knew really were attracted to it, because it really was the medium through which you could express rebellion and that the great rock and roll figures were, did represent a kind rebellion of some kind. And oddly enough, he admired that, right, that these students weren't just simply doing as they were told and meeting their parents expectations, but really were looking for something that looked to them to be really different from what mainstream society was offering. By the time he was writing Closing, and by the way I should just for the record point up, he's observing these students and the students are really my generation, right? In fact, in the book there's an anecdote or two that I remember, or I mean I was there in other words in the classroom when it happened.

So it may sound to some people as though, ah, yes, this is bashing students today, but really it was bashing me in my generation. So, but what is it about popular music? I think it's partly that he's sort of saying it just takes over and that it, young people just spent endless hours listening to it. So that there's nothing, there's no room, even for reading a book. It's not I think as if he's though he's denying the artistry or the creativity or things like that, I really do think that he's saying it appeals to a pretty narrow range of emotions, a pretty narrow range of aspirations. And that it really does appeal. It really is designed to appeal to basically to adolescence. And that seems odd, but I mean, personally, I think he's probably basically right.

And I say that as someone who I think knows an awful lot of rock music and that didn't happen by accident, that happened because I enjoyed it enormously myself and spent those countless hours listening to it. But on reflection after decades, looking back after some decades, I think that's probably basically right. It is, it appeals to a very narrow, within a very narrow band of possibilities within the imagination.


SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. That I don't dispute that. But would you say that narrowness fits with the narrowness of the young soul, such that rather than saying that it appeals to a sort of narrow band of the imagination, you can say, well, in a certain sense in a young person, that band is fairly narrow anyway. And the music can appeal, how do I put this, the music can serve as a starting point for reflection on erotic matters. I mean, not every song, but there are certain songwriters of rock music who do I think probably express profound longings that could lead to something higher. I also think of the folk tradition telling the people their own story, the kind of the suffering of human life, political themes from the depression or something of this nature that. In other words, I sometimes think that Bloom is largely right.

I mean, popular music is a lot of junk, especially today, but there are occasional high points of rock and roll where there is a genuine artist. I mean, again, you can only do so much with three minutes and three chords in the truth, that only gets you so far, but I wonder whether he doesn't shortchange at least music just to touch that there is some way for it to act as a gateway, not 99% of it, but there are a handful of genuine artists who might, well, I don't know.


PAUL ULRICH: Yeah I think it's quite possible. In fact, it is possible that he overstates even in a way, the power of it. Right. Because among the students, I mean, I was one of those students who, again, listened to it endlessly, and yet I was also very interested in bloom and in interested in what he was teaching and I became a professor myself and worked on that, on those same books. So it's quite possible that he overstates its power. And it's also quite possible that the more you listen to it, the more you actually do appreciate, again, the variety of creativity, variety, virginity, variety of artistry. It seems to me quite possible that rock music can yeah, get to other things.


SHILO BROOKS: I'm not trying to force that out. I want listeners to think about that, whether there's any profound artists among...


PAUL ULRICH: There is no question he, right, but he is just bashed mercilessly for that section. And it probably does include some of the most over the top sentences.


SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, Yeah. That's right why I had Mick Jagger. I don't think Mick Jagger's one of these genuine artists who I'm telling you all about, by the way, I'm not going to name them. But I would lump him in with not the most profound thinkers, but I suspect there are some. Anyway, I've got two more questions for you and our time draws short. So I want to ask, if Bloom, this is going to be hard and I need you to answer it in just a few minutes, but if Bloom was writing Closing today, would he do anything different and what would that be? And you're not Allan Bloom, but I'm just curious if you have a sense for that.


PAUL ULRICH: It's a good question but I think though that on some of the major points, he would say, it's not as though things have, have improved, but nor could they really have improved, right. That from his point of view as he might say, "it starts in the home", but look at the character of the home, what do parents think they should do? How should they raise their children? I should raise my child so that each one reaches his or her own potential. Who's going to blame any parent who believes that and who tries their best to, tries their best with their child, to reach that outcome. They become the best version of themselves. It sounds crazy to even criticize that. Right. And quite frankly, I don't know how to criticize that. So I think he would say no in a basic way, it hasn't changed because that's where we are in a democracy.

We're so thoroughly democratic, small democratic, the parents themselves don't quite know the basis of their own authority. And so they don't know how to tell their own children, "here's what you must do and here's why you must do it". Again it's not as though he's criticizing the parents even for that. He's saying that's the character of the family in a democracy that the parents themselves believe that they are in a very basic ways, the equals of their children. And that's the case, then how do they tell them here's what you should think, which would then be the thing that they question later, right? This sort of certainty, maybe it's a moral certainty, cultural certainty.

How do they come to question that later through one of the great books that Bloom is teaching? So in the most basic ways, I think he would say, "No, it hasn't changed nor should we really have expected it to change". I think, as I said earlier, we may use new kinds of terminology and maybe we recognize new groups of people as deserving of our acceptance and our esteem. And, but the basic principles I think are unchanged. And I think that he would insist on that.


SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. I often find myself walking around campus, wishing that he were here to diagnose certain things. I mean, I grant the unchanged character of the fundamental things, but I would love, and I'm sure you as somebody who sat in the classroom with him, would love to hear him for 30 minutes sort of wax on the contemporary university situation and the controversy surrounding it. Let me ask you this question. It's something that I ask everybody who comes on the podcast, when we talk about one of these sort of luminary thinkers, or even the great philosophers. And in this case Bloom certainly is not that and wouldn't say he is that, but he would want you to read more than just the closing I suspect. And so what if somebody out there is listening to this and thinks, all right, well, maybe I'll pick Closing of the American Mind, but you said some things earlier about Bloom having done some good essay work and he's got a couple other books. What are the handful of things that you might recommend people look at outside of the Closing that Bloom wrote?


PAUL ULRICH: I would say two things. One is the very first book that he published was called Shakespeare's Politics with several essays on, on specific. Each one is on a play by Shakespeare. And then there's also an essay by Harry Jaffa on the opening of King Lear. His essays on Shakespeare are really, truly remarkable and remarkably original. So he did those early in his career. He also did them at the very end of his career in his last published book called Love and Friendships. So their essays on Shakespeare are there as well. I recommend those just because as I say, their sheer originality, that this is something that no one else had done before he did it.

He has an amazing ability to bring the Shakespeare plays to life in a way that I don't know of other scholars doing. So there's a way just to see his almost strongest innate talent. I would say, go to those essays again, Shakespeare's Politics, his first book, and then Love and Friendship his last one. But I would also say there's an essay he published where he originally gave it as a talk at Harvard, originally it was called "Western-Civ and Me", and I think some advised him to change that title to just Western Civ.

I think people thought maybe it was a little too smart-alicy but he changed the title of that to Western Civ and he published it in the book called Giants and Dwarfs, which is just a collection of essays. I think that is an excellent essay to read. It's not terribly long and I think that it clarifies what was he really trying to accomplish with Closing of the American Mind. I think that there are lots of ways in which that essay is a response to objections that people would make to the book now, even after 35 years later or wherever we are exactly on the timeline. It's also, I think it includes that you would see to the teaching of the code so-called Western cannon today. I think that it's an extremely insightful and far-seen little essay. It just looks like this thing he dashed off as a talk at Harvard, but really answers or at least, yeah, it provides answers to responses to his critics then, but the critics now as well. So Western Civ, a little essay in Giants and Dwarfs, definitely something too.


SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. Certainly if you're interested in this podcast, the Benson Center for State of Western Civilization, I would say that this essay is a must. Paul Ulrich I want to thank you for being on the Free Mind podcast. Thank you so much.


PAUL ULRICH: Thank you so much for having me.


SHILO BROOKS: The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder, you can email us feedback at freemind@colorado.edu, or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.