The University of Chicago Magazine

August 1997

Bloom in review

(Continued from previous page)

Following Khanna, Diana Schaub, AM'83, PhD'92, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland, offered the results of an informal survey of her students she had done in preparation for her talk. "I am persuaded that it was rhetorically necessary for Bloom to exaggerate the deficiencies of contemporary students," she told the crowd. In contrast to the book's assertions about students' values, 70 percent of her students were concerned about families, naming a relative, most often a father, when asked: "Who are your heroes?" And they were socially responsible, with more than 60 percent performing volunteer service. An undetermined number did engage in disengaged sex, a phenomenon they referred to as "hook ups," but the rest seemed to resent such casual, purely glandular alliances.

Because Saturday morning's all-star session on "The Teaching of Literature" was to be recorded for the masses by two cameras from C-SPAN, the venue shifted to the larger, modern Max Palevsky theater. The topic echoed one of Bloom's great concerns in Closing: that students had "lost the practice and the taste for reading. They have not learned how to read," he lamented, "nor do they have the expectation of delight from reading."

It was precisely this missing delight that Joyce Carol Oates addressed as she providing a brief history of her own literary awakening, her unschooled love affair with literature. The child of parents with little formal education, she discovered literature on her own: Edgar Allen Poe at 10, Faulkner, her chief influence, at 14. Although she now teaches writing at Princeton, she doesn't draw much on theorists. "Literature is sustained by practitioners," she insisted, "living, striving, groping individuals." Instead of reading criticism about Joyce, for example, Oates has students compare early and later versions of his stories to see what the author himself thought of what he had written.

Although Oates was the big draw--many in the audience came just to see her--the highlight of the morning session was Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua, currently a visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought. An animated, humorous, passionate speaker, he agreed with Oates that students can learn more "from the cooks in the kitchen than the critics in the restaurant," but tried to steer the discussion away from the classics. "The Great Books are not so much important," he suggested. "They are too big" for students, "the weight of the canon is too much." Students should immerse themselves, he thought, "not so much in Great Books as in the books they love and are committed to."

Yehoshua also brought the discussion back to Bloom, describing their first meeting at a conference in Vermont. "I saw him encircled, surrounded by students," he recalled, "chain-smoking, in dialogue with them. There was high erotic tension you could see in his students. That was the most important thing in this meeting, the eros. What we lack in teaching literature is this eros. It is the key to identification and participation. How can we reintroduce eros to departments of literature?"

The first afternoon session, on "The Power of Books and Music in the Souls of the Young," began with a closer look at the most outrageous, most quoted and-many have argued-the least defensible chapter in Closing, simply titled "Music." Bloom's editor at Simon and Schuster once claimed that this was the chapter, with its description of an entire generation as addicted to simplistic rock music-an art form with "one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire…a non-stop commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy"-that made the book a best-seller.

Presenter Martha Bayles, literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly, carefully picked the chapter apart, pointing out factual errors, the paucity of references to jazz, and a lack of familiarity with complicated Afro-American rhythms that she claimed easily demonstrated how Bloom was essentially deaf to the nuances of modern popular music.

The instant hit of the afternoon, however, turned out to be the rambling, practical, down-home sentiments of Stanley Crouch, author and columnist for the New York Daily News, who stood up, shrugged off the microphone, and announced in a booming voice that his title, "Blues for Tomorrow," was the one he always used when he had no idea what he was going to say. He was "tired of the intellectuals," he began, people like Bloom, going around whining "Oh no, the world's about over with." As a black man who remembered the 1950s, Crouch wanted his listeners to appreciate that since Bloom's "golden" era, "we may have seen the most remarkable positive social change in such a short time in history." When faced with social or political questions back then, "it used to be all: ask the white man," recalled the journalist. "Now, that's over with."

Crouch nonetheless sided with Bloom against cultural relativism. "If your culture is screwed up," he declared, "face it." He also ratified Bloom on the perils of stressing equality over quality. "As you move away from inequality," warned Crouch, "you end up with people who think that just because they're human beings, they're your equal. For example, my daughter thinks she knows just as much as me." But, "if I didn't know more than you," he reminded her, "you would be homeless."

After the day's final session--an attack on the excesses of feminism by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese from Emory and a restrained defense by Anthony Appiah, a scholar from Ghana who now teaches at Harvard--the listened-out crowd hit the streets. A random tour of Hyde Park restaurants, however, revealed that the discussion had simply moved. Non-conference diners couldn't avoid overhearing debates about existentialism and cultural relativism, moralism and dogmatism, sexism and feminism. Thai food came with snippets of transcendentalism, pizza with parochialism, sushi with Taoism. It was hard to pick out specific words from student diners at Caffe Florian over the prurient poetry and pounding pulse of pumped-in rock music. Three young males may have been debating the merits of individualism, but if Bloom was right, they were probably just extolling the joys of hedonism.

Continue reading "Bloom in Review"

Go to:

Return to August 1997 Table of Contents