©2001 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Allan Bloom

Analyst: Michael Leichliter



edited 4/30/14

I. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Democratic education, whether it admits it or not, wants and needs to produce men and women who have the tastes, knowledge, and character supportive of a democratic regime. (p. 26)

From the earliest beginnings of liberal thought there was a tendency in the direction of indiscriminate freedom. Hobbes and Locke, and the American Founders following them, intended to palliate extreme beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, which lead to civil strife. The members of sects had to obey the laws and be loyal to the Constitution; if they do so, other had to leave them alone, however distasteful their beliefs might be. In order to make this arrangement work, there was a conscious, if covert, effort to weaken religious beliefs, partly by assigning - as a result of a great epistemological effort - religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge. But the right to freedom of religion belonged to the realm of knowledge. . . . All to the contrary, the sphere of rights was to be the arena of moral passion in a democracy.

Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness, without recognizing the inherent political, social, or cultural problem of openness as the goal of nature, has rendered openness meaningless. Cultural relativism destroys both one's own and the good. (p. 38)

II. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? A lie?

Perfect knowledge of the whole is not available to us. Determining what is good and bad depends on knowledge of the nature of being. Obviously our doubt about that is the impetus of the very quest for knowledge. We may not know everything, or even know very much, but if we begin with the presupposition that "all is relative," we can't begin to investigate what our real alternatives are. (NPQ p. 10)

To avert civil strife, Hobbes, Locke, and the American founders saw the necessity of attenuating absolute religious beliefs by assigning them to the realm of opinion, instead of knowledge. But they always insisted that the self-evident principles of society were indubitable. Now, it seems that in liberal societies transformed by cultural, or "value relativism" - which can be traced to the pervasive influence of German philosophy, in particular Nietzsche and Heidegger - full freedom can be attained only when there is no knowledge at all about nature and the good society. There are only opinions or preferences, each as good as the next, each equally tolerated. (NPQ p. 1)

Thus there are two kinds of openness, the openness of indifference - promoted with the twin purposes of humbling our intellectual pride and letting us be whatever we want to be, just as long as we don't want to be knowers - and the openness that invites us to the quest for knowledge and certitude, for which history and the various cultures provide a brilliant array of examples for examination. This second kind of openness encourages the desire that animates and makes interesting every serious student - "I want to know what is good for me, what will make me happy" - while the former stunts that desire. (p. 41)

. . . one should never forget that Socrates was not a professor, that he was put to death, and that the love of wisdom survived, partly because of his individual example. This is what really counts, and we must remember it in order to know how to defend the university. (p.382)

III. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

In classical thought one can find some serious alternatives about the nature of human beings. There are some kinds of ridiculous things you can just refute . . . and after you've found the easily refutable ones, which is what Socrates does, you're left with very few serious choices - the life of philosophers, of rulers, of prophets, of saints and of poets. The discussion really begins about the claims of each. That doesn't mean that choosing between them is not difficult, but at that point, at least you've gone a long way down the road. Then you have to argue which one is the most plausible. (NPQ p. 12)

Men cannot remain content with what is given them by their culture if they are to be fully human. This is what Plato meant to show by the image of the cave in the Republic and by representing us as prisoners in it. A culture is a cave. He did not suggest going around to other cultures as a solution to the limitations of the cave. Nature should be the standard by which we judge our own lives and the lives of people. (p. 38)

IV. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are. They are divinations of the order of the whole of thing, and hence the road to a knowledge of that whole is by way of erroneous opinions about it. Error is indeed our enemy, but it alone points to the truth and therefore deserves our respectful treatment. (p 43)

It's assumed that when I criticize the cultural relativism that arose in the 60s as a dogmatism, I do it in the name of absolutes and tradition. But I'm not arguing for a return to anything. I'm not for the sacred of absolute values. What I'm arguing for is the possibility of philosophy and against "value language." I'm arguing that if students know beforehand that all values are subjective, and thus chosen according to mere preference, then education cannot be connected with values. (NPQ p. 2)

V. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

A liberal education means precisely helping students to pose this question [what is man?] to themselves, to become aware that the answer is neither obvious nor simply unavailable, and that there is no serous life in which this question is not a continuous concern. (p 21)

. . . I personally tried to teach my students prejudices, since nowadays-with the general success of his [a psychology professor's] method-they had learned to doubt beliefs even before they believed in anything. Without people like me, he would be out of business. Descartes had a whole wonderful world of old beliefs, of prescientific experience and articulations of the order of things, beliefs firmly and even fanatically held, before he even began his systematic and radical doubt. One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation. . . The mind that has no prejudices at the outset is empty. . . Only Socrates knew, after a lifetime of unceasing labor, that he was ignorant. (p. 43)

VI. Theory of Society: What is society? What institutions are involved in the educational process? 

Modern regimes were conceived by reason and depend on the reasonableness of their members. And those regimes required the reason of natural science in every aspect of their activity . . . Whether it is called liberal democracy or bourgeois society, whether the regime of the rights of man or that of acquisitiveness, whether technology is used in a positive or negative sense, everyone knows that these terms describe the central aspects of our world. They are demonstrably the results of the thought of a small group of men with deep insight into the nature of things, who collaborated in an enterprise the success of which is almost beyond belief. It penetrated and informed every detail of life. These are not men to be dismissed-but they can be questioned. (p. 293)

VII. Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

. . . fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise - as priests, prophets or philosophers are wise. Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine. (p. 58)

The improved education of the vastly middle class in the last half-century has also weakened the family's authority. Almost everyone in the middle class has a college degree, and most have an advanced degree of some kind. Those of us who can look back to the humble stations of our parents or grandparents, who never saw the inside of an institution of higher learning, can have cause for self-congratulation. (p. 59)

VIII. Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

The real community of man, in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent they desire to know. But in fact this includes only a few, the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good. Their common concern for the good linked them; their disagreement about it proved they needed one another to understand it. They were absolutely one soul as they looked at the problem. This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only real common good. (p. 381)

Our desire for conflict reduction accounts for the great popularity of the word "dialectic"- in our sense, the Marxist sense-for, beginning in opposites it ends in synthesis, all charms and temptations united in harmony. In philosophy and morals the hardest and most essential rule is "You can't eat your cake and have it too," but dialectic overcomes this rule. . . Human nature must not be altered in order to have a problem-free world. Man is not just a problem-solving being, as behaviorists would wish us to believe, but a problem-recognizing and -accepting being. (p.229)


Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Bloom, A. Too Much Tolerance. New Perspectives Quarterly, vol 4,4 [On-line Serial], Available FTP: http://www.npq.org/issues/v44/p6.html.