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ROCK UNDER FIRE : But the Professor in the Ivory Tower Forgot to Do His Homework Before He Bashed Rock 'n' Roll

September 06, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

Allan Bloom, a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, would no doubt cringe at the idea, but he's got the instincts of a true rock 'n' roll star.

If Chuck Berry rather than Plato had been his inspiration, this "mournful trumpet of intellectual despair" (as USA Today described Bloom) might be atop the pop charts these days instead of the nonfiction best-seller lists, where his book "The Closing of the American Mind" has been anchored for weeks.

Bloom is an assured and provocative writer with a penchant for Big Statements and Easy Targets. Reviewing "American Mind" in the New Republic, Louis Menand described the author as a "man who knows his own mind, and who thinks well of what he finds there."

The professor, who is in fact a scholarly, button-down 56-year-old, would have made the biggest splash during the '60s: rock's "golden age" of social dissection. Critics and fans would have cheered him as he ripped into the junk-food tendencies of mass culture.

In the most aggressive and lyrical moments of his book, Bloom assails contemporary directions in American education with a high idealism and fiery purpose reminiscent of Bob Dylan decrying bankrupt American institutions in "Highway 61 Revisited."

Imagine Bloom borrowing one of Dylan's tunes--say "Blowin' in the Wind"--and setting his words to music. "True openness means closedness / To all the charms that make us comfortable / With the present" may not have the quite the ring of "How many roads must a man walk down," but it surely would have earned him the support of disgruntled college students.

The thesis of "American Mind" is a seductive one: Modern man has lost touch with the classical values of education. Because of this, Bloom maintains, man is blind to the intellectual process, a condition that leaves him unable to draw upon the lessons of the past or provide the tools to forge a purposeful vision of his own society and the future. Expedience has been substituted for reason, convenience for logical examination.

This concept isn't new. Supporters of liberal education have decried for years the drift of universities away from classic studies and toward occupation-oriented service institutions--the substitution of skills for knowledge.

A symptom of this malaise, Bloom feels, is that students have adopted "relativism" as the operative philosophical principle--the idea that there are no absolutes or truths because everything is based on your particular culture's outlook.

Relativism, Bloom maintains, leaves students ill-equipped to grapple with questions of right and wrong because it teaches that there is no ultimate right or wrong, simply different ways of looking at things--a concept that he dismisses as intellectually and morally empty. If relativism and the importance of refocusing on liberal education are the Big Statements in "The Closing of the American Mind," the Easy Target is rock 'n' roll.

"Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music," declares Bloom, writing with the heart of a true rock provocateur .

He continues: "A very large proportion of young people between the ages of ten and twenty live for music. It is their passion; nothing else excites them the way it does; they can not take seriously anything alien to music. When they are in school and with their families, they are longing to plug themselves back into their music."

There is more. Writing with a breathless alarm that seems more suited for news of a deadly disease sweeping through a city, Bloom proclaims that rock music today "knows neither class nor nation. It is available twenty-four hours a day, everywhere. There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels devoted to them, on the air nonstop; there are the Walkmans so that no place--not public transportation, not the library--prevents students from communicating with the Muse, even while studying."

Bloom devotes only a single, 14-page chapter in his 382-page critique to music, but that chapter is placed prominently near the beginning of the book and it features some of his liveliest writing.

Unfortunately, the chapter also contains some of his sloppiest thinking--a point that hasn't stopped his views on the subject from getting considerable attention, including newspaper excerpts. Branding record executives as "robber barons," he charges that the music business caters "almost exclusively to children" and that rock has "one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire." The music's three great lyrical themes, he says, are "sex, hate and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love."

Thanks to Bloom, rock is no longer under attack only from fundamentalist preachers or Washington wives, but from the Ivory Tower.

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