Allan Bloom: Chainsmoke of Ideas

In 1970-1971, I took my only university political science course. More would have been better, but my focus became philosophy and religious studies in the second and third year of a general Bachelor of Arts degree.

The class size for the introductory political science course at the University of Toronto was about 200. Larger than I have ever lectured to in later years, or would choose to lecture to. Into this class of 200 or so students, most in their late teens, walked Allan Bloom. Fresh from leaving Cornell University, due to what some said were disagreements over how the university administration there had handled certain student protests.

I had no idea who Allan Bloom was or how famous he was at that time. After one semester of his lectures, it did not surprise me when he later became internationally famous for The Closing of The American Mind, his critique of higher education, as well as for the posthumous publication of essays, Love and Friendship.

Allan Bloom was engaged to teach only one term of a two-term course. At least, that is what I had originally thought. The contrast in lecture styles was dramatic between terms. I will always remember Allan Bloom, but forgot his successor almost as soon as the course was completed.

What distinguished Allan Bloom from so many was his absolute passion for and vast knowledge of his subject. We were studying Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, as well as Bloom’s own translation of Plato’s Republic.

At a time when smoking was more generally accepted, Bloom would both talk and smoke non-stop during his 75-minute lectures. He would go through six or seven cigarettes in an hour. He became more and more excited as the lecture progressed. In many respects, it wasn’t so much a lecture as idea after idea being expressed. All of these ideas whirling amidst the smokerings. In the middle of one lecture, he ran out of cigarettes. Asked the students in the front rows for some more. Many immediate offers. Very differernt times.

At a time when professors dressed particularly casually, Bloom was always impeccable in a two or three-piece suit. He also had the stand-up comedian’s gift of the putdown for those students who viewed Bloom as an enemy of the left and who wanted to bait him. (“Of course, you can always leave and go write some bad poetry along the River Seine.”)

He only lectured during that first term; my first university term. He returned to envigilate the final exam in late April. During this period, he suffered a heart attack. Contrary to my original understanding, it was the heart attack that prevented him from teaching the second term, rather than design. He was forty years old.

When writing the final exam in the course, I was particularly impressed with the questions from the “Bloom term”, which seemed to require a greater demonstration of an ability to work with the material abstractly and by analogy. I remember him personally envigilating the multi-location examination. It didn’t seem particularly surprising at the time, but when one later reflects on such a famous professor both teaching a very large first year undergraduate course, plus being so personally engaged with the examination process, it is particularly impressive.

The next year, one of my classmates continued with further courses with Alan Bloom. He was still teaching undergraduate courses–this time, a second year course, early in the morning. I and a couple of other classmates went to the course that morning, in the hope of again experiencing Bloom’s excellence in creating a room full of ideas. We also wondered about his physical state.

He started to lecture. He was thinner than before, and his voice was softer. Of course, he had stopped smoking cigarettes.

Instead, he smoked cigars.

He lived another twenty-one years.

In my own academic times, I’ve often tried to create a room full of ideas. Always with a much smaller class than Allan Bloom faced. And never with the same degree of effect.

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6 Responses to Allan Bloom: Chainsmoke of Ideas

  1. Dr. Michael Palmer, of the Honors College, University of Maine and author of Masters and Slaves: Revisioned Essays in Political Philosophy (Lexington Books, 2001) comments in the following e-mail exchange on January 18, 2011:

    BL: I know that I first encountered him in the fall of 1970. Do you recall being in a big auditorium in the Medical Sciences building (or Engineering–I can’t remember which)?

    MP: No,that came later, to my knowledge, after the class became increasingly large. His intro class when I had him was in the Sidney Smith Building.

    BL: I then heard about the heart attack sometime during 1971.

    MP: It was just before the beginning of the Spring 1972 semester.

    BL: Maybe he was still teaching the large intro class in 1971-72?

    MP: He was.

    BL: In addition to later/upper year courses?

    MP: I do know that he taught Politics and Morality (a 300-level course that I took), and a graduate seminar in 1972-73. In 1973-74 and 1974-75, I was in his graduate seminars.

  2. Popgun Chaos says:

    Thanks so much for sharing! This was really interesting!

  3. Perhaps you might be interested in my recent 2-part series on Prof. Allan Bloom @ http://www.EllisWashingtonReport.com — “I remember Allan Bloom” & “…., pt. 2”

    Peace,
    ~ EW

  4. My recollection is that he smoked Pall Mall red, unfiltered.

  5. As of 1987, he was back to smoking cigarettes:

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