Allan Bloom’s “Baptism of Fire” and Cornell’s Student Protests

Fans of Allan Bloom will find this article a fascinating account of Cornell University’s 1969 student revolt:

While the administration cowered, many students and faculty members objected. Allan Bloom, one of Cornell’s most popular—and controversial—professors, told the Cornell Daily Sun that he was “shocked” by the agreement, and an unnamed “senior government professor” warned that “this conceivably could be the end of Cornell University.” Before the faculty met to discuss the issue, 50 students, calling themselves part of the “silent center,” protested the administration’s cowardice, waving signs reading DON’T LET THEM BULLY YOU and BERLIN ’32, ITHACA ’69. Some students, under Bloom’s direction, handed out excerpts from Plato’s Republic.

The faculty by a wide margin voted down the administration’s recommendation to dismiss charges against the students who had overturned the vending machines. Though the faculty did not reject other elements of the agreement, the vote against amnesty infuriated the AAS. Jones gave an incendiary speech on campus radio threatening the lives of faculty who had supported the resolution, calling them racists and mentioning the names of three professors (Bloom, Clinton Rossiter, and Walter Berns) and four administration officials (including Perkins and provost Dale Corson). He even reported their home addresses, warning that they would be dealt with if the faculty didn’t reverse its position by 9:00 PM. Jones closed his remarks by announcing: “Cornell has three hours to live.”

The threatened faculty brought their families to motels, registering under assumed names. Bloom also helped protect a black student, Alan Keyes, whom the AAS saw as a traitor because he opposed the takeover. Bloom put Keyes on a late-night bus to Montreal and arranged financial aid for him to finish his studies at Harvard.

Keyes wasn’t the only student of later fame to study under Bloom; the article details a long list of them, serving on both sides of the political spectrum.

But the legacy of Cornell’s experience lives on:

In addition to its effect on specific people, the Straight crisis had more atmospheric, long-term consequences for Cornell, starting with a collapse of civil discourse on campus. With the emergence of threats, intimidation, and the publicizing of opponents’ home addresses, political differences became personal. Opposing parties lost the ability to debate differences openly, or to resolve them in a nonviolent manner. The threat of violence, not any adherence to principle, had determined campus policy in the Straight crisis. Once the precedent was established that protest, whether violent or not, could change university policy, the university became increasingly politicized. Any decision would have a political component, and any decision could therefore be challenged, and changed, through political action.

That’s our political system today.

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