The Garden of College Excellence Is Growing Weeds

Anthony Kronman, my long-time Yale Law School colleague and perhaps the most eloquent individual I know personally, has written a brave, high-minded, argumentative, and largely persuasive book about the values and choices that should animate our greatest colleges and universities but no longer do. His book, The Assault on American Excellence, is also quixotic in the manner of King Canute who ordered the sea to retreat, knowing that as a mere mortal, he would fail. Unlike Canute, Kronman utterly believes what he says, yet the stars, alas, are aligned against him.

This book could not be more timely. The cascade of campus contretemps over academic values and due process in recent years seems relentless. A partial list would include student protests over right-wing speakers on campus and demands for trigger warnings and other protections from unwelcome (i.e., conservative) provocations by faculty, administrators, and other sources; curricular disputes; admissions and financial aid policies; regulation of students’ sexual relations; demands for an army of diversity specialists; and other offenses against political correctness creatively ginned up by hypersensitive, politically “woke” members of the community. When the pending lawsuit by Asian-descent students to Harvard’s ethnic admission program is decided, the war will surely intensify.

These specific disputes are manifestations of competing conceptions of the academy’s role in American life today – a larger challenge that Kronman passionately engages. Its framing argument is easily stated. (It is also obsessively repeated, an authorial tic redeemed by his graceful writing and his subject’s vital importance). Two norms clash on today’s campuses. The first is what he calls the “aristocratic” spirit – a provocative label that will surely invite misunderstanding, even caricature: “Many people,” he notes, “have an allergy to the word ‘aristocracy.’ To them, it implies unearned privilege and exploitative domination. In the original sense, though, the word simply means the rule of the best.” Kronman is clear that higher education is an inherently aristocratic activity which should be organized, conducted, and defended as such. His “best” are the faculty who profess and execute aristocratic ideals. Only they possess the hard-won knowledge and authority to frame the compelling intellectual questions to be debated in the classroom and to judge whether the debaters have enacted those ideals.

[Teaching that America Is Hopelessly Racist]

Tragically, however, our academic mandarins consistently betray this sacred trust by capitulating to a conflicting norm: a “democratic” ethos defined by egalitarian and majoritarian values which have an inexorably leveling effect. Kronman wants to confine this democratic norm to its proper realm — politics, broadly defined – where he personally favors “progressive positions on the whole.” Alas, the democratic norm has bled into many of the campus policies that aristocratic norms should govern. His scrupulous exploration and defense of this distinction are, well, masterful (a term to which I’ll return).

To justify his aristocratic conception of higher education — a “community of conversation” — Kronman draws deeply from the writings of Plato, John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, Immanuel Kant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Irving Babbitt, H.L. Mencken, and others. Each in his own way decried the inevitable leveling effects of majoritarianism in a liberal polity, and each saw exalting education as a leading tool to control them. Even Thomas Jefferson, while excoriating inherited rank and privilege, favored a natural aristocracy populated through superior character and learning. Tocqueville admired America’s commitment to equality and popular sovereignty but feared its vulnerability to a “tyranny of the majority,” which would breed materialism and mediocrity and suppress the aristocratic values of excellence and distinction. To these lofty educational goals, Holmes added the pursuit of “spiritual things,” even of the “infinite.”

Some of these seekers for larger meanings placed hope in genuine religious uplift (not the flim-flam tent preaching memorably mocked by Mencken). Babbitt, a tough-minded Harvard humanities scholar, called for a disciplined curriculum dedicated to high intellectual standards, not “sentimental humanitarianism.” The common normative thread among these visionaries was “the importance of studying the great works of the past; the belief that education is a moral enterprise; and, above all the value of independent-mindedness” in the face of majoritarian leveling and mediocrity.

But serpents dwell in this glorious garden of excellence– threats to this aristocratic vision of conversation, learning and disciplined self-mastery. One threat is universities’ pursuit of “the vocational ideal”: the belief that we are fulfilled mainly by our work rather than our leisure, and the concomitant calibration of our imputed status according to what we do rather than who we are. Who we are, Kronman claims, depends on our “character and competence in the art of living.” Yet higher education today is “in thrall” to this vocational ideal, adopting “the egalitarian morality of our democratic culture” rather than promoting “what is rare and fine among human works and human beings.” (Precisely what he means by all of these empyrean concepts, so central to his argument, remains opaque despite his efforts to define them — a point to which I shall return).

[The New York Times Rewrites American History]

The central element of Kronman’s aristocratic culture is the “conversational ideal.” Although academic leaders duly invoke it at campus ceremonies, they are incapable of instantiating it. “They fail to grasp that the distinctiveness of a college or university is a function of its devotion to a conversational ideal that has no place in political life (a mistake their civil libertarian opponents make too). They do not appreciate that the pursuit of this ideal is a calling that demands even less deference to the feelings of others than one reasonably expects in many non-academic settings. And they fail to see that the spirit of inclusion it fosters is one that gathers teachers and students for the sake of discovering the truth – a uniquely difficult and demanding inquiry in which all are welcome, but some get further than others and grow into fuller possession of the liberating power of thought.” Clarifying this point, he distinguishes the community of conversation on his idealized campus from family dinner table conversation (“where love rules and feelings matter”) and from a public Speaker’s Corner (“where citizens compete as sellers and buyers but have no duty to converse” or even remain).

Kronman, the erstwhile progressive, eagerly acknowledges what egalitarians decry: the multiplication of advantage in American life that engenders “a self-perpetuating socioeconomic elite” that dominates our campuses – a condition recently underscored by efforts of wealthy parents and complicit universities to corrupt the admissions process. But he maintains — wishfully but implausibly — that these unearned advantages will shake out in merit-based differences in grades and rankings once on campus. Egalitarians’ efforts, he claims, should be “for the sake of having a fair chance to show that one is really and truly unequal to other, less gifted and less industrious students.” (emphases original)

But if equality of access and opportunity are essential to the desired inequality of outcomes, as Kronman contends, isn’t this an argument for affirmative action, which he opposes? Here he waffles. He first asserts that diversity’s value, properly understood, is gravely distorted by affirmative action, which “represents the intrusion into the academy of an egalitarian ideal of fairness that has an unimpeachable authority outside the walls of our colleges and universities but less or none within them.” Yet he later asserts that “some affirmative action in the admissions process is morally justified, even required” as the university decides who may “participate in its selective and privileged milieu.” He neither reconciles this with his lodestar, academic “excellence,” nor discusses affirmative action’s actual perverse consequences (which I have emphasized in two decades of writings on the subject).

[Intimidation-Produced Silence at Stanford]

Kronman’s final chapter applies his critique of political correctness to disputes about changing college names and removing statues that honor historical figures who advanced now-dubious ideas. He rightly insists that students learn by both precept and example to tolerate the moral complexity, ambiguity, and tensions of historical judgments, and to avoid the acontextual “presentism” that historians wisely decry. He particularizes this view in an extended critique of Yale’s decision to rename Calhoun College (named for a distinguished statesman and Vice President who fiercely defended slavery), and the title of residential college “masters.” To drive his point home, he quotes Charles Davis, Calhoun College’s beloved black master who opposed the name change and urged Yalies to: “be strong enough to face the past and fight it, which those who forget, by chance or by will, lose the power to do.” Kronman concludes this critique by urging universities to resist political pressures, which belong to “a different order of values and expectations; [universities’] first responsibility is to themselves and their undemocratic way of life.”

The chaste conception of intellectual life on a Kronmanian campus ultimately rests on his notion of character, which is “difficult to define but hardly unintelligible.” His aristocratic campus ethos, in sharp contrast with the now-regnant vocational ideal, imparts to students “a love of those things for which a person of fine character should care” and “is distinguished by the confident belief that men and women can be ranked according to the success in the general work of being human.” His other formulations of character are likewise opaque, stressing “greatness in the work of being human” as opposed to “mediocrity and failure.” Nor does he say how our universities can somehow maintain this ideal while also conducting its many other desirable activities – extramural research, athletics, community relations, programs in countries that don’t share American ideals, much less Kronman’s — in concert with people and institutions who neither share not understand it.

Perhaps most important, he fails to distinguish between the Yales and Harvards of this world with their vast endowments of money and intellectual students committed to the conversational ideal, and the great majority of institutions that have neither and thus will inevitably pursue the vocational idea at which he sneers.

This brilliant, bracing book would have done better to rest its argument for educational excellence less on vague and controversial notions of what character and “being human” entail, and more on the vital need to educate students on what they often miss: the elusiveness of contested empirical facts, the centrality of these facts to moral discourse and decision-making, and the importance of teaching the privileged few how to detect cant and expose imposture in this truth- and candor-deprived society. These more functional lessons are as essential to clear thinking and excellent citizenship as aristocratic character-building is, and wholly consistent with it.


  • Peter H. Schuck

    Peter H. Schuck is an emeritus professor at Yale Law School. His most recent book is, “One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking About Five Hard Issues That Divide Us" (Princeton University Press).

7 thoughts on “The Garden of College Excellence Is Growing Weeds

  1. A very different review of this book can be found here.

    The author states that upon entering graduate school, he largely “encountered professors who were—there is no other way to put it—a gaggle of petty, bitter, and incestuous fools who seemed to either hate their students or view them as tools to further their own small-minded ends. That, or sleep with us.”

    Starting with the professor using my M.Ed program as his personal dating service, I largely found the same thing. And as I’ve come to know academia, I’ve noticed that there is no shortage of the “petty, bitter, and incestuous fools” — that largely the Emperor is stark naked but no one will admit it.

  2. Pedant alert!
    Do you mean Kronman’s distinction between democratic and aristocratic norms is “masterful” or “masterly”?

    PS Bought and read your book “One Nation Divided” – it was excellent, thank you.

  3. One component of the concept of ‘aristocracy’ which goes unmentioned here is that it incorporates at its core the idea of heredity as well as that of excellence. This imports a problem associated with the fact that outstandingly able parents produce low-achieving kids as well as highly capable ones (and given the temptations afforded by a privileged upbringing, often more of the former than the latter).

    The seemingly universal parental drive to provide unearned, high-status perches for their less impressive offspring then becomes a critical driver behind the broad dilution of standards of excellence which inevitably seems to follow, even to the point of destabilizing or bringing down entire political systems. It was a key factor in the collapse of Soviet Communism, as the Nomenklatura became increasingly visibly a refuge for the incompetent offspring of the privileged, and the same phenomenon is currently an important reason why the Chinese regime works so desperately to keep hidden information about the activities of its own Red Diaper elites.

    In the US nepotistic corruption has been driving the rapid dilution in academic standards across grade inflation, accommodations for ’educational disabilities’, college admissions preferences (both legal and illegal), etc., etc. Any response which sets out to restore excellence without taking into account this (deeply rooted in human nature) source of corruption, which can so easily become lethal after just one or two generations of the social and economic stability which encourages it, is doomed to failure.

    1. The rich & powerful have always had sons and daughters — John Quincy Adams was the son of John Adams, and his grandmother (Abigail’s mother) was Elizabeth (née Quincy) Smith (the Quincys being a powerful political family at the time). But neither Abigail nor John Jr. were permitted to act like the sons & daughters of the rich & powerful today…

      Let’s not forget that Princeton developed the SAT in an effort to fairly evaluate Jewish applicants who weren’t coming from the private schools where they personally knew those who worked there. That would imply that the applicants from said private schools were being objectively evaluated — at least to some extent. And then there was “the gentleman’s ‘C'” — again, an evaluation based on merit.

      “Gradeflation” is relatively new, and I find it interesting that it corresponds with dramatic increases in faculty salaries, reduction in faculty workloads, and the general affluence of academia. The more money you need, the nicer you have to be to those who have it, and I can’t help but wonder how much academia has been corrupted by its financial largess.

  4. What percentage of the students at Harvard or Yale are there to enhance their future vocational pursuits, and how much are the faculty now paid? Case in point: Elizabeth Warren being paid $400,000 to teach just one course…

    The concept of the “community of scholars” existed in an era when faculty were teaching eight classes a year, for a whole lot less money. When everyone was doing it for the love of learning and not the money.

    Much like college football and basketball have become the minor leagues for the NFL & NBA, reality is that higher education today has become vocationally oriented. After all, given the choice, one goes to Yale Law School and not Quinnipiac for vocational purposes — a Yale J.D. will open doors that a Quinnipiac J.D. simply won’t….

  5. There is no inherent conflict between intellectual excellence and an open the floodgates admission policy necessary to promote diversity. When I was at the U of Wisconsin during the mid-1960s it admitted the top 75% of all high school graduates. Fortunately, most were gone by the second year. All it takes to square the circle is for professors to be tough graders, especially when dealing with “disadvantaged” students. Alas, as we all know, this is not about to happen in today’s political climate. Just imagine the reaction if 80% of diversity admits flunked out? A professor who promoted this attrition would soon be under fire as a racist. That said, who will enforce intellectual excellence if not the faculty? We are cowards and this is the root of today’s problem.

    1. The problem with doing this today would arise in the aspect of student loan debt.

      Above and beyond the inevitable cries of “racism”, almost all of these loans wold go into default as these kids would largely have neither ability nor incentive to repay them. And now we have parents taking out loans as well… (The loan debt of those who don’t graduate is the untold part of the whole story.)

      Lots of bad things would happen to an institution whose freshman retention rate dropped to 20% — it well might lose its accreditation, and parents of a public institution would besiege legislators who would have to “do something” about it. Likewise, a high default rate might have consequences of its own.

      And these students (or their parents) would go back to the high school guidance counselors and ask why the [bleep] they suggested going to this university — which would mean that very few of this year’s graduating seniors would follow them there. This, in an era of declining high school enrollments, would itself be fatal to the institution. (Way back in the ’70s, this was already start to happen…)

      It’s one thing to write off money already spent, particularly in the mid ’60s when it wasn’t all that much. But it’s something else entirely to look at an ongoing debt. No sane administrator would ever permit this to happen!

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