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.
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 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).
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.