The Assault on American Excellence
By Anthony Kronman
Free Press. 272 pp. $27
Anthony Kronman has spent most of his life at Yale University, where he was once dean of the law school and now teaches in a Great Books humanities program. He looks at his beloved campus today and sees pernicious changes all around him. Where once there was respect for human greatness and superior achievement, he now sees the desire for equality undermining the school’s essential mission.
That mission, Kronman believes, depends on embracing aristocracy, the original meaning of which is “rule by the best.” The mission of Yale, which Kronman somehow assumes is the mission of higher education more generally, is to separate out superior individuals who have the ability to contemplate the enduring questions, the meaning of life. These exemplary human beings participate in a “conversational community” on “islands of excellence in a democratic sea.”
But today, he writes in his new book, “The Assault on American Excellence,” these beautiful souls are threatened by the “tide of egalitarianism on America’s campuses [which] has reached unprecedented heights.”
Like so many others who have followed the template laid down by Allan Bloom in his surprise 1987 best-seller, “The Closing of the American Mind,” Kronman wants his readers to believe that his own fears about his favorite, very exclusive university are really decisive for the future of the country as a whole. The desire for equality that is ruining his Yale isn’t just a threat to the Ivy League, it’s an “assault on American excellence.” The whole country is at risk! As Bloom saw things from his academic perch, the 1960s and 1970s turned college campuses into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. Students, he complained, had been inculcated with a prejudice from their earliest school days that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should be allowed their own truth. This assumption led to a moral imperative toward equality: If we can’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all.
Bloom famously painted a picture in which an unconscious commitment to equality and a refusal to make judgments about the truth of ideas combined to ensure that nobody would pursue fundamental questions such as “how one should live” or “what the good life is” with the seriousness they deserved. He argued that the students around him thought they were open-minded, but it was a contemptible “openness of indifference.” Over the past 30 years his complaints have been repeated by a herd of academic pundits trying to reach a wide book-buying audience by attacking leftist professors (“tenured radicals”), conformist undergraduates (“excellent sheep”) or overprotected students (“coddled” minds).
Looking back at his 40 years at Yale, Kronman now joins the pack of disaffected academics who find their students dangerously different from young people in the good old days. Back when he was a student activist, Kronman tells the reader, protests were rough, but they “recognized the distinction between politics and intellectual inquiry.” Today’s undergraduates, in his view, don’t respect this distinction, nor do they acknowledge the superior value of the life of the mind. He likes to cite famous figures (Alexis de Tocqueville, H.L. Mencken) who also saw equality as a threat to (perceived) superior quality, apparently believing this adds weight to his opinions. Kronman believes that his beloved campus is being dominated by political correctness masquerading as tolerance, and that the possibility of authentic discussions or vigorous debates is being eroded by “levelers” more concerned with nuances of persistent racism than with the meaning of life as explored by the Great Books.
In chapters on “Excellence” and “Speech” Kronman asserts the value of open-ended conversations with students who are searching for how to live better, fuller lives. Although he realizes the oddity of saying that college seminars are likely to make students more virtuous, he does really believe “one conduces to the other.” Conversation has an ethic of its own, he writes, encouraging students to become self-reflective, to leave behind conventional opinion, and to explore with freedom and independence what it is to live as fully as possible. This is a powerful description of liberal education and the openness to the “moral ambiguity” it creates. Alas, Kronman goes on to assert that this education helps students become members of a natural aristocracy, developing a “superior character” that should result in such people being “elevated to positions of leadership with sufficient frequency for the regime to survive.”
Kronman doesn’t say anything about how these superior beings would rule, but he does say they are more human and more real. He fails to give a single argument for his view of what real humans are or even a robust description of what superior character is. He just cherry-picks the canon to support the notion that his preferred mode of philosophic conversation does indeed raise one above everybody else. Socratic humility and irony disappear in the author’s commitment to his own taste.
I completely agree with Kronman that colleges and universities should offer “islands of excellence” for people who want to study esoteric topics or want to pursue the arts, psychology, economics, biophysics or even the meaning of life without the pressure of market or political forces. And much of higher education does just that. Vocationalism and the tendency to cater to students as consumers, in fact, are much greater threats to these islands than political correctness.
Kronman paints a paranoid picture of campus life, and I am unpersuaded by the recycled anecdotes meant to show that a tide of levelers rejects the very notion of recognizing great achievement. For better or worse, at many universities, students (and faculty) are hungry for recognition of all kinds — pursuing grades, majors, minors and badges on the student side, and publications, citations and positive evaluations on the faculty side.
I turned to the final chapter on “Memory” hoping for some relief from discussion of an aristocracy drawn from the best seminar participants, but it is infected by the same parochialism as the rest of the book. The 50 pages that Kronman devotes to the controversies over changing the name of Yale’s John C. Calhoun College might have been better for a memo left in the faculty lounge. I do appreciate his point in regard to monuments that providing more historical context is usually preferable to the organized erasure of even a painful past. However, likening the scrubbing of the white supremacist’s name from the college to the murders and historical erasure practiced by Soviet totalitarianism struck me as evidence of neither superior character nor sound judgment.
We live in an age of radical inequality. Opportunities are hoarded by the wealthy and powerful, while the traditional paths for social advancement, especially higher education, seem increasingly to be used to reproduce privilege rather than to promote mobility. This is a real problem for real human beings, but you won’t find it discussed in “The Assault on American Excellence.”
Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses.”