Review of Anthony Kronman, The Assault on American Excellence

January 2020

Anthony Kronman, The Assault on American Excellence, Free Press, 2019, ISBN-13: 978-1-5011-9948-6, 272 pages.

In the summer of 2015, the “master” of Pierson College at Yale University decided to change his title in response to student complaints about the term’s “offensive connotations,” since it reminded them, they claimed, of plantation culture in the Old South (1). “I found it hard to believe he was serious,” writes Anthony Kronman in his new book, The Assault on American Excellence, describing the whole “master” debate as “a ridiculous exaggeration of wounded feelings, anguished responses, and inflated moral concerns” (2). But there was more to come.

Later that same summer, Yale’s president, in a traditional welcoming address delivered to the incoming class, revisited the long-simmering controversy over the name of Calhoun College, whose namesake, John Calhoun, had infamously defended slavery as a “positive good” almost two centuries before (198). In time, the president did “what those of an administrative temper often do,” writes Kronman, striking a committee, which he christened the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, along with the Presidential Advisory Group on the Renaming of Calhoun College, thereby initiating “a blur of administrative legerdemain that did little to conceal the absence of intellectual or moral leadership that had characterized the entire affair from the start” (4).

As Halloween approached, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council reminded students in an e-mail of the danger of committing acts of even well-intentioned “cultural appropriation” in their choice of Halloween costumes. When Erika Christakis, a scholar of early childhood development and Associate Master of Stillman College, e-mailed her own students, reassuring them that they were responsible enough to make their own decisions about such matters, angry students protested that she had violated Yale’s commitment to inclusion. In the courtyard of Stillman College, her husband, a respected scientist and Master of the College, was accosted for two hours by a mob screaming obscenities and denouncing him and his wife. Limp and tardy in his defense of the Christakises, the president ensured that their only reasonable option was to step down from their positions at Stillman. According to Kronman, the president’s “empty words of peace and reconciliation skirted all the hard questions raised by the Halloween incident and covered the matter in an anodyne fog of pretended agreement” (5).

Had a comparable trio of controversies erupted on any other North American campus in recent years, it is doubtful that they would have been addressed with any greater clarity or courage than they were at Yale in 2015. But, as Sterling Professor of Law at, and former Dean of, Yale Law School, Kronman is particularly aggrieved at the intellectual shallowness and misjudgment of educational values on display in this series of halting responses by his own university.

However unrelated the controversy over the title of master, the Calhoun debate, and the Halloween episode may appear, all were expressions of what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. calls “the effervescence of democratic negation,” a kind of belligerent egalitarianism that, while perfectly at home in the world of politics and law, where equality has considerable, even decisive, weight, is not just misplaced, but often destructive, in an academic setting (11-14). Democratic negation is, for Holmes, a program of leveling, of knocking down what is “subtile” and “profound,” and belittling what it ought to revere (14).

In this, Holmes follows Tocqueville, who, though an admirer of American democracy, was aware, too, of the pathologies to which it is prone. Foremost among these are, first, the threat posed to independent thought by the “tyranny of the majority” and, second, the loss of esteem for human greatness. For Tocqueville, says Kronman, the “master principle of American democracy is that of equality. Its triumph is to make the world more ‘just.’” But it also makes it “less exalted” (39). In order to temper such excesses, he urges the establishment and protection of various associations or “enclaves” devoted to the pursuit of excellence and beauty, including museums, literary societies, colleges and universities (43).

Kronman refers to the “obvious tension” between democratic values and the governing ideals of higher education. “But instead of seeing in this tension a needed and creative tonic,” he writes, “many on campus today seem to want to make it disappear. Led by pious levelers, they strain to give the principle of equality, which is and ought to be the touchstone of our political life and a sacred legal value, a more rigorous application to academic relations as well” (20). Each of the Yale controversies, or “movements,” that he recounts expresses “a democratic commitment. Each is motivated by a legitimate concern with injustice in the society at large and with racial injustice in particular. But each does great harm to our colleges and universities when this commitment is extended to their interior culture…” (15). Among the more grievous harms of this ill-advised extension is to cast “a pall of mendacity” over universities “by compelling them…to say one thing while doing another” and to consolidate in classrooms what he calls “the new masterless world of teaching and learning” (17, 217; also 133-136).

Kronman briefly discusses the important distinction Irving Babbitt draws between humanism and humanitarianism (51-55). Whereas the latter’s “program of service” is ardently democratic, the humanist’s training is invariably “aristocratic” (53). In fact, the assault on excellence to which Kronman’s title alludes is “an assault on the aristocratic ideal that underlies the humanist tradition” (215). In our own time, of course, to defend aristocratic ideals is to invite howls of derision, as Kronman is well aware. For while egalitarians are prepared to accept (for the time being, at least) certain academic distinctions of rank (for instance, who deserves an A, and who a C or an F), just as they are willing to recognize different levels of achievement in “narrowly defined vocational pursuits” (like baking date-squares, throwing curveballs, or predicting the weather), they adamantly reject the assumption that certain people can out-perform others in what Kronman calls “the all-inclusive work of being human” (6, 17, 7, 13, 24, 30; also 154-162). According to the aristocratic ideal, however, since education is, or at least can be, not merely additive, but transformative, since a person’s humanity, therefore, “can grow,” such that her life exhibits “grades and distinctions of human fulfillment,” standards of excellence clearly apply “beyond the realm of specific tasks” to include that of being human (30).

To egalitarians, this all sounds impossibly archaic. Nor does it help to insist, with John Adams, that “natural” aristocracy is a matter of neither lineage nor title, but of merit, or to deride, with Babbitt, the “fake” aristocracy of the “outer advantages of wealth, or power, or station,” or to grant, with Kronman himself, that aristocracy, properly understood, is based on accomplishment, not status or race (36, 53, 72; also 100). For aristocracy of whatever sort requires the disposition and leisure to plant one’s nose in books, and who is foolish enough to pretend that that makes anyone a better human being?

When Kronman describes aristocracy as a “spiritual condition,” a “greatness of soul” that expresses itself in a “love of what is brilliant and fine,” and aspires to “mastering the art of living,” it cannot help but seem a privilege reserved for a pampered and insular few (48, 9, 10, 215). And yet, the essence of the aristocratic ideal, he maintains, is rooted in the belief that “there is such a thing as character; that a person’s character can be better or worse; that character is shaped by education; and that one of the goals of higher education is to instill in the student a love of those things for which a person of fine character should care…” (63). While powers of observation and enjoyment, of expression and judgment, sympathy and self-understanding are universal, they are developed to a higher degree in some than in others (9, 52-53, 70). The “principal aim” of higher education may be, as Kronman argues, “teaching and learning for their own sakes,” but he repeatedly concedes that it is also “an aid to the independent-mindedness on which the health of…democracy depends” (216, 15). After all, higher education aims to develop a habit of judgment “less vulnerable to the moods of the moment,” to encourage self-reliance and a singular “spaciousness of outlook,” to strengthen “the ability to subject one’s own opinions and feelings to higher and more durable measures of truth and justice,” and to enable one thereby to resist both the hollow appeals of sentimentalists and the flattery of tyrants (10, 19, 45).

If the aristocrat is no egalitarian (and the humanist no humanitarian), nor is he a libertarian (113). This is amply confirmed in Kronman’s discussion of campus speech, particularly concerning the widely invoked notion of the “marketplace of ideas.” He imagines a place called “Speakers’ Corner,” where no holds are barred in the free exchange of ideas. Heckling, open protests, and the hurling of epithets are not just tolerated, but expected, even occasionally encouraged. No authority presides over, just as no topic or text anchors, the proceedings. People come and go as they please, attending to or ignoring contributions as they see fit. At Speakers’ Corner, participants are concerned only with advertising their beliefs (91). They are self-centered, predatory, indifferent to the fate of those peddling other wares. Like competitors trying to increase their market share, they connive to defeat other competitors by discovering their vulnerabilities and planning the best avenue of attack. If collaboration occurs, it is only as an expedient (84). If truth and toleration emerge, they are unintended consequences (89). What matters at Speakers’ Corner is simply “the external coincidence of belief, not its source or ground” (97). A market is not a conversation.

And yet, the “community of conversation” of which independent minds are, or of which they aspire to become, members is no mere “community of inclusion” (16). The idea of inclusion, Kronman says, “is essentially egalitarian,” but it is “a bad egalitarianism that defeats the very purpose of the good one that welcomes everyone, without discrimination, to the strenuous and discriminating life of the mind,” reinforcing “the infantile tendency that every Socratic conversation aims to reverse” (102, 103, 105). Away from Speakers’ Corner, in a university seminar, for instance, there is rarely heckling. But there are other ways in which one can attempt to silence: appealing to a speaker’s feelings; impugning the motives of the person addressed; invoking some special insight to which only members of a particular group have privileged access and that is presumed by itself to constitute a source of authority. All of these amount to repudiations of the conversational ideal, which requires the finding or building of a shared ground on which all can stand, a “space of reasoned argument” that can only be sustained “by those who seek a form of agreement that is unattainable by threats, intimidation, the emphatic demonstration of feeling, or a mere show of hands,” ploys to which members of both the community of inclusion and the marketplace of ideas resort (92, 94).

Kronman is nowhere more animated than in his remarks about “diversity,” the “most powerful word in higher education today,” signifying a cluster of dogmas that are repeated with “uniform piety,” a kind of “manic gusto,” in the official pronouncements of virtually every college and university in North America (119, 121). While diversity is an estimable legal and political goal, it has come to be touted instead as a source of enrichment in instruction and study. This is the result, Kronman says, of a “terrible confusion” (123). Here, he launches into a lengthy and illuminating review of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the landmark case heard by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1977 concerning the special admissions policy implemented by the medical school at UC Davis to increase the representation of minority students (123). In a starkly divided opinion, the deciding vote was cast by Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., an ardent individualist hostile to “the idea that affirmative action may be used to repair the effects” of so “amorphous” a concept of injury as that of “societal discrimination” (126). But while, on Powell’s view, reverse discrimination could not be used “to cure an extracurricular wrong,” it could be justified on the grounds that it provides “educational benefits” (128, 129). This single interpretive flourish has since “reshaped every aspect of educational policy and experience,” writes Kronman, introducing changes to the culture of our universities “of a far-reaching and destructive kind” (130). He offers three main criticisms of this transformation. First, while “considerations of individual responsibility and political solidarity” strongly suggest that there must be a time-limit to whatever process of reparation is adopted, it is unlikely that programs designed to promote diversity, construed as an academic good “essential to the quality of higher education” and supported by a bloated bureaucracy, will ever come to an end (132). Second, as we have seen in Kronman’s remarks concerning the controversies at Yale, Powell’s characterization is “an invitation to bad faith.” The dogma of diversity, that is, encourages universities “to say they are doing one thing while doing another. It breeds dishonesty in an environment where honesty should be at a premium.” And it discourages reflection on whether the promotion of racial and ethnic diversity can be defended on educational grounds at all, as opposed to those of social justice (133-134). Finally, Powell’s “forced conversion” of a political ideal into an educational one has the unsurprising effect of politicizing the academy by transposing political passion into the educational process itself. But once academic arguments “assume a political tone, shaming and the other tools of politics not only become more commonplace, they acquire a legitimacy” that undermines the conversational ideal and compromises the special character of academic freedom (137, 138).

The campaign to rename buildings and remove statues is motivated by the same commitment to equality that underwrites efforts both to limit speech in the name of inclusion and to promote greater racial and ethnic diversity. Like these, it “seeks to reshape campus life in the light of a political ideal.” And, like theirs, its essential aim is “to flatten or level…” (165). In this case, it is memory that is flattened (186). Although renaming and removing may seem “a costless way of asserting our present values,” writes Kronman, it nonetheless runs the risk of promoting “an evangelical confidence in the righteousness of our own beliefs,” impugning “the humanity of those who oppose them,” and destroying “the bridge of sympathy between the present and the past” (176). It presumes to know what people in the past “ought to have thought and believed,” encouraging “the idea that all right-minded citizens have always been of one mind” (170, 174). When the physical reminders of the past “are removed or reshaped so that nothing remains of them except what conforms to the visionary ideal that directs the reshaping,” the vital stubbornness of the past is compromised (173).

Instead, the past should be recognized as “a provocation to reflection on the changeability of mores and motives and on the complexity of human beings” (183). It provokes precisely because it “confronts us with the spectacle of men and women whose values, habits, instincts, and beliefs were wildly different from our own and yet were human beings like us” (180). This is “a fruitful tension,” he says, which, like that between our democratic values and the governing ideals of higher education, must be sustained, not dissolved (181). The campaign to rename and remove, in fact, “draws attention away from the special responsibility that our colleges and universities have to cultivate the capacity for enduring the moral ambiguities of life,” which counts as “a moral strength, …a species of moral imagination as valuable as it is rare” (165).

To those who would claim that this is simply a recipe for resignation or indifference, Kronman counters that it is, in fact, “a condition of moral maturity,” the attitude “of a grown-up man or woman who knows that his or her ideals cannot be achieved simply by changing the name of a building or treating important parts of the past as a gallery of horrors that ought to be closed for good.” It is what Hannah Arendt means by an “enlarged mentality” and what Kronman himself means by the aristocratic spirit. Summoning the will to live with a “morally mixed past,” instead of “painting it over” or removing it to “the anaesthetized precincts of a museum” where it “no longer offends,” is neither a skill nor an expertise, but a quality of character, an excellence of the soul, a better way of being human (184-185, 165).

Kronman writes with admirable passion, probity and erudition. Together with his earlier book, Education’s End (Yale University Press: 2007), The Assault on American Excellence counts among the most trenchant and morally serious diagnoses of the beleaguered state of higher education today, and a call to arms to those determined to reclaim it.