The Assault on American Excellence
By Anthony Kronman
Free Press, 2019
288 pages (hardcover), $27.00
Unceasingly inundated as our civilization is with transparently partisan moralizing, I’d wager that the average American intellectual has developed the unenviable habit of being reflexively cynical and numb in the face of any moral screed. We’re constantly on the lookout for “the angle.” The rhetorical difficulties of speaking with moral gravitas into this cultural space are legion. But, in The Assault on American Excellence, this is what Anthony Kronman attempts to do. Certain to provoke, Kronman nevertheless cannot be dismissed.
Contextualized by the campus controversies over free speech, safe spaces, memorial statues, building names (etc.) of the last decade, Kronman argues that the contemporary university is at risk of losing its reason for being. Behind this, argues Kronman, is a deep-seated suspicion of aristocracy. By this, the former dean of Yale Law School is not referring to what is commonly associated with the name. He constantly affirms his acceptance of political democracy, and he criticizes the kind of prestige that is automatically tied to being wellborn. Rather, claims Kronman, “men and women can be distinguished according to their success not in this or that particular endeavor . . . but in the all-inclusive work of being human” (7). Although this claim stands in tension with the generally democratic ideals of American civilization,
in our democracy it is essential to preserve a few islands of aristocratic spirit, both for their own sake, because of the rarity and beauty of what they protect, and for the good of the larger democratic culture as well. (8)
Kronman here (in concert with John Adams and Alexis de Tocqueville, among others) signals the tension between any democracy’s tendency to mob rule and the necessity that any civilization be governed by virtue.
Since such virtue and excellence are uncommon, the university has always played a role in crafting moral leaders who diminish the consumptive effects of the mob. He grants that there is no direct link between education and virtue.
Real merit—the kind a society requires in its leaders if it is to be well governed—does not presuppose a college education. But the two are not randomly connected. The one conduces to the other. It tends to promote it. (37)
Or at least, that is what it was originally supposed to do. Increasingly, under the bureaucratic reduction of education to the acquisition of marketable skills, the tensions in college life reflect a deeper fracture over the purpose of these institutions as such. And it is precisely here where Kronman makes his case. It is about institutions of higher learning that he argues. These play a unique role in the development of extraordinary persons whose development as humans (through engagement with the humanities) serve to give them a vantage point on the world that will presumably equip them to make tough decisions in a complex democratic nation. To the extent that universities cease to aim at this, they lose their reason for being. He argues that American universities are losing themselves in three areas: speech, diversity, and memory.
Concerning speech, Kronman claims that debates over the invitation of controversial speakers, for instance, fail to distinguish a college community from a political community. The norms that govern the latter are and ought to be democratic and egalitarian. The norms that govern the former are best seen by witnessing the norms that govern a college seminar. To wit, “the participants in a seminar . . . are obliged to try and have a common conversation,” and this conversation, argues Kronman, is meant to be adjudicated by argument and reason (81).
He anticipates a host of cynical retorts to this, and unlike his more juvenile counterparts, he does not dismiss appeal to feeling and offense. Rather, he argues that these are ideally transformed into conversation rather than invoked as intrinsic sources of authority, transubstantiating one’s wound into a reason why others should defer to one’s argument (91). Kronman is palpably inspired by Socrates’s community of conversation, and he imagines that any university governed by this ideal would expand (rather than limit) the imagination. He is well aware of the concern that this might risk legitimizing dangerous ideas, and his responses to these objections are nontrivial.
Concerning diversity, he is especially insightful about the legal history of the role that diversity has played in campus life. Originally motivated to “promote social justice,” the justification for diversity has progressively shifted to be framed in terms of the “enrichment of instruction” (123). Kronman is quite open to the role that affirmative action might play in helping to ameliorate the effects of past systemic racism, but he is deeply opposed to instrumentalizing these students in the name of a norm whose proper sphere is (once again) political rather than academic.
The consequence of this is (ironically) to foster ideological solidarity and group identity rather than individual distinction. And indeed, inasmuch as the focus of one’s education becomes exegeting the significance and meaning of one’s group identity labels, so education takes on an “anti-humanist thrust” (155). And precisely in this, the university progressively loses its classical focus on the “scale of distinction in the work of being human” (161). This distinction, once again, is not racial or economic or gendered, but concerns humanity itself. Despite its rarity, our civilization depends upon it. And it would consequently (in his judgment) be a tragedy if the university sacrificed such an ideal on the altar of “democratic negation” (a frequently invoked phrase).
Concerning memory, Kronman makes an especially thorough case for a conservative attitude about renaming campus buildings or removing statues that have offensive connotations for some students. Once again, he claims that current trajectories on this score confuse political with academic ideals. The goal of the academy is to pursue truth, to sit comfortably with ambiguity, and—in a word—to educate. Drawing upon Hannah Arendt and others, Kronman is able to make a distinctive case:
Moving memorials around or removing them altogether is not a crime against our ancestors. Architectural considerations, for example, often warrant changes of this kind. But where a particular memorial has become controversial because it is thought to reflect a view or value no longer shared by the faculty and students, the reasons for leaving it in place are stronger, not weaker, than they were before. It now serves an educational purpose that most memorials do not. . . . It is a text in ambiguity and ought to be especially valued for that reason. (182–83)
Remarkably, Kronman anticipates all the objections to this and deals with them sympathetically rather than dismissively. And precisely in doing so, he avoids superficiality. What unites all his retorts is the distinctive character of the university as a community, with its own distinctive norms, the protection of which is (again) urgent for modern civilization. Modern trends sacrifice “a deeper form of solidarity for a more comfortable and superficial one. That is always a loss” (211).
Kronman’s tome is sure to receive reflexively cynical detraction from some quarters, and that is a shame. But this is not to imply that there aren’t some principled lines of critical feedback. It is unclear, for instance, that he has exhausted the options for relating our political and academic values. As written, it would seem that the ideal mediation would be a kind of benevolent paternalism of sages who help guide the mass of humanity (in whatever form of leadership) toward the good. Perhaps. But one would be forgiven for the suspicion that the university’s role could be overdramatized here. Moreover, the ideal university he describes is too spectral. Certainly, some universities are better than others, but it is unclear that most have achieved any manifest claim to actually producing better humans than many other civilizational forces.
The republic of letters has always transcended institutions and is sometimes in tension with what universities actually produce. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure might be read as a story of a developing human (directly ingesting the humanities) trying to make his way among a class of persons who were cultivated to instrumentalize them. Of course, this tendency can be transcended, but this is unlikely to be the achievement of any institution qua institution.
Finally, Kronman’s argument would be aided by a discussion of excellence and even of human maturation through labor and craft. Arguably, the life of the mind is one particular mode of a more primal human relationship to craft. Living well is as much about cultivating practical habits as it is about cultivating mental habits. These reciprocally influence one another, of course, but precisely for this reason, expertise in being human can and frequently does come from surprising places, prompted by surprising “texts.” A satisfying account of the humanizing effect of education needs to consider the diversity of modes in which humans are “educated.” None of this is to complain that Kronman didn’t write a book that he didn’t set out to write. These questions are directly relevant to his university’s imagined role in the civilization it presumably serves.
Joseph Minich (PhD, The University of Texas at Dallas) is a teaching fellow with The Davenant Institute and author of Enduring Divine Absence (The Davenant Press, 2018).