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.