The Pierson master who gave up his title could not possibly have thought that he might be confused with the owner of a Mississippi plantation. What really disturbed him, and his students, was not race but rank. It was the aristocratic implication, however slight, that men and women can be distinguished according to their success not in this or that particular endeavor—the study of computer science, for example, or Greek philosophy—but in the all-inclusive work of being human. This idea has been accepted by many cultures of the most varied sorts. It has been joined with other beliefs, some pernicious and others benign. But at the most basic level, it runs against the grain of America’s democratic civilization. It seems—it is—antidemocratic. Any institution that embraces the idea of aristocracy, even in the most modest and qualified terms, therefore puts itself at odds with our civilization as a whole.
Yet even—indeed especially—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. That is because a democracy is strengthened by the habit of independent-mindedness that, at their very best, these institutions value and promote. None play a more important role in this regard than our colleges and universities. An attack on the idea of aristocracy within them harms not only the few who live and work in the privileged space they afford, but all who, in Edward Gibbon’s phrase, “enjoy and abuse” the democratic privileges that belong to everyone outside their walls.
Alexis de Tocqueville developed this line of thought with a clarity that has never been matched. I take my point of departure from his classic account.