Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘Elite Schools Are National Treasures. Their Elitism Is What Makes Them Such.’:
Since stepping down from his 10-year tenure as dean of Yale Law School, Anthony T. Kronman has been thinking a lot about the larger purposes of a humanities education. He’s addressed the topic in two books, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale, 2007) and Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan (Yale, 2016), this last a 1,000-page exploration of his personal theology that draws on thinkers from antiquity to Freud to Rawls. (Kronman earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and spent some time undergoing psychoanalysis.) As Joshua Rothman put it in The New Yorker, Kronman "suspects that he might have found the meaning of life."
His most recent book, The Assault on American Excellence, will be published by Free Press in August. It’s a crisply argued jeremiad about what Kronman sees as the wrong turn taken by elite universities in recent years. Under the guise of concerns for inclusion and a misplaced egalitarianism, Kronman argues, universities have abandoned what should be their core commitments to reasoned argumentation and, more controversially, to the development of an "aristocratic ethos."
I met with Kronman in his office at the Yale Law School to talk about democracy and aristocracy, campus debates over free speech, affirmative action, and what he calls "the conversational ideal." ...
Much of your argument depends on the tension between democratic and aristocratic values. Colleges — and you’re really talking about elite colleges, here — ought to preserve, you say, "an aristocratic ethos in an otherwise democratic culture."
A prefatory comment or two. Many of my friends warned me against using the word "aristocratic" and I decided to forge on ahead because it seemed to me to best express the truth of the matter. I could have used "elite" instead. But that would have done my argument no good, and not pleased or placated my critics. So I decided to eat the whole enchilada.
Our most elite universities are today running away from their elitism, denying it, doing their best to conceal or suppress it. In running away from it, they not only disown values and traditions that are an important part of their identity, but they also disserve the great democratic country in which they sit. These elite schools are national treasures. Their elitism is what makes them such. It’s not a problem, it’s an asset, a value, something to be cherished and cared for.
Why? I’ll put the point as simply as I can. No one objects to the idea that the distinction between better and worse has straightforward application to pursuits of a narrow disciplinary or vocational kind. As long as the activity is appropriately limited, no one’s democratic nose gets out of joint if you say, "Well some are better at it than others." But our colleges have sought to do more than just train their students in a discipline or equip them with the knowledge they need for vocational pursuit. They have sought to do something more general — to equip them for a life of responsible and enjoyable observation, judgment, and action. They have sought to instill in them those traits of character which are important and perhaps indispensable to leading a life of an intellectually, morally, spiritually, and aesthetically rich and full kind. If one says that in this more general pursuit some succeed more fully than others, then the conflict between this idea and the democratic conviction that all men and women are equal in the polling booth and before the bar of justice sharpens. If it’s pressed, it becomes awfully difficult to reconcile, perhaps impossibly difficult.
Are elite colleges really "running away" from their elitism? I was quite surprised to discover when I got to Yale as a grad student that the undergraduate acceptance rate and the yield, as compared with Harvard and Stanford, were constantly in the Yale Daily News. They were objects of fetishistic interest. That’s elitism.
You’re absolutely right. "Elite" today means hard to get into. And our elite schools trumpet that, they play to it, they market it, and they pride themselves on being elite in this respect. But that is a perversion of what I mean by elite. It is focused entirely on what happens at the turnstile, at the point of entry. It completely disregards the other side of the turnstile. In fact, very little attention, certainly in the humanities, is now paid to the quality of the education these precious few are receiving once they’ve been admitted. What does it matter how difficult it is to get into a club if the club isn’t doing anything worthwhile?
Wall Street Journal op-ed: The Downside of Diversity, by Anthony Kronman (Yale):
On American campuses, the dogmatic embrace of identity politics has damaged not just the pursuit of truth but the independence of mind necessary for democracy to flourish. ...
That diversity should be a value seems beyond dispute. The existence on campus of a range of beliefs, values and experiences is essential to the spirit of inquiry and debate that lies at the heart of academic life. Who wants to go to a school where everyone thinks alike?
But diversity, as it is understood today, means something different. It means diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Diversity in this sense is not an academic value. Its origin and aspiration are political. The demand for ever-greater diversity in higher education is a political campaign masquerading as an educational ideal.
The demand for greater academic diversity began its strange career as a pro-democratic idea. Blacks and other minorities have long been underrepresented in higher education. A half-century ago, a number of schools sought to address the problem by giving minority applicants a special boost through what came to be called “affirmative action.” This was a straightforward and responsible strategy.
But in 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court told American colleges and universities that they couldn’t pursue this strategy directly, by using explicit racial categories. It allowed them to achieve the same goal indirectly, however, by arguing that diversity is essential to teaching and learning and requires some attention to race and ethnicity. Schools were able to continue to honor their commitment to social justice but only by converting it into an educational ideal.
The commitment was honorable, but the conversion has been ruinous. The effects of racial prejudice have always been the greatest slur on our commitment to democratic equality. But the transformation of diversity into a pedagogical theory has weakened our democracy by undermining the common ground of reason on which citizens must strive to meet. The crucial confusion is the equation of a diversity of ideas with diversity of race, ethnicity and sexual preference. This has several pernicious effects.
One is that it encourages minority students, and eventually all students, to think that a departure from the beliefs and sentiments associated with their group is a violation of the terms on which they were admitted to the university. If students contribute to the good of diversity by expressing the racially, ethnically or sexually defined views that members of their group are expected to share, then a repudiation or even critical scrutiny of these views threatens to upset the school’s entire educational program. It takes special nerve for an African-American student to defend inner-city policing or a gay student to support the baker who refuses to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. ...
Grievance is the stuff of political life. In politics, it is normal for one group to highlight its suffering and to demand reparations from another group or a greater share of its power. This is especially true where questions of racial justice are concerned. Here, the temperature is sometimes high enough to melt decorum and goodwill.
Academic disagreements are different. Important ones are often inflamed by passion too. But the goal of those involved is to persuade their adversaries with better facts and arguments—not to bludgeon them into submission with complaints of abuse, injustice and disrespect to increase their share of power. Today, the spirit of grievance has been imported into the academy, where it undermines the common search for truth by permeating it with a sense of hurt and wrong on the part of minority students, and guilt on the part of those who are blamed for their suffering. ...
What is new and discouraging about today’s academic culture is the unprecedented weight that these grievances are given by teachers, students and administrators alike. Even to raise them puts one on a high moral ground that requires all other considerations to be put aside until the grievance has been assuaged by an appropriate act of apology or reform. Raising it amounts to a demand. It brings the conversation to a halt. It converts the classroom from an open space for the free exchange of ideas into a political battleground.
Yet even this does not fully capture the harm that the contemporary understanding of diversity has done to our colleges and universities. The greatest casualty is the idea of truth itself, on which the whole of academic life depends.
Whatever else it may be, the truth is not democratic. We don’t decide what is true in mathematics or history or philosophy by a show of hands. ...
The relentless campaign for diversity and inclusion on campus pulls in the opposite direction. Motivated by politics but forced to disguise itself as an academic value, the demand for diversity has steadily weakened the norms of objectivity and truth and substituted for them a culture of grievance and group loyalty. Rather than bringing faculty and students together on the common ground of reason, it has pushed them farther apart into separate silos of guilt and complaint.
The damage to the academy is obvious. But even greater is the damage to our democratic way of life, which needs all the independent-mindedness its citizens and leaders can summon—especially at a moment when our basic norms of truthfulness and honesty are mocked every day by a president who respects neither. ...
[Diversity] has become the basis of an illiberal and antirational academic cult—one that undermines the spirit of self-reliance and the commitment to truth on which not only higher education, but the whole of our democracy, depends.
New York Times op-ed: Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-Excellence: A Former Dean of the Yale Law School Sounds a Warning, by Brett Stephens:
Anyone who has followed the news from college campuses over the past few years knows they are experiencing forms of unrest unseen since the late 1960s. ...
The answer lies in the title of Anthony Kronman’s necessary, humane and brave new book: “The Assault on American Excellence.” Kronman’s academic credentials are impeccable — he has taught at Yale for 40 years and spent a decade as dean of its law school — and his politics, so far as I can tell, are to the left of mine.
But Yale has been ground zero for recent campus unrest. ...
“In endless pronouncements of tiresome sweetness, the faculty and administrators of America’s colleges and universities today insist on the overriding importance of creating a culture of inclusion on campus,” Kronman writes.
“They stress the need to respect and honor the feelings of others, especially those belonging to traditionally disadvantaged groups, as an essential means to this end. In this way they give credence to the idea that feelings are trumps with a decisive authority of their own. That in turn emboldens their students to argue that their feelings are reason enough to keep certain speakers away. But this dissolves the community of conversation that the grown-ups on campus are charged to protect.”
This is a bracing, even brutal, assessment. But it’s true. And it explains why every successive capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion has not had the desired effect of mollifying campus radicals. On the contrary, it has tended to generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement.