ONE OF THE MOST charming, historically evocative apparitions of an American liberal arts college is Williams College, founded in 1793 in the high Berkshire Hills at the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, less than a day’s hiking distance from Vermont and New York. In autumn the campus is bowered in scarlet and gold, its air as bracing as wine, its students and faculty “under no pressure […] to come to a judgment about the rights and wrongs of the Israeli Palestinian conflict or the case for black reparations,” having “‘all the time in the world’ to consider them from every angle” — or so Williams alumnus Anthony T. Kronman tells us in his new book, The Assault on American Excellence, reminding us that the cultivation of academic distance and ambiguity is “part of what a college or university is for.”
Kronman first encountered that ideal in 1965 as a Williams freshman studying Plato and Kant in a seminar that met in the professor’s home, where two golden retrievers dozed by a crackling fire, and Kronman gazed out at the Berkshire Hills, enraptured by his epiphany that “[t]he meaning of life is a teachable topic.” He recounted that revelation four decades later in his 2007 book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, distinguishing its summons to “a cultured appreciation of excellence in human living” from what he considered the sterile research protocols, narrow disciplinary silos, incentives to careerism, and “egalitarian” hostility to Western civilization’s standards and hierarchies that had come to replace it.
Now he’s doubling down to defend an “aristocracy” (his term) that he urges selective colleges to strengthen through an unapologetically elitist cultivation of “excellence in human living,” against the egalitarian passions that have “swept over the world of higher education with unprecedented force and all-but drowned the idea of ‘distinction of rank … in spiritual things.’” Although Kronman claims that he’s a democrat off campus and that his “aristocracy” is one not of breeding and inherited wealth but of cultivated talent and virtue, he insists repeatedly that this ideal is beyond the reach of most human beings. He writes that what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called “the effervescence of democratic negation” threatens a necessary elitism “that Holmes still took for granted” and that Kronman wants us to repossess. Some of us, anyway.
To put it gently, Kronman’s ideal of humanist education has stiffened since 1965. His freshman epiphany has become, in his new book, a dogma whose plausible criticisms of cookie-cutter diversity, chilled speech, and politicized public memories are misapplied to events whose origins and ironies he misses completely. Contrary to Kronman’s formulations, today’s storms of negation aren’t “democratic” but are provoked from above, diverting democratic passions in order to entrench elitist distinctions of rank. The riot that’s sweeping over the colleges and drowning their humanism is originating from economic and political powers that orchestrate the rage of multitudes they’ve dispossessed. (Has Kronman ever attended a Trump rally?) It’s not coming mainly from 19-year-old students and campus mentors who register these far-more-dangerous developments, like hyper-sensitive barometers or canaries in a coal mine, often doing so maladroitly, to be sure, but often more constructively than Kronman acknowledges.
Most of The Assault on American Excellence highlights only the maladroit reactions, which Kronman insists gripped Yale and other colleges in the academic year 2015–’16. Here he follows Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in their 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind (Haidt has blurbed The Assault on American Excellence as “brilliant”), depicting Yale’s administration and faculty as acceding to degraded, degrading displacements of humanism with a vapid relativism. Like an infamous video of a black female Yale student berating a professor that captured the media’s attention in 2015, some of Kronman’s depictions (including his caricature of that incident, in which he mischaracterizes the 20-odd students who witnessed the altercation as a “mob”) distort what was happening on campus beyond the camera’s targeted range and that I witnessed firsthand. A student of mine, a young white man of classically “Establishment” bearing, wrote me that he was “disturbed […] by the discrepancies between what was actually happening on campus and the depictions in the national media. What was happening on campus was not exactly a protest. It was a moment of education. For a short time, the entire campus was united, engaging with black feminism, confronting collective emotions and challenges in a way I had never before experienced. It was beautiful. It was challenging. Urgent. And it needed to be emotional — so it was.”
Kronman only widens the “discrepancies” my student mentioned.
Yet some of Kronman’s arguments are well wrought and would be easier to ponder had he applied and integrated them more judiciously into his account. He isn’t wrong to warn, in chapters titled “Speech,” “Diversity,” and “Memory,” that effervescences of democratic negation can asphyxiate humanism and liberal democracy.
Assessing threats to the academic and civic freedoms of speech and inquiry, Kronman rightly reminds civil libertarians as well as leftist activists that a college should discourage “free” speech, from right or left, that’s designed and deployed to disrupt the reasoned, civil exchanges that a liberal education requires and embodies. His chapter on diversity warns against administrative and other efforts to extend “respect and inclusion” to marginalized racial and sexual groups without also challenging each student, as an individual, to meet standards that sometimes challenge racial and sexual identities and perceptions. Necessary though administrative diversity initiatives are in society at large, Kronman warns that champions of such efforts on liberal arts campuses often “fail to grasp that the distinctiveness of a college or university is a function of its devotion to a conversational ideal that has no place in political life” — the ideal he encountered at Williams.
Kronman challenges Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion, in the 1978 Bakke decision, that colleges may privilege the bare fact of a student’s race or sex as a distinctive enhancement of a liberal education. He claims that that ruling has prompted universities to celebrate racial differences “with a kind of manic gusto,” casting a “pall of mendacity” over academic expression and inquiry. “Diversity” indeed works best not so much as the preeminent value that some university administrators and faculty have made it out to be but only as a happy consequence of their firmer adherence to other, humanist values that transcend racial and sexual identities. Administrative diversity that automatically ascribes a “culture” to a skin color or a surname doesn’t counter society’s growing inequalities; it re-shuffles them. Yet critics of diversity who are as obsessive as Kronman is in this book shouldn’t blame it for today’s galloping inequalities in income and opportunity, any more than liberals should credit it with overcoming them. Kronman gives no indication of having read, let alone learned anything from, the most compelling feminist and black scholarship on the subject.
Kronman’s fundamental mistake is to embed his plausible arguments in provocative but vague paeans to “human greatness” and “aristocratic” superiority and in his seething accounts of particular developments at Yale and other universities that offend his standards but that also respond to realities he barely acknowledges or else condemns. He asserts, fairly enough, that “in addition to advancing knowledge and training students for careers, [a university] exists for the sake of strengthening the ability to live with more ambiguity than one generally finds comfortable.” But he contradicts himself by asserting that universities must “protect the aristocratic idea that some human beings get further than others in mastering the art of living — not just because it is true, but also because it provides some balance against the worst shortcomings of our glorious if imperfect democracy.”
Does it, really? Has Kronman assessed that balance by attending his 50th-year reunion at Williams? Or is his invocation of “our glorious democracy” just a bouquet tossed from his aristocratic coach to disarm an envious demos? Defending the ideal of “a nation united in equality but free enough to leave room for nobility,” he enlists Alexis de Tocqueville, John Adams, Irving Babbitt, and H. L. Mencken, each of whom wrote that a relatively tiny, well-prepared elite is necessary to temper what Kronman calls democracy’s “pathological side,” which “tends […] to depreciate what is noble and rare and to encourage a uniformity of opinion.” Absent strong religious foundations, he writes, only selective colleges can ensure that “a few pockets of aristocratic sentiment be preserved as a bulwark against [democracy’s] leveling egalitarianism.” Only “academic elitism” can arm its adepts with the “unusual courage and clarity, and the potential for human self-inspection” that are required to address complex matters and “to serve as an inspiration” to others.
The truth here is complicated; eager to have it both ways, Kronman compartmentalizes his democratic and elitist inclinations:
There is no reason I can see why one cannot be a democrat beyond the walls of the academy and an aristocrat within them. That in any case is what I am. A simple-minded conflation of the two, so blinded by the urgency of the campaign to rid America of race hatred that it cannot see that nobility and excellence still have a proper place in our most distinguished institutions of higher education, makes it impossible to maintain the balanced set of judgments that Tocqueville offers.
Here Kronman acknowledges, perhaps inadvertently, his book’s relentless reduction of the assault on American excellence to a racialization of excellence coming from below. He plies us with examples of this in chapter after chapter, on page after page. Acknowledging that “academic elitists like me […] have a responsibility to be as vocal in our condemnation of racism as in our support of the perfectionist ideal of humanistic study and of the natural aristocracy it implies,” he reports that, as a student, he “fought for civil rights” and claims that, although he supports affirmative action only at the admissions-office door, he might prefer economic reparations to descendants of slaves.
Yet he doesn’t devote commensurate attention to what is undermining excellence in our colleges far more decisively than racial remedies. He emphasizes affronts like that of a white professor who renounced his title of “master” at one of Yale’s residential colleges to avoid offending some black students. That, Kronman tells us, was “the opening act in a very serious drama that played out at Yale over the next year and a half,” a series of needless controversies about the alleged racism enshrined in the name of Calhoun College and expressed in a professor’s suggestion that students should resolve disagreements about offensive Halloween costumes without turning to administrators and counselors for guidance and protection.
Like much of the national media, Kronman misreports these controversies and their consequences (see my essays on the Halloween controversy and the Calhoun College renaming), including the impressive, campus-wide reckonings that ensued at Yale. Kronman fixates on the renaming of Calhoun College for the pioneering Yale computer scientist Grace Hopper, turning most of his “Memory” chapter into a 25-page indictment — by turns lawyerly, journalistic, and polemical — of what he considers that decision’s misunderstanding of how the present should reckon with difficult moments in the past. Although he acknowledges that Calhoun’s defense of slavery was “odious,” he decides that Calhoun undertook it mainly to defend a federalist governing philosophy, considering the Southern slaveocracy superior to Northern industrialism’s white wage-slavery.
Kronman does acknowledge at one point that liberal education is under assault not only from social-justice “levelers” but also from a distorted “vocational ideal” — his euphemism for the damage that corporate and finance capitalism are doing to workers. The vocational ideal’s careerist conformism and its subversion of workers’ sense of collective agency acts like “a corrosive acid” that “compromises [colleges’] ability to serve as a counterweight to the egalitarian morality of our democratic culture and puts them in service to this [instrumental, careerist] morality instead.”
He writes that the notion that “vocational success […] is consistent with the democratic belief that no one’s humanity is greater than anyone else’s” is true only “if we are talking about political and legal rights,” but that “[i]t is false if we assume” — as Kronman does, fatuously — “that the universal powers of enjoyment, expression, and judgment […] are more developed in some souls than others. […] Without the idea of greatness of soul, human life becomes […] less noble and less tragic.” Kronman finds it tragic indeed that, on college campuses these days, one reaps “isolation and disgrace” for merely suggesting “that manliness is a real trait with some possible value; that black culture is partly self-defeating; that some human beings are not only brighter than others but wiser, nobler, more advanced in the art of living.”
But how true is this assertion, and how restricted is the phenomenon to liberal arts colleges? Has Kronman visited the campus of Google or any other high-end corporation where “the vocational ideal” and tight workplace control mesh all-too-smoothly with politically correct speech restrictions and “diversity” paradigms, imparting a thin veneer of moral purpose and United Colors of Benetton comity to the “teamwork” of homogenized workplaces that serve only the imperious bottom-lines of abstract shareholder values? Political correctness in college may be little more than a dress rehearsal for corporate human resources departments and their subservience to the demands of plutocracy.
Kronman’s only idea of an alternative seems tethered to that idyllic seminar at Williams: “What must never be done […] is to corrupt the discipline of college life itself” by indulging what Irving Babbitt, the early 20th-century literary critic, called a “‘sentimental humanitarianism’ […] that views the college as ‘a means not so much for the thorough training of the few as of uplift for the many.’” It would be foolish, Kronman writes, “to try to extend [the humanist idea of excellence] to the country at large.” He wonders idly if “there is a form of education that increases a student’s chances of becoming an excellent human being, just as there are educational programs for those who want to be outstanding flute players and mechanics,” but he doesn’t wonder whether public universities and community colleges — or programs such as the GI Bill, which permitted hundreds of thousands of military veterans to encounter the liberal arts, even at Williams and Yale — deserve more public support, not the defunding (and private indebting) of students, their conversion into consumers and careerists, that’s really driving the academic abandonment of humanism. Kronman remains tied to John Adams’s observation that “real merit is confined to a very few” and that “the numbers who thirst for respect are out of all proportion to those who seek it only by merit.”
Like other critics of higher education who have spent most or all of their professional lives on university campuses, Kronman (who has taught at Yale for 40 years, during 10 of which he was dean of its law school) underestimates how decisively his perceptions and priorities have been shaped by larger political and economic forces. He also underestimates the extent to which such forces drive administrators to impose speech codes, counseling modes, and other protocols to fend off bad publicity, legal liability, and a drop in their college’s “market share.”
Such affronts to academic freedom and dignity do loom large and often unfairly in the lives of teachers whose campus idylls they disrupt. They can even turn small, leafy, insular campuses into something like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s crabbed Puritan villages, whose residents spend more time detecting and ejecting heretics than reckoning with the swifter, darker currents from beyond that constrain their reckonings and options.
Reading Kronman’s alarums about student “mobs” and censorious deans and professors, I can’t help but wonder why he hasn’t summoned his aristocratic clarity and courage to challenge the riot against liberal arts colleges from above. When Yale announced in 2015 that it would rename and redesign its historic civic Commons into the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, after the billionaire global asset manager, heartlessly destructive investor, and close collaborator of a president who told a 2016 campaign rally that he “love[s] the poorly educated,” where was Kronman’s clear and courageous demand that the Commons be renamed, if at all, for someone who would inspire students to meet today’s challenges with “unusual courage and clarity and the potential for human self-inspection”?
Shouldn’t Kronman have condemned the speech-chilling protocols that prompted Yale students, in a seminar taught by retired General Stanley McChrystal and in the university’s exclusive Grand Strategy seminar, to censor themselves, declining to talk freely about what they were learning and doing in those courses? Shouldn’t Kronman have assessed the failures of humanist education not only in “diversity”-driven schools and colleges but also in the private schools and overwhelmingly white colleges that slavish Republican Senate acolytes of the White House attended?
The closest Kronman comes to balancing his critique of the assault on excellence from below with a critique of the assault on it from above is when he quotes H. L. Mencken’s observation that what passed for an aristocracy in America in his time was “without decent traditions or informing vision; above all, it is extraordinarily lacking in the most elemental independence and courage.” Must we blame that lack of vision, too, on an “effervescence of democratic negation”? Can’t Kronman offer a more comprehending, comprehensive assessment of the United States’s pedagogical, political, and civic crisis, about which he’s as silent as a student or professor who fears giving offense by saying something politically incorrect? Are even the most obvious perpetrators of humanist education’s corruption — Schwarzman, Jeffrey Epstein, Rick Singer, the Koch Brothers — so badly in need of “respect and inclusion” that Kronman dares not mention them, let alone challenge them? I’d like to think that he would have done so as a student in a seminar at Williams long ago, or that he’ll do so as a professor in a seminar at Yale even now.
Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics, is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).