Books November 2019
Barbarians in the academy
A review of The Assault on American Excellence by Anthony T. Kronman.
A dozen years ago Anthony Kronman, a distinguished professor of law at Yale and longtime instructor in the University’s great books program, published an insightful critique of higher education titled Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. That book took college professors and administrators to task for abandoning what was once thought to be the core mission of higher education: to guide students through a curriculum that addresses profound and permanent questions of human life. Academic leaders, he wrote at the time, took the wrong road in the 1960s and thereafter when they jettisoned humanistic studies in favor of highly specialized disciplines on the one hand or highly ideological programs on the other. Professor Kronman advocated a return to the academic humanism of the post-war period, which he defined as “the exploration of life’s mysteries and meaning through the careful but critical reading of the great works of the literary and philosophical imagination.” In making this case for an education in the great books, he joined several other distinguished critics of contemporary academe, including (especially) Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind), The New Criterion’s own Roger Kimball (Tenured Radicals), and Harold Bloom (The Western Canon).
In the intervening years, things have gone from bad to worse on American campuses, with their safe spaces and trigger warnings, disinvitations of and assaults on invited speakers, and general disdain for any speech, book, or idea that might cause discomfort to overly sensitive students and faculty. Unfortunately for Mr. Kronman, he did not have to go very far to watch these distempers on display, as some of the more infamous eruptions of campus folly have taken place at his home institution—such as when the English Department at Yale considered a resolution to ban from the curriculum books written by white male authors; or (more famously) when students and administrators attacked and sought the dismissal of the master of one of the residential colleges when his wife suggested (in opposition to the multicultural office) that students should be given some latitude in selecting Halloween costumes.
In response to this last event, Yale’s president, under pressure from the diversity bloc on campus, allocated $50 million from the University’s endowment to fund new initiatives in diversity and inclusion—a “coals to Newcastle” decision if there ever was one. Things have moved so far and so fast on campuses across the country that Mr. Kronman might be excused if he had given up on the idea that a genuine liberal arts education will be restored anytime soon either at Yale or at any other elite institution.
Not to be deterred, Professor Kronman has weighed in recently with another book-length critique of higher education, this one titled The Assault on American Excellence. As his new title suggests, he worries that the contemporary revolution on the college campus represents something more than simply a curricular upheaval; it should instead be understood more broadly as an assault on the American ideals of excellence, distinction, and achievement. In this sense, he argues, the campus movements that march under the banner of “diversity and inclusion” possess a common goal of subverting the ideals of excellence and achievement around which the American university has been built—and which account for the distinctiveness of America’s national culture.
In this volume he reprises his case for liberal education—or “humanism” as he prefers to describe it—but calls out the new forces on campus that have pushed it to the margins of academic life. Tocqueville warned that the tendency of democracy is to deprecate the noble and exceptional and to encourage a uniformity of opinion—in other words, a “soft” despotism enforced by common opinion. A liberal education, Kronman argues, cuts against the grain of democracy by cultivating an awareness among students of noble and exceptional achievement through the study of great books and great-souled human beings who at crucial times dared to stand against the tide of established opinion. In his view, such an education provides safeguards for popular government by preparing individuals to think for themselves, to take the long view, and to rise above the popular enthusiasms of the present moment. Popular opinion, after all, might be wrong (and it often is), and perhaps even destructive to democracy itself. Who will point that out, if everyone is a prisoner to that opinion?
A central task of higher education, then, is to preserve the ideals of excellence and achievement against the onslaught of democratic opinion that asserts that anyone seeking distinction is arrogant or a “snob.” The author cites many prominent authors of the past who have expressed these concerns—Henry Adams, H. L. Mencken, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Irving Babbitt among them. Today the difficulty seems much greater since the forces of egalitarianism have invaded the American campus with a vengeance—and have singled out the humanities for particular attack since they still reflect the aristocratic spirit out of which they were formed over the centuries. As Professor Kronman writes, “Why has the order of excellence in human works and human beings, which is plain to anyone who cares to look, become so doubtful that even to invoke it today is not only a mistake but a crime?”
Professor Kronman does not hesitate to criticize the factors that have brought about the current wave of egalitarianism and irrationality on the American campus. The infatuation with specialization in the post-war era, appropriate to the sciences, has had devastating effects on the humanities due to the many ways it pushes aside large and permanent questions in favor of narrow issues appropriate to dissertations and disciplinary publications. Students do not study literature in English departments any longer, especially at Yale, but rather what professors say about English literature. This trend in academe, going on now for many decades, has at length leveled out the humanities, eliminating the large questions and great books around which they were once defined. In pointing to the role of specialization in the collapse of the humanities, Professor Kronman parts company with critics such as Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball, who trace it back to the campus revolts of the 1960s. In Professor Kronman’s view, the radicals of the 1960s protested and demonstrated against policies off the campus (civil rights and the war in Vietnam in particular) but did not seek to overturn the academic order—certainly a debatable proposition.
In addition to this, there is the movement for “diversity,” which Professor Kronman describes as “the most powerful word in higher education today.” Originating decades ago out of a laudable effort to recruit students of different races and backgrounds, diversity evolved into an aggressive ideology that now penetrates every aspect of the campus and virtually every course of study, including the hard sciences. Every major college has deans and advocates for diversity, often dozens or hundreds of them, all pursuing the same campaign to diversify the student body, to cultivate an appreciation for diversity, and to introduce diversity into every discipline and field of study. The administrators and professors who hold these jobs function as advocates for ever more diversity, such that at no point will their demands ever be satisfied. They also function as campus censors, lining up to discredit any professor or student daring to raise questions about their campaign.
Professor Kronman is correct to see the unending campaign for diversity as the main source of today’s campus fevers. It gained legitimacy in a Supreme Court opinion in 1978 (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke) in which Justice Lewis Powell suggested that affirmative action policies might be justified if they encouraged diversity of opinion or viewpoints in the educational process. From this point forward, “diversity” became the watchword on campus, justifying not only hiring practices but all sorts of curricular reforms and new programs of study. Professor Kronman has little patience for the diversity campaign because it is, as he writes, a political doctrine that may have some authority in the society at large but very little on the campus or in the curriculum. “It represents,” he writes, “the intrusion into the academy of an egalitarian ideal of fairness” that has a corrupting influence on fields devoted to the study of excellence and achievement.
He might also have pointed out that the cult of diversity, in addition to corrupting the humanities, has politicized every aspect of the campus, including hiring procedures, course content, and even student dating practices. As that campaign has advanced on campus, it has provoked an endless string of embarrassing controversies, including the pressuring of Lawrence Summers to resign as President of Harvard University some years ago, the fiasco at Duke University wherein members of the faculty rushed to judgment over accusations of assault against members of the lacrosse team, the recent legal judgment against Oberlin College for encouraging the harassment of a local business, the continuing attacks on speakers on campuses across the country, the new calls for safe spaces and trigger warnings, the calls to purge white authors from the curriculum, and the Halloween controversy on the Yale campus (among many other such incidents.). It is easy to forget or lose track of these controversies as they accumulate on top of one another. One thing is clear: all derive from a common source in the diversity movement on campus.
Professor Kronman sees the mania for diversity as a new expression of an old idea—that is, the intrusion of the democratic spirit into academic life. While his analysis of the situation is compelling and insightful, he sees that it has gone on for so long and has gone so far that its effects will be difficult to reverse. There is no easy way out of the situation. In the end, he challenges presidents, deans, and professors to take the lead in preserving the integrity of the American university. “Instead of disowning their elitism,” he writes, “they should embrace it.”
It is true, of course, that college presidents and deans, along with trustees and donors, could put an end to political correctness and the misguided campaign for diversity if they wanted to do so, or if they had the backbone to stand up to the activists on campus, but they don’t want to, and, in any case, they lack the fortitude to raise the flag of academic excellence. Those deans and presidents, after all, have risen to their positions because of their proven ability to make peace with the diversity apparatus on their campuses. In contrast to college presidents in the past, such as Boston University’s John Silber or the University of Chicago’s Robert Maynard Hutchins, today’s academic leaders are careerists who are long on ambition but short on principles. As for trustees and donors, they long ago ceded the territory to the academics and administrators, and, even if they wished to do so, do not know how to insert themselves into the situation.
That is a lamentable conclusion: that our colleges and universities, in particular the elite private institutions, are lost for those holding out hope that they might be restored as outposts of excellence in the liberal arts. Many critics, notably Allan Bloom, reached that conclusion decades ago when many still believed that the situation might be reversed. Yet there are a few such outposts around the country—Hillsdale College in Michigan, for example, or Thomas Aquinas College in California, among others—that offer gold-standard curricula for their students in the liberal arts. They deserve credit for continuing to do what Yale and Harvard have abandoned. Who knows when the current madness on campus will run its course? If and when it does, those colleges may light the way to Professor Kronman’s hoped-for renaissance in higher education.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 3, on page 72
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