Can Universities Survive America's Leveling?

David Randall

Can aristocratic education inside the university co-exist with an egalitarian democracy outside the campus walls? How, if at all, should we distinguish between the principles that animate our universities and the principles that animate our country? What are the precise natures of the American university and the American polity? The Assault on American Excellence (2019), written by former dean of Yale Law School Anthony Kronman, brings these questions into stark focus. The survival of American higher education depends on how we answer them.

Kronman’s book analyzes the intolerant radicalism, enforced by propaganda and repression, which has engulfed our universities. Kronman objects to this radical campaign of “diversity” and “inclusion” (also called “political correctness,” “multiculturalism,” or “social justice”), because it will destroy his beloved ideal of “aristocratic education.” Kronman defines this aristocratic education as Socratic conversation that aims to create a natural aristocracy of students who possess superior character. He then argues for aristocratic education’s value, both intrinsically and for American democracy. Finally Kronman catalogues how diversity and inclusion, by a misguided application of egalitarian fervor, strike at aristocratic education’s vitals by their linked approaches to the questions of excellence, speech, and memory.

Kronman’s diagnosis of the evils that diversity and inclusion thereby inflict on the university is lucid, incisive—and also myopic. He displays no knowledge of the broader traditions of conversation, which led to the Enlightenment concept of “public conversation.” He exaggerates the importance of conversation in the history of the university, and he exaggerates the role of the university among the conversational institutions of civil society. Above all, he misunderstands the nature of the American republic, which is animated by the ideal of liberty, public conversation, and civic discourse.

These misconceptions lead Kronman to grave errors. Kronman, himself a student radical before he became a law professor, endorses diversity and inclusion advocacy outside the university walls—and even on such borderlands as college admissions policies. He shares those advocates’ egalitarian fervor, and thinks it appropriate for an America that is fundamentally a democracy animated by the ideal of equality. Kronman is only interested in defending aristocratic education. He is insensible to the equally grave damage diversity and inclusion advocacy does to the American republic. Kronman’s insensibility is peculiarly self-defeating, since the aristocratic education he loves most likely will die with the republic. Kronman’s exposition of aristocratic education and brief against diversity and inclusion are quite able, but his errors substantially reduce the value of the book as a whole.

But I anticipate. Let us first see what Kronman says.

Educational Aristocracy vs. Diversity and Inclusion

Aristocratic education, says Kronman, aims to cultivate excellence in a Socratic “aristocracy of truth-seekers.” (16) Their excellence is not merely the vocational acquisition of expert skills. Rather, it is a quality of character, which makes its possessor a “better” man. It consists of an enlarged soul and judgment, tolerance and independent mindedness, achieved by leisurely contemplation. These qualities lead their possessors to “a cultured appreciation of excellence in human living, as distinct from vocational success.” (9) Such excellence makes better men, and better leaders of their country. Aristocratic education does not guarantee excellence, and men such as Lincoln have acquired greatness of soul without going to college. But an aristocratic education improves the chances of acquiring excellence.

Aristocratic education requires Socratic conversation, which is an unusually rigorous and demanding form of speech. Every class, and the college as a whole, needs to form a “conversational community.” (16) An authoritative teacher should guide the classroom conversation, frequently centered on an assigned reading as a common text. That teacher “has the final word in deciding when a claim is unpersuasive and requires further defense; when one point of view needs to be balanced by another; when a speaker has failed to be sufficiently attentive to something someone else has said; and when it is time to move on to another topic.” (80) All members of a college have a duty to participate collaboratively in a conversation in which they slowly, gently, thoroughly, and deliberately search out the truth.

The conversational community requires its members to confront unpleasant speech and seek to understand it: “no mere declaration of feeling can ever have an authority of its own.” (16) A teacher must point out to students that feelings are not authoritative arguments. Every member of the conversational community must be able to use the critical powers of reason to evaluate an argument—and submit their own feelings to the rational judgment of others. Students must submit both arguments and feelings to conversational judgment, to discover the truth and to polish their characters toward excellence.

This conversational ideal applies not only to seminar discussions but also to the university as a whole. The Socratic aspiration should characterize components of campus life such as lectures, reading, writing, and extracurricular events. Kronman cites John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., H. L. Mencken, and Irving Babbitt as precedentiary exemplars who called for the Socratic pursuit of human excellence, especially in American education.

Or rather, in increasingly anxious tones, only in American education. Kronman’s invocation of Tocqueville provides the leitmotif: Socratic education in America is an aristocratic remnant in an egalitarian democracy; a precarious survival, lacking self-confidence, in a nation suspicious of aristocracy in any form. It does not even command the universities. As the aristocratic tide recedes, even most professors have lost their belief in an aristocratic education. They have become instead mouthpieces of convention, devoted to the justification and reinforcement of political correctness—anti-German hysteria in World War I, diversity and inclusion today, and always whatever mores have acquired a fleeting dominance in American society.

American higher education has largely replaced the aristocratic ideal with the vocational ideal. Our universities articulate this new ideal as a multitude of specialized disciplines operating on the German research university model, which teach skills rather than character. Even in the humanities, the heartland of aristocratic education, “critical thinking” provides a vocational substitute for the education of character. The contemporaneous German educational ideal of bildung, the education of character, has not flourished nearly so well in America.

American universities have adopted the vocational ideal partly from necessity: the modern economy increasingly demands extensive training for any job that commands decent wages. But they have also adopted the vocational ideal because it dovetails with America’s egalitarian mores. Aristocratic education must rankle those mores, since it presumes that some men can become better than others, by dint of developing superior character. Vocational education does produce gradations of academic performance, wealth, social class, and expertise—but these gradations are superficial, since they do not rank character itself. Vocational education takes all characters to be immutably equal, each American equally capable of choosing his own ideal for how to spend his leisure and improve his soul, and eschews any attempt to judge, rank, or improve these characters or ideals. Kronman puts it that the American people prefer the vocational ideal’s flattery, which tells them that their characters need no education.

Aristocratic education can only survive, and justify itself, as a leaven that contributes to democratic life. A dose of aristocratic education, which promotes tolerance and independence of mind, provides the cure for democracy’s characteristic deformation—a tyranny of the majority, which peremptorily demands conformity to the mores of the day. Kronman leaves unexplained how the democracy’s conformist majority can be persuaded to grant immunity to aristocratic education.

Kronman specifies that aristocratic education creates a “natural” aristocracy—an aristocracy of the mind rather than a caste of honor, wealth, or blood. He fastidiously distinguishes his aristocratic ideal from characteristically American conflations of excellence with birth, whether the Boston Cabot who speaks only to Lowells or the white American, iconically Southern, who defines excellence and melanin as mutually exclusive. The latter conflation particularly exercises Kronman, who castigates America’s long history of racial castes as “a unique threat to the integrity of American egalitarianism.” (67)

Indeed, Kronman declares that Americans still need to “fight against a subtle, pervasive, and intransigent culture of racism (which formal legal equality alone has been unable to cure).” (71) He therefore endorses widespread racial reparations in the country as a whole, to underwrite an egalitarianism whose writ should run unchallenged outside the academy. He is even willing to endorse race-based affirmative action in college admissions, endearingly confident that this need not alter the nature of aristocratic education. Kronman believes that such endorsements are more than usually incumbent upon champions of aristocratic education, who need “to distinguish legitimate forms of elitism from illegitimate ones.” (71) Affirmative action is the necessary price for Socratic education.

Kronman praises this egalitarian movement for reparative moral reform outside the academy, but chokes at its effects when applied within the academy. The national headlines recording the litany of disasters arising from education based on diversity and inclusion appall him—the rioting students, the diversity loyalty oaths, the administrative elaboration of crybully suppression. The controversies at Yale, where Kronman teaches, have made a particularly deep impression. He recounts at length the mobbing of Nicholas Christakis, the renaming of Calhoun College to erase the memory of slavery-defender John Calhoun, and the Master of Pierson College’s renunciation of his title, since it might offend the feelings of students who take it as a hateful reminder of the antebellum master-slave relation.

These incidents are not outliers. Kronman details how a massive diversity and inclusion infrastructure within higher education fuels such incidents, which are only the most visible sign of a larger transformation of our universities. College administrations shower hundreds of millions of dollars on diversity initiatives, which fund an ever-thickening, self-perpetuating bureaucracy of diversicrats. This bureaucracy in turn sponsors quasi-segregated campus housing, diversity distortions of the curriculum and general education requirements, and mandatory diversity training for faculty and students. “[D]ifferences of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are celebrated with a kind of manic gusto,” (121) but you cannot question whether the diversity ideal is any good in the first place. The bureaucratic diversity cult remakes colleges into “a community of moral commitment and only secondarily one of teaching and learning.” (3) The Gog of diversity and the Magog of inclusion jointly impose intellectual conformity—and threaten to extinguish the university’s remaining commitment to aristocratic education.

Diversity in the university derives from Justice Lewis Powell’s formulation of the concept in the Supreme Court decision Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Powell proffered diversity as an acceptable rationale for affirmative action policies, which would retain appropriate focus on the individual and avoid group punishment of the innocent. Kronman believes straightforward race and sex preferences would have been less damaging. Diversity simply disguised affirmative action—and made it immortal. Diversity has no logical endpoint, as (theoretically) do the straightforward reparations of affirmative action, which pure reason argues should end once race and sex parities have been achieved. Powell gave affirmative action an elixir of life; and, in so doing, “drove the truth underground and made it illegal for our colleges and universities to address their students with the honesty that the search for truth requires.” (137)

Diversity requires college administrators to act as habitual dissemblers, and thereby interweaves dishonesty into the fabric of college life. Since students perceive the dissembling, and because the beneficiaries of affirmative action cannot quash their own doubts about whether they truly belong on campus, they seek reassurance by requiring ever-noisier adulation from their fellows. Diversity’s beneficiaries have come to demand an end of cultural “appropriation,” since even celebration no longer provides sufficient comfort. (135-36)

Worse, says Kronman, diversity at one blow poisons Socratic conversation, the “robust exchange of ideas that lies at the heart of the notion of academic freedom,” the pursuit of truth, and the aristocratic ideal. (128) Diversity reformulates the compensatory ideal of affirmative action as a pedagogical norm, and encourages students to think of themselves as victims who complain or wrongdoers who apologize, but never seekers of truth who converse. Diversity likewise denies the possibility of real independence of mind, because it defines students as representatives of their groups, who cannot speak as individuals. Indeed, there would be no point in letting them into college if they were not fixed in their group identities. And since Powell unfortunately conflated racial diversity with intellectual diversity, students now believe that the character of their group identities provide immutable intellectual value to the university. Diversity thus directly contradicts aristocratic education’s goal of improving individual character: students’ characters cannot be improved. They come to college to benefit it, not to be benefitted.

Diversity’s damage does not stop at the classroom door. Bureaucratic and cultural sanction disperse its ill effects over all of campus life. Diversity was meant to encourage intellectual diversity; it has instead become an “instrument of orthodoxy.” (128)

The ideals of inclusion and respect, which privilege the inviolability of hurt feelings, compound the damage done by diversity. College bureaucracies sanction this inviolability via such means as trigger warnings, safe spaces, revising traditional nomenclature, preferred gender pronouns, micro-aggressions, and informal tolerance of sensitivity riots. Administrators prime students to kill classroom conversations with “statements like the following: ‘Your views make me feel excluded’; ‘You only want to protect your privilege’; ‘Speaking as a [women, Jew, African American, transsexual, Hispanic], I see the world in a way you can’t.’” (91)

All these statements abort proper conversations, since shared, rational conversations depend on participants judging all matters with dispassionate neutrality, require acceptance that an interlocutor is a good-faith participant in discussion, and cannot allow the appeal to private feelings or experience as a final authority. More broadly, the ideal of a community of respect and inclusion, which gives private feelings unquestionable authority, cannot coexist with the conversational ideal, which demands that all authority must be subject to question. Indeed, the conversational ideal “is especially important precisely in those situations where speech irritates, angers, and strains the sense of inclusion in a community of shared belief.” (5) Inclusion eviscerates the conversational search for truth.

The ideal of inclusion also animates the campus assault on memory—the passion for eliminating statues and renaming buildings. Inclusion’s urge to eliminate unpleasant disagreements metastasizes into the urge to erase from memory, and destroy the physical reminders, of all disagreeable historical facts. Kronman takes this campaign against memory to be totalitarian, for it requires the destruction of the condition of pluralism, the death of politics. It encourages the hubristic belief that we ourselves have no flaws, “promotes an evangelical confidence in the righteousness of our own beliefs, impugns the humanity of those who oppose them, and destroys the bridge of sympathy between the present and the past.” (176) The campaign against memory also destroys the conversational spirit that judges leisurely, without requirement to act hastily, and which encourages a character of tolerance for moral ambiguity. Kronman does not mind acknowledging a distance between the morals of the past and the present. But he advises that colleges, in all situations short of memorials to a Hitler or a Stalin, provide explanatory plaques to contextualize the morally alien past rather than eliminate the past from our memory itself. A Calhoun College requires commentary, not oblivion.

Diversity and inclusion jointly threaten memory and the free, conversational speech that is the heart of aristocratic education. Unchecked, they will expunge the last bastions of aristocratic thought from our universities and our country.

Conversations within the Academy, Conversations Without

Kronman incisively analyzes the assault diversity and inclusion makes on both the academy in general and aristocratic education in particular. Yet he seems insouciant about the tide of diversity and inclusion advocacy that seeks to suppress speech, memory, and excellence in America as a whole. Indeed, he appears to endorse it: diversity and inclusion for thee, but not for me.

Kronman’s too heavy reliance on the concept of “Socratic conversation” leads him to a mistaken indifference about America beyond the academy. He does not account sufficiently for the ideals and practices of public conversation and civic discourse which animate the American republic as a whole. We Americans who care for the ideals, the speech, and the survival of the republic as much as Kronman cares for aristocratic education in the university oppose diversity and inclusion in America as a whole as much as Kronman opposes it in the university. Kronman should too. The American republic animated by a love of liberty offers a far more secure foundation for the survival of aristocratic education than does the American democracy animated by the “effervescence of democratic negation.” (11)

Kronman accurately describes the conversation he prefers as Socratic: “the pursuit itself [of truth] rests on the assumption that truth is distinguished from error not because we happened to believe it but on account of its greater reality.” (16) This mode of truth-seeking discourse has persisted in the West as a semi-continuous tradition, often under the name of “Platonic dialogue.” But it has not been the Western tradition’s only form of truth-seeking discourse—and other forms have been more influential in forming the American conception of public conversation.

The three traditional modes of truth-seeking discourse were dialectic, Platonic dialogue, and Ciceronian sermo. Dialectic uses the most purely logical argument, and pays no heed to the character of the participants. Platonic dialogue a la Kronman seeks the certain truth; it pays limited attention to the participants’ characters. Ciceronian sermo, Aristotelian in some of its assumptions, seeks indefinite truths that can never be surely known and takes the participants’ characters to be indispensable components of the search for truth. Ciceronian sermo, as a corollary, pays far greater attention to persuading participants in conversation to continue the search for truth.

The history of Platonic discourse and the university were only one strand in the history of these overlapping, rival modes of truth-seeking discourse. The medieval university was the home of Scholastic dialectic and disputatio; it was the marginal Renaissance humanists who could not get jobs in the universities who revived the rival modes of Platonic dialogue and Ciceronian sermo. The intellectually minded gentlemen of Italian villas and accademias, not the professors in the universities, were the first practitioners of modern conversation. These conversational academias eventually split into two branches: the scholarly Republic of Letters, more a home of Platonic dialogue, and the Castiglionean court and salon, more a home of Ciceronian sermo. The Renaissance professor remained more Holofernes than Socrates.

Conversation did not return to the university until the eighteenth-century German invention of the seminar—a lure for aristocratic students by universities which now offered the courtly accomplishments of dancing, horseback riding, and conversation in the classroom. Kronman’s pedagogical concern with students’ individual character owes more to Castiglione and Montaigne than it does to Socrates. The conversational classroom, the seminar universalized, is as much a modern development as the research university—and the two developed as close complements in nineteenth-century Germany. The conversational ideal has been marginal to the history of the university. The university’s longue durée has been droning lectures, disputatious wrangling, and tavern brawls.

The emergence of public conversation mattered far more than the tenuous return of conversation to the university. The entire conversational project of the Enlightenment was precisely to extend Ciceronian conversation beyond the salons, and universalize public conversation throughout civil society. James Madison, unifying the British tradition of politeness and conversational culture with the French tradition of public opinion, complemented his prudential statecraft with an extended articulation of the role of public conversation in the American republic. He championed the role in civil society of newspapers, museums, and literary societies, whose gently rational conversations were needed to aid the citizenry in their inquiries concerning the natures of their shared ideals, and to enlarge and enlighten their characters as citizens of the republic. Madison gave to civil society and public conversation as a whole the role that Kronman relegates to the university.

Madison, famously, also gave great weight to the constitutional republic, and to its underlying discursive ideals. Kronman scarcely notices they exist, because he conceives of America as essentially a democracy animated by justice and equality, not a republic animated by liberty. He mentions checks and balances, but as a way to moderate democracy rather than as the heart of the republic. He interprets the principle of non-subordination as racial reparations to promote equality rather than dispersal of power to promote liberty.

The models Kronman posits for speech outside the academy are not the forum or the court, the sites of persuasive speech where speaker and audience collaborate, built upon a stable constitutional framework. Rather, his models are the quasi-libertarian verbal chaos of a Speaker’s Corner or the blunt competition of the free market. He does not mention the republican ideal of free speech, which urges every citizen to govern his speech so as to sustain the governmental institutions and cultural norms that sustain republican liberty. Nor does he account for the intellectual school that locates Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations within his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which conceives of the free market as an exercise in mutual persuasion that doubles as a school for character, meant to educate its participants to rise from prudence to wisdom. The democratic Kronman appears blind to the institutional, discursive background that binds together the free market and the free republic, and to the citizen’s desire for liberty that underpins his free conversations and debates as much as the scholar’s desire for truth underpins his Socratic inquiry.

Neither does Kronman see the damage that diversity and inclusion do to public conversation and civic discourse. They poison the republic as badly as they poison the university, by parallel assaults on excellence, speech, and memory. The republic, as much as the university, requires honesty rather than habitual dissembling; citizens’ mutual good faith in one another’s sincerity; mutual persuasion rather than complaint and apology; solicitude for the individual who seeks justice as much as for the individual who seeks truth; citizens seeking to persuade one another as individuals rather than seeking victory over one another as tribes; memory of the politically incorrect past preserved in monuments yet untoppled; a condition of political pluralism untrammeled by the abuse of diversity and inclusion as instruments of orthodoxy; a civic character marked by tolerance and independence of mind; a civic culture that eschews shaming and encourages friendship across tribal lines; and a basic hope that we are not fated to be tribes who will destroy our republic, but can act together as citizens to sustain it. The republic depends on ordinary Americans who seek to make themselves into excellent citizens as much as the university depends on scholars who seek to be excellent men.

The university, moreover, depends upon these excellent citizens as much as does the republic. The democratic spirit leaves aristocratic education at best a precarious refuge within the university, and, as Kronman’s book bears witness, now seeks its extirpation. A republic based on liberty, unlike a democracy based on equality, has no inner logic that requires the crushing of aristocratic education. Indeed, the republican spirit welcomes aristocratic education both as the means to embed aristocratic excellence of character within the republic and as a jewel among those institutions of civil society that forward public conversation. The citizen and the professor, each a participant in the conversations of the republic, are natural friends.

Missing Pieces

Kronman loves the aristocratic education he received as a student. His love inspired him to write an able defense of the system of education he loves, and an equally able anatomy of the terrible damage inflicted upon it by diversity and inclusion. Readers will learn from him just why we should love a university animated by Socratic conversation, and why we should mourn its destruction. Within those bounds, this book is very good.

Beyond those bounds, Kronman strays into increasing myopia. Kronman frames all higher education around the question of aristocratic education, and, in so doing, betrays no knowledge of the ideals, practices, and institutions of public conversation and civic discourse. All Kronman can see beyond the aristocratic education and Socratic conversations of the university is the spirit of democratic egalitarianism—which he supports without reservation beyond the academy’s walls, even though, as “diversity and inclusion,” it has already poisoned the university he loves.

Kronman’s book contains other unpersuasive arguments and insensibilities. He believes that open race and sex preferences would have been less damaging to education than the diversity doctrine, but the substance of such preferences has caused great damage in any form. He criticizes Powell for his emphasis in Bakke on individual justice over group outcomes, but he does not give due emphasis to the specific odiousness entailed in writing race preferences into the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. Powell’s diversity doctrine at least saved the United States from that disgrace. He does not consider the argument that preferences specifically restricted to the descendants of American slaves, perhaps parallel to America’s recognition of exceptional status for Historically Black Colleges or Indian nations, might have been preferable to either affirmative action or diversity, both of which are infinitely extensible. He does not fully address the possibility that a card-carrying democratic egalitarian would prize equality of opportunity and abhor “equality of outcome” as a shoddy pretense of egalitarian sentiment—or that a prudent citizen might judge that any racial preference regime will inevitably slip toward ever more rigid quotas, demanding identity-group parity in all human activities. His basic commitment to both aristocratic education and democratic egalitarianism seems fundamentally untenable. And—the list can go on.

Kronman’s book is a curate’s egg—good in parts but addled by his misconceptions. He also condemns himself to heartbreak, because he loves both aristocratic education and the democratic egalitarianism that must kill it. It is too much to ask him to change the affections of a lifetime, however self-defeating. But younger Kronmans who wish to defend the American university as the home of aristocratic excellence would be advised to unite love for the American republic to love of the American university. The conversations of the university need to be integrated with the public conversations of civil society and the free debates and civic discourse of the republic. We can hope to defeat the diversity and inclusion cadres that have colonized our administrative elites—but only if we yoke together truth and liberty, the university and the republic, the student and the citizen.

We must hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.

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