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.”
The Assault on American Excellence is tonally restrained and evenhanded, but there’s also anger here. What are you angry about?
I don’t know that I would use the word “anger.” I would say bewilderment, frustration, disappointment, and an increasingly fierce sense of opposition to much that is happening here at Yale and on campuses across the country.
What is it that distresses me? The eclipse of what I call “the conversational ideal.” The idea of the university as a space apart, given over to the rare and difficult task of pursuing the truth.
That’s been compromised in a variety of ways. I’ll just mention a couple: Any time anyone, faculty or student, says, “Well, you just don’t understand it because you’re not me, you don’t share my experience, you don’t see things as I do, you haven’t suffered as I have” — whenever a claim of that kind is offered as a trump, in conversation, as something that would be unseemly or inappropriate or unjust to challenge, the conversation comes to an end. That’s a conversation-killing move.
Another example: When students complain that a speaker invited to campus, or the curriculum in a course, is an insult to them because it disrespects them, fails to recognize the intensity of their feelings, of their suffering, and they want the speaker denied or the curriculum restructured — in that way too, feelings, whether justified or not, are given a conversation-killing trump status. That is antithetical to the conversational ideal.
Many defenders of broadly libertarian free-speech norms invoke the notion of a “marketplace of ideas.” Your thinking runs somewhat differently.
When it comes to campus speech, the adversaries tend to divide into two recognizable camps. On the one hand are those who say: This is a special community, an inclusive community, we care about the well-being of all its members and we must see to it that they are not made to feel excluded, wounded, or depreciated. And to that end we need to be careful because speech hurts and offends and demeans. On the other hand, there are the speech libertarians who say that the tradition of free expression rests on the axiom that speech is the great engine of truth, and if that axiom applies to society at large, it applies with quadruple force on a campus, which is after all devoted to the truth.
They’re both wrong because they both miss something important.
The speech libertarians fail to understand that a college is a special community, but not the kind that those who are in favor of trimming speech for the sake of protecting feelings and inclusiveness conceive it to be. The idea of free speech, as a political value, has nothing to do with the idea of a conversation, which lies at the heart of the very distinctive community that a university represents. In the book I use the example of a speakers’ corner, a soap box in the park set up for whoever wishes to use it. People come and go, they talk about whatever they wish, they insult, they harangue, they respond. And that’s great, that’s an important part of our political culture. No one would wish it otherwise. The people who speak and the people who listen are trying to persuade or resist being persuaded. But you cannot describe what is happening as a conversation.
But talking past each other in a classroom: That is out of keeping with the requirements of the conversational ideal, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to keep that ideal in view at all times. That is a special, rare, and valuable enterprise which the speech libertarians simply don’t notice. By the same token, the defenders of limits on speech for the sake of inclusion do not have it in view either. What they miss is the way in which institutionalized forms of sensitivity compromise the conversational ideal and reinforce the idea that what ultimately matters is how I see the world, rather than the prospect for achieving some shared foothold on the ground of reason and truth. Always an aspiration that we fall short of achieving — I have no illusions about that — but the fact that you don’t achieve it does not to my mind deprive the ideal itself of its magnificent force.
You write that, unlike medical standards for bodily health, “It is harder to define an agreed-upon measure of intellectual health — the counterpart of longevity, lower blood pressure, and the like.” But the psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett (among others) insists that speech can be unhealthy, in a plainly physiological sense — she talks about the neuroscience of trauma in connection to hurtful speech.
I have no doubt that words can be so upsetting that it is not possible to draw a fully meaningful line between intellectual offense and physical pain or revulsion. I have had such experiences myself. In fact, the whole of psychoanalytic theory is premised on the belief that mental states often manifest themselves in physical symptoms. But what did Freud propose as a way of dealing with such symptoms? His famous “talking cure.”
Now I don’t mean to suggest that a classroom ought to be thought of as a psychoanalytic therapy session. But I do think it has the following relation: If a student says that what you’ve just said is so offensive that I’m shaking with rage — well, delicate situation. The student’s response may turn out to be revealing and enlightening, but it must be brought into a zone of clarity and commonality where everyone in the conversation can assess it and decide whether or not it ought to have the authority claimed for it. Merely announcing it and stressing its sheer physicality does nothing to establish its authority. That is to cede the day to the symptom. And that is a victory for unenlightenment and self-ignorance.
You say that suppressing ideas on campus is “an awful confession of weakness.” But aren’t there ideas that are both hateful and silly, in such a combination that suppressing them is a reasonable thing to do if you have limited time and space?
Well, in one respect you’re quite right. Campus speech is a limited good. It’s unlikely that the chemistry department is going to invite a defender of the theory of phlogiston to come and give a talk. But the fact is that this issue comes up typically in situations in which a student group for the sake of provocation has invited a speaker whose views may be silly, or unimportant, just for the sake of rubbing other people’s noses in it. I would say this about Milo Yiannopoulos. He has no interest in initiating or pursuing a conversation. He has no allegiance to the conversational ideal. He is the enemy of the conversational ideal. In that respect he shares something in common with those who loathe him and want to ban him from campus for the sake of inclusion. He serves as a useful mirror of the increasingly entrenched set of beliefs that govern campus life today.
On the topic of protecting students’ feelings: What do you make of Harvard’s decision to remove Ronald Sullivan from the position of resident dean?
It was wrong. Under the circumstances it was massively imprudent.
Let’s talk about aristocracy. 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?
I still believe with every bone in my body that what our universities are doing — or ought to be doing — at the undergraduate level is as worthy as any enterprise on earth. But I don’t think it is possible to explain what that is, let alone defend and justify it, without recurring to the aristocratic ideal of character that lies at the heart of a liberal education.
You write that those who acquire “tolerance of ambiguity” have “souls” which are “larger, freer, more developed.” They’re “aristocrats of the spirit.” You were a student radical and you’ve become more conservative, at least with respect to university matters. But “the aristocratic ideal” sounds, to me, like a specifically liberal ideal. It’s not compatible with certain kinds of religious orthodoxy. It’s not compatible with some styles of leftism, either. Yet you don’t come out and say that the aristocratic ideal has a politics.
The word “liberal” has so many meanings, and is used so promiscuously, that I’m reluctant to tether my views to it one way or another. I don’t want though to run away from the thought that what I am embracing as an ideal of academic life has bearings on the experience and conduct of those in the rest of life who are the beneficiaries of this experience. I do think that it tends to promote a respect for independent-mindedness — it tends to encourage a respect for many political qualities or virtues that could perhaps be described as liberal in an old-fashioned sense of the word. I do think that it takes the edge off of radicalisms of one kind or another — off of a naïve and unbending libertarianism as much as a ruthless and unyielding redistributivism. It perhaps pushes people a little bit more toward the center, and where you land, on the Democratic or Republican side of the line, will depend on the substance of the views that you hold about various questions of social policy and social justice.
My own view is that our political culture is being poisoned by a president whose disrespect for the truth is degrading our sense of ourselves. I feel as passionately about that as I do about my troubled colleges and universities. In fact I think these two have something to do with one another. Some of those who have embraced Donald Trump have done so because of what they perceive to be the ridiculous aberrational extravagances and stupidities of what they call “the cultural left,” which in their view, not incorrectly, has captured the spirit of our colleges and universities.
So you think that Trumpian resentment toward elite universities is predicated on suspicion of the universities’ own anti-elitist tendencies, and not just itself a variety of anti-elitist disdain?
I wouldn’t pretend to be able to unpack all of that. Certainly an anti-elitist mood has swept the country. A disdain and impatience for what are perceived to be the overly smug pronouncements of our bicoastal latte-swilling Davos-attending cosmopolitan elite. But how that breaks down, what the elements of the elitism are, what it consists of — that’s much harder to say. My own view, and I don’t know whether this can be borne out in social-scientific terms, is that part of the reaction is against those who wear their fancy degrees on their sleeves as merit badges, use them to get good jobs, and greater power, and more money, but are not burdened by the sense of responsibility that comes with being the bearer of an elite tradition.
Most defenses of elite higher education depend on the concept of meritocracy. You’re shifting the grounds of defense to the concept of aristocracy, but you’re not doing away with meritocracy. How do you see them working together?
The question of merit has to do with figuring out which among the many attractive, even deserving, applicants merit the privilege and benefit of admission. The question of aristocracy has to do with the direction and quality of the education those meritorious few receive when they’re admitted. Of course these two things are related.
I don’t talk about merit in this book. My focus is almost entirely on what happens after students have been granted admission. With one exception. I do say, very clearly, that I believe in affirmative action — I believed in it 50 years ago, and I believe in it still.
What are your thoughts about the Harvard anti-Asian discrimination case?
I don’t know how dramatically it’s going to change the landscape. The facts are just so embarrassing to Harvard that with some modest adjustment in its admissions practices it might be able to absorb a judgment against it and get on with life more or less as usual. The vagueness of the category on which Harvard was relying to make sure that it kept its Asian undergraduates at the level that it wished, the so-called personality score, is such a floppy nothing of an empty basket — that’s not gonna do anymore.
There is something profoundly disturbing about Harvard using these flaccid categories to achieve something like a quota. The court papers show how the system was invented to keep the number of Jews down in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It’s all pretty bad, and part of the badness is that colleges have been both compelled and allowed to do what they’re doing under the rubric of “diversity,” which conceals from view the actual operation of the whole system, and what they are in fact aiming to achieve. It’s substituting one vocabulary for another in a way that creates a climate of dishonesty. What goes on in the admissions office is increasingly mysterious, and what happens once students are admitted — that is something to which little attention is paid by educators themselves.
Len Gutkin is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.