AuthorFulton, Neil
PositionThe Assault on American Excellence; Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age

THE ASSAULT ON AMERICAN EXCELLENCE. Anthony Kronman. Free Press, 2019. 272 pp. (ISBN 978-1-5011-9948-6).

STANDING FOR REASON: THE UNIVERSITY IN A DOGMATIC AGE. John Sexton. Yale University Press, 2019. 204 pp. (ISBN: 978-0-300-24337-6).

Anthony Kronman and John Sexton have both authored books about the state of higher education: Kronman's entitled, The Assault on American Excellence; (1) Sexton's entitled, Standing for Reason? Both authors have extensive experience as instructors and administrators. Both have academic careers centered around law schools. Both use their books to explore the critical mission of universities in modern society, political and social challenges to that mission, and how to overcome those challenges. Both books are informed, provocative, and ultimately hopeful about the future of higher education. Both, while centered on universities more generally, provide avenues to think about the state of American law schools as well.


    Based on more than forty years of teaching and administration at Yale University, Anthony Kronman has a vision for higher education. It is rooted in his belief that the purpose of a university is "to preserve, transmit, and honor an aristocratic tradition of respect for human greatness." (3) This purpose is unique within American society, but at risk in Kronman's view. (4) Forces of our larger society, particularly political ones, increasingly intrude into the unique culture of universities. (5) He believes that intrusion places the efficacy of universities at risk. (6)

    Kronman identifies issues for everyone interested in higher education to wrestle with: excellence, speech, diversity, and public memory. (7) It is fair to say that his discussion is not neutral; he forcefully argues how each idea should, and should not, be engaged within a university community. The Assault on American Excellence is less of an invitation to deliberation than a statement of principles. It is Kronman's settled and strong view of higher education.

    Kronman's ideas will not receive uniform acceptance. (8) But agree or disagree, they will generate deliberation and debate on important ideas facing higher education. Kronman himself sees facilitating thoughtful conversation on important topics as central to the life of a university. (9) On those terms, the book is a success, regardless of whether the reader agrees with his conclusions or not.

    The spine that the book grows from is Kronman's vision of a university's purpose: to identify and advance human excellence. (10) This "excellence" is the refinement of the human soul so as to excel at the craft of living a virtuous and brilliant life. (11) Kronman has previously argued for the centrality of the humanities to help university students seek and understand the meaning and purpose of living. (12) Universities, while not necessary to the development of human excellence, are unique conduits to its development. (13) That development of soul is the central purpose of the university in his view.

    Kronman describes this purpose as "aristocratic" because some human souls will inevitably be "greater" than others and thus entitled to higher rank and respect. (14) He acknowledges that universities, so envisioned, are anti-democratic because not all opinions (or the people who hold them by extension) will receive identical respect and engagement; those that manifest excellence should be exalted over those who do not. (15) Kronman argues that universities must be immunized from democratized political engagement to sustain their unique status as aristocratic communities of excellence. (16)

    Kronman acknowledges resistance to his aristocratic ideal. (17) Aristocracy is commonly misattributed to wealth or high birth, not merit. (18) But true aristocracy is based on superiority of character; in this respect, it is a counterweight to the tyranny of majority opinion. (19) There is a "pathological side" of American democracy which, as French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville observed, actually undercuts independent thinking. (20) Kronman argues that universities stand against this pathology through their cultivation of rank and distinction based on the manifestation of virtuous interests and values. (21) This "preservation of [the] cultured appreciation of excellence in human living[ is] distinct from vocational success" and the first purpose of a university. (22)

    This is not the state of affairs Kronman observes within modern universities. (23) He sees an assault by the political forces of "levelling" that, while appropriate to politics, fundamentally undermine the distinct purpose of universities. (24) This is the book's titular "assault on excellence" as universities are pushed toward prioritizing democracy and equality, and away from identifying and advancing human excellence. (25) Through this shift of purpose, universities become less meritocratic, more combative, more driven by emotion than reason, and more focused on equality than excellence. (26) Kronman expresses great concern that unless universities restore their fundamental commitment to excellence, conversation, and formation of the human spirit, they will devolve into little more than additional fronts in American cultural and political warfare or glorified and overpriced trade schools. (27)

    Kronman sees the ideal of excellence in American universities to be under assault by many forces. Several are internal changes of structure. They include increased academic specialization, focus on faculty research, an increase in number and type of universities, and a lack of shared curriculum. (28) These internal changes reflect a larger shift to a "vocational ideal." (29) Universities now overwhelmingly focus on preparing students for employment, not excellent living. (30) Correspondingly, ranking is based on the development of particular skills, not excellence of character. (31)

    More fundamentally, universities are increasingly resistant to ranking on any basis, falling sway to the "anti-subordination principle." (32) Given America's history of discrimination based on race and gender, (33) resistance to the aristocratic impulse to rank is strong--even when based on virtue. (34) Kronman contends that this caution improperly imports political ideals into the academic sphere. (35) He argues that it is perfectly possible and proper to simultaneously advocate for democracy and equality in the political realm and for aristocracy and excellence in the academic realm. (36) In fact, he thinks it is necessary to achieve the full purpose of a university to "nurture the aristocratic love of what is brilliant and fine." (37)

    Kronman proposes a path forward through the retention of two vibrant, but distinct spheres: the political sphere dedicated to democracy, equality, and debate; (38) and the academic sphere dedicated to aristocracy, excellence, and conversation. (39) In following this separate track, universities will strengthen our politics by producing individuals better prepared for political participation. (40) The real danger is conflating the spheres. (41)

    Kronman argues that political values have been substituted for university values in three areas above all others: speech, (42) diversity, (43) and memory. (44) He sets out examples of how each has taken root in university culture so as to force democratic values into an aristocratic sphere and crowd out his ideal of excellence. (45)

    Speech is a central and increasingly controversial issue for any university to address. Balancing free expression with inclusion and tolerance has grown increasingly challenging. (46) Kronman considers the current culture of campus speech to be dangerous. The political vision of free speech has infringed on academic culture, forcing the "marketplace of ideas" model into a world that should be conversational. (47) In an extended comparison of how the seminar classroom differs from the street corner, he argues forcefully that university speech must be a collaborative and open conversation in which people identify, refine, and articulate their ideas. (48) The conversational model promotes respect for all participants, freedom for intellectual exploration, and an expectation of growth. (49) In the political realm, speakers try to win the argument and act without the expectation of collaboration. (50) Interjecting the "rules" of political debate into academic conversation is a threat to the latter.

    Paired with this shift from academic conversation to political debate, Kronman sees feeling commonly substituted for reason as persuasive authority on campus. (51) He observes that feelings are wielded as argumentative trumps which end, not advance, conversation. (52) In such an environment, the culture of conversation cannot endure; (53) learning requires openness that only the conversational ideal can facilitate. (54) The aristocratic notion of identifying more virtuous souls through the classic Socratic model of conversation informs Kronman's vision of how free speech should be implemented on a university campus. (55) Again, his vision is not egalitarian. (56) University conversation must follow the classic Socratic model, which engages all, and tests every idea in a rational, not emotional or cosmological, way. (57) Not all will participate in the conversation equally effectively. (58) In that respect, campus speech is aristocratic, not egalitarian. (59)

    Universities have a special duty to teach students how to engage in this form of conversation. (60) It is a more open and inclusive model than political debate. (61) Given the security its structure mandates, and its importance in preparing students to engage in the world, Kronman argues against excluding speakers, trigger warnings, and similar restrictions because he believes they prevent students from developing the resourcefulness and resilience to wrestle with a deep pursuit of the truth, even in the face of ugly...

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