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It Won’t Be Academics Like This Who Reclaim ‘American Excellence’ From Bad Ideas


Thirty years ago, nobody was more prepared than I to treat graduate school as a boot camp for scholarship. I was a young man ready to be molded. Instead, I encountered professors who were—there is no other way to put it—a gaggle of petty, bitter, and incestuous fools who seemed to either hate their students or view them as tools to further their own small-minded ends. That, or sleep with us.

There were a couple of exceptions, but even those guys were weird or broken. It says something that the most normal professor I encountered in graduate school was the extremely odd and reclusive aesthetician and novelist William H. Gass.

I used to take long drives up and down the Mississippi and into the Ozarks to remind myself that there was a real, majestic world out there still. Even though I’d begun to suspect that something was rotten in the halls of humanities, back then I still thought the problem was somehow with me. Now that I’ve been through a few other boot camps in life—such as marriage and learning to write a novel—I know differently. My graduate professors were a pack of blithering idiots. What’s worse, they were representative.

Anthony Kronman, former dean of the Yale Law School, portrays the opposite impression of late twentieth-century academia in his book, The Assault on American Excellence. Back then, things were pretty good, he claims. The important universities hummed right along producing an elite to wisely govern the rest of us schmoes. It’s only lately that the Levellers have taken over the halls, says Kronman. The enemy who is bringing in speech codes, demanding diversity quotas, and tearing down historical monuments is . . . us. Democracy. Excessive egalitarianism.

“Without the idea of greatness of soul, human life becomes smaller and flatter,” Kronman says. Sure, okay. “Protecting this idea from democratic diminution is the first reason our colleges and universities need to nurture the aristocratic love of what is brilliant and fine,” he continues. Wait a sec. Aristocratic? Are we talking about college professors?

To make his point, Kronman calls on worthy snobs H.L. Mencken and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., as well as that old standby of American aristocratic apologia, Alexis de Tocqueville. One of Tocqueville’s major critiques of democracy is that it inconveniently wipes out deference to the greatness of soul that European nobility embodies, and ever so particularly embodies in the nobility of one Viscount Alexis.

Kronman is proud to have been a student protester for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, but is a bit disturbed that later generations have misunderstood and misapplied his pure intent. “Then it seemed to me that the most important thing was to work for greater equality in the world outside the academy. Today I think it is the protection of the spirit of nobility within it.”

What is worth protecting? Kronman sets forth the university seminar as the academic ideal, with a learned master guiding students via the Socratic method to conclusions that are already familiar to the instructor. This requires students to buy into the notion that the teacher just might actually know something they don’t. Today’s students are not having it, says Kronman.

I have in mind statements like the following. “Your views make me feel excluded; you only want to protect your privilege”; “Speaking as a [woman, Jew, African American, transsexual, Hispanic], I see the world in a way you can’t.”. . . It doesn’t kill a conversation to express a feeling, or question someone’s motive, or claim that members of a certain group experience things in a way others can’t. What kills it is insisting that any of these be treated as a trump. . . . all of these appeals defeat the idea of conversation by closing off the space of reasoned argument.

Babyfaced Narcissists

Who is responsible for these babyfaced narcissists and their demand for veto power on conversation? Why, it’s the American family, says Kronman. People are accustomed to being treated around the dinner table as if their feelings were all-important. Then they get to college and are outraged when someone upsets them by disagreeing. (I’m not sure what dinner table Kronman is referring to, but it sure as heck wasn’t mine growing up.)

At Yale, this had the form of students taking offense at the word “master” being used to describe dorm directors because it reminded them of slavery. One group of students became so offended by a professor couple who told them to lighten up about Halloween costumes that they surrounded the poor folks and cursed them until they quit.

Kronman intuits that the supposedly offended students didn’t come up with this stuff on their own. Some authority figure fed it to them. Kronman twists himself into pretzels to claim that this authority is not within academia, but comes from somewhere outside his beloved enclave.

Toward the end of his chapter on freedom of speech, for instance, Kronman spends several pages victim-blaming Milo Yiannopoulos, who is basically doing stand-up, for being so dang, well, provocative. “Yiannopolous has cost the schools where he has appeared hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra security. That is a real problem.”

Is it? Are College Republicans the ones throwing blood and hammers, and shouting down speakers? Or could it be. . . those student protesters who ought to pay for the havoc they cause? And how about the endless stream of wacko leftist speakers invited to campus who gin up outrage against conservative academics such as Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald? Might the Children of Chomsky deserve to be presented a butcher’s bill, too?

Next, Kronman takes on the university diversity racket. As befits a former law dean, he sets up his discussion with an admirable precis of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Kronman believes Bakke was wrongly decided. He is all-in for affirmative action.

In fact, he argues that if Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. hadn’t made discrimination a matter of individual rather than collective harm, we might have glutted ourselves on decades of glorious affirmative action programs and be living in a golden age of racial diversity now. Instead, he sees Black Lives Matter activists shutting down classes and shaking down law schools for organizational handouts and shudders at what those misguided conservative justices wrought. Really. That’s who he blames.

In his best chapter, Kronman takes on the destruction of historical markers and statues and the mania for renaming college institutions. He rightfully laments the idiocy, which he sees as more evidence of a hyperactive democratic spirit pervading the land. His prime example is Yale’s renaming of its Calhoun residential college to Grace Hopper College. He points out that, amazingly enough, John C. Calhoun was much more than a slaveholding bigot. He might even be said to have had a thought in his head and some measure of goodness in his heart.

Speaking as someone who grew up in a county named for Calhoun, but that had previously been named after the unforgivably pro-Union, antislavery Thomas Hart Benton, a hero of the War of 1812, I can say that it may be best for people to leave well enough alone on historical nomenclature. As Kronman reminds us, we will all be history soon.

A Flawed Diagnosis

Kronman’s framing of the insanity besetting American campuses is engaging, but his diagnosis is flawed, and his proposed remedy would be as ineffectual as treating a brain tumor with a comfrey poultice.

The idea that words can shape the way we perceive reality is a commonplace. Most of us discover this truism around the age of 15 when we realize that adults, especially our parents, can be a bunch of hypocrites. To jump from there to the notion that the way we use words creates reality is logical lunacy. Yet it is a leap that most American scholars of the humanities have happily made in the past half century, usually without the least hesitation. They feel it is so in their bones—much as a teenager can be absolutely certain everybody but himself is a total phony.

This certainty leads scholars to deride and degrade their own subject matter. Mad conspiracy theorists of the mind like Sigmund Freud and their modern equivalents are elevated into secular saints. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s darkly witty aphorisms are taken not as a caution that language is not a self-contained logical system, but as proof that language represents nothing at all.

Of course, language represents. Why speak if it doesn’t? Meaning is not a contextual web floating in nothingness, anchored to nothing. Language does not make the universe. Instead, it is a wonderful tool for surviving and thriving within a universe that is already there.

Furthermore, language is necessarily an individual tool. Men make it. When a lot of us are making it, we call that culture. And, like DNA in a cell, the only place culture resides is within a single person.

This ability to refine the individual is the reason we seek virtue and excellence through education. To perfect the individual soul is to perfect culture. Perfection may be ultimately unattainable, but it’s after educational improvement that students grow into people valuable to the rest of us.

It’s the reason you put a soldier through four years of college before you place him in charge of thirty men during a war. He might at some crucial point remember how Jane Austen’s Emma overthought all her stratagems and almost lost the man she loved. It’s the reason you want a doctor to have some philosophy and history before he becomes a surgeon and cuts into your grandmother. He might recall that, while Grant’s victory was probably inevitable, Lee was able to play a very bad hand for a surprisingly long time through intelligence and audacity. Creating thoughtful, deep-souled individuals is why there are humanities. Everything else, including scholarship, is a means to this end.

Marxism gets this completely backward, as does its first cousin, fascism. It posits vast cultural structures that shape the individual to a collective will. Yet there aren’t any cultural structures beyond the conscious comprehension of the individual, just as there are no pagan gods.

A Second Opinion

So here’s a second opinion on Kronman’s diagnosis: The disease that afflicts the American academy is not caused by the pathogen of egalitarianism from without. It is a cancer produced by the excesses of analytic philosophy and structuralist thinking within.

The cure is not a restoration of an aristocracy of the mind that never really existed to begin with. It is instead radical surgery followed by massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy. Departments based on the self-immolating, bellybutton gaze of critical theory, the desire to harness philosophical inquiry to the broken-down nag of Marxist analysis, and the promulgation of grouping humans by the grapeshot categories of race and sex must be cut out. Excised. Burnt in the hospital incinerator. Any academic area with the word “studies” or “theory” at the end must go.

We will also need to take a good bit of seemingly healthy tissue along with the cancerous masses—that is, much of what used to be called the humanities and almost all of the social sciences will have to be eliminated. Can anyone outside the academy believe that sociology or criminology deal with reality as we know it?

They are propaganda tools. Psychology 101 has become a hobbyhorse for those desiring to attack the foundations of conceptual thinking. Things such as “confirmation bias,” the “halo effect,” and “cognitive dissonance” are Polonius-like truisms masquerading as disturbing insights. American society is well protected against them through our democratic institutions and free markets. It is the academy that is vulnerable.

Kronman’s impulse to bring academic excellence back to the heart of the American university is good. His proposed solution is wishful rationalization. Aristotle was right: Man is the thinking animal. It is both our evolutionary adaptation and the trait that places us beyond evolution itself. Like intertwined, mutually supportive vines, evolution and religion, reason and art, have arrived at the same high point in the formation of human nature.

This amazing confluence is what we see in man—who is simultaneously the crown of nature and a child of heaven. Man, the individual, is the proper subject and end point of the humanities. He is their purpose for existing. It says so right there in the name. We can rightly say to Kronman: O, aristocratic physician of the mind, go back to school and heal thyself! Otherwise, the end of everything you hold dear is fast on the way—and the death of the humanities in the academy will have been your own fault.