A Defense of Aristocracy: On Anthony T. Kronman’s “The Assault on American Excellence”Historians in the News
Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics, is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997; Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
ONE OF THE MOST charming, historically evocative apparitions of an American liberal arts college is Williams College, founded in 1793 in the high Berkshire Hills at the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, less than a day’s hiking distance from Vermont and New York. In autumn the campus is bowered in scarlet and gold, its air as bracing as wine, its students and faculty “under no pressure […] to come to a judgment about the rights and wrongs of the Israeli Palestinian conflict or the case for black reparations,” having “‘all the time in the world’ to consider them from every angle” — or so Williams alumnus Anthony T. Kronman tells us in his new book, The Assault on American Excellence, reminding us that the cultivation of academic distance and ambiguity is “part of what a college or university is for.”
Kronman first encountered that ideal in 1965 as a Williams freshman studying Plato and Kant in a seminar that met in the professor’s home, where two golden retrievers dozed by a crackling fire, and Kronman gazed out at the Berkshire Hills, enraptured by his epiphany that “[t]he meaning of life is a teachable topic.” He recounted that revelation four decades later in his 2007 book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, distinguishing its summons to “a cultured appreciation of excellence in human living” from what he considered the sterile research protocols, narrow disciplinary silos, incentives to careerism, and “egalitarian” hostility to Western civilization’s standards and hierarchies that had come to replace it.
Now he’s doubling down to defend an “aristocracy” (his term) that he urges selective colleges to strengthen through an unapologetically elitist cultivation of “excellence in human living,” against the egalitarian passions that have “swept over the world of higher education with unprecedented force and all-but drowned the idea of ‘distinction of rank … in spiritual things.’” Although Kronman claims that he’s a democrat off campus and that his “aristocracy” is one not of breeding and inherited wealth but of cultivated talent and virtue, he insists repeatedly that this ideal is beyond the reach of most human beings. He writes that what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called “the effervescence of democratic negation” threatens a necessary elitism “that Holmes still took for granted” and that Kronman wants us to repossess. Some of us, anyway.
To put it gently, Kronman’s ideal of humanist education has stiffened since 1965. His freshman epiphany has become, in his new book, a dogma whose plausible criticisms of cookie-cutter diversity, chilled speech, and politicized public memories are misapplied to events whose origins and ironies he misses completely. Contrary to Kronman’s formulations, today’s storms of negation aren’t “democratic” but are provoked from above, diverting democratic passions in order to entrench elitist distinctions of rank. The riot that’s sweeping over the colleges and drowning their humanism is originating from economic and political powers that orchestrate the rage of multitudes they’ve dispossessed. (Has Kronman ever attended a Trump rally?) It’s not coming mainly from 19-year-old students and campus mentors who register these far-more-dangerous developments, like hyper-sensitive barometers or canaries in a coal mine, often doing so maladroitly, to be sure, but often more constructively than Kronman acknowledges.
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