Excellence without the Good

In early 2016, Harvard’s 24 house masters became “faculty deans.” A few months later, Yale made each master of its residential colleges a “head of college.” The term magister goes back to the medieval origins of a university and marked a scholar as one whose study of Scripture and theology had made him a “master of the sacred page.” But far more students find “master” to be redolent of antebellum slavery, and the term was retired as inappropriate for our times. For Anthony Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale and a professor in Yale’s Directed Studies program, the incident was one of many that show how radical egalitarianism is attacking the university’s aristocratic structure.

In The Assault on American Excellence, Kronman argues that the university, rightly understood, is about the pursuit of human excellence, not equality. This is an inherently aristocratic idea that claims that human excellence is real: there are better ways to live, there is a hierarchy of people who more fully cultivate their humanity than others, and we should strive to emulate them. Without that understanding of excellence, humanistic inquiry founders.

The Aristocratic University

Part of the university’s work is to “preserve, transmit, and honor” this aristocratic respect for human greatness, Kronman argues. This is important for two reasons. First, we must preserve “a cultured appreciation of excellence in human living that is distinct from vocational success. . . . Without the idea of greatness of soul, human life becomes smaller and flatter.” It also becomes solely defined by one’s career, social status, or success—which makes the good life unattainable to those lower on the social ladder. A humanistic understanding of excellence shows that the good life is one of truth and beauty, which are available to all regardless of their vocational status, money, or power.

Second, Kronman continues, democracy needs aristocracy. Love of what is fine “contributes to the strength and stability of our democratic way of life.” Following Alexis de Tocqueville and John Adams, Kronman sees aristocratic institutions like universities as essential for the preservation of democracy. He wants universities to play a role similar to churches in Tocqueville’s thought, directing people toward “a higher order of values” and instilling “a reverence for what rises above the everyday.” Democracies need excellent men and women to run them, people who can resist the tyranny of the majority, think for themselves, and lead their fellow citizens toward what is right. Attacking aristocratic institutions in the name of egalitarianism ends up harming democratic privileges for all.

This attack comes from a democratic egalitarianism that has overflowed its banks from the political world to the university. Kronman writes as a former organizer for Students for a Democratic Society who sees tension but also necessary unity between equality and excellence. He writes that egalitarian fairness has:

an unimpeachable authority outside the walls of our colleges and universities but less or none within them. It confers authority on a conception of diversity that is defensible in political and legal terms but hostile to the pursuit of the truth and destructive of the aristocratic ideal of becoming a more complete human being, as distinct from a well-trained professional.

In short, Kronman wants us to be Rawlsian democrats outside the university and Aristotelian aristocrats (of a sort) inside. A school like Yale should use affirmative action to counteract social inequalities in its admissions process. But once admitted, all students should expect to learn from their betters. They are not on an equal level with their professors or with the authors of the great texts they study.

The Excellent or the Good?

Kronman applies this vision of excellence to the controversies roiling American universities today: campus speech, diversity, and how we remember the past. He contrasts the university with an urban speakers’ corner. Debaters in a speakers’ corner and the public walking by compete as buyers and sellers in a marketplace of ideas. There is no obligation to offer sustained argument or to listen to the speaker. But the university is a community dedicated to the pursuit of truth and structured around the conversational idea. Their members must make and respond to arguments on the common ground of reason and shared premises. When students and professors assert their feelings or social location in place of rational argument, they shut down conversation without furthering it, thwarting the university’s core purpose.

Kronman’s final chapter examines the controversy over Yale’s decision to rename Calhoun College. The chapter has too much inside baseball for readers who didn’t choose Yale, but it helps show where the book’s overall argument breaks down. Kronman’s defense of keeping Calhoun’s name on the college rests on the university’s responsibility “to cultivate the capacity for enduring the moral ambiguities of life.” If we come to recognize that John Calhoun and Woodrow Wilson held odious views, he thinks, we should see the institutions that bear their names as monuments to the contradiction of good and evil in all human beings and the moral complexities that become clear only in hindsight. Colleges should help students learn to live with these ambiguities, not deny their existence.

This is true, up to a point. But it overlooks the primary purpose for which we erect memorials: honoring greatness and sacrifice, and mourning loss. Yes, we recognize that the great were not perfect. But we build statues of them and name buildings in their honor because they have been excellent. We may acknowledge ambiguity, but we don’t erect buildings for it. If our condemnation of Calhoun’s views about race and slavery now outweigh our appreciation of his political importance, it makes sense to reconsider the honors we have bestowed on him. If not, our memorials to Calhoun remain a testament to his excellence despite his vices, not to the moral ambiguity of his life overall.

In a similar way, Kronman celebrates Abraham Lincoln as a man “in whose soul ambiguity was graven like an indelible brand.” Part of Lincoln’s greatness was his ability to see the good in his enemies and to acknowledge the human tragedies of the Civil War. But we remember Lincoln as exceptional because he could not tolerate the moral equivocation of institutions like slavery as so many of his countrymen could. We revere him as a titan of probity, not ambiguity.

This is because ambiguity is not a strong good, and our sense of excellence depends on our understanding of moral and human goods. Kronman never acknowledges this. Indeed, he devotes more than 200 pages to the topic of excellence without answering the question, “what makes something excellent?” Kronman acknowledges that there is disagreement among the defenders of aristocracy about the meaning of human fulfillment. This does not disprove the aristocratic ideal, he writes, but shows that it remains open to debate. That debate is not formless but “rests on the shared assumption that growth is realization; realization, freedom; and that some get further, and become freer, than others.”

By what standards do we distinguish real growth from regression, real freedom from veiled enslavement? Kronman does not say. The closest definition of the good that he offers is “the strength to persevere in search of the truth; the capacity to live with awful ambiguities; and the response to be an individual, not just the representative of a group.” The purpose of liberal education is to liberate those who receive it from their inherited prejudices “so that they might decide for themselves which of these to endorse and how to combine them in the way that best expresses their individual judgments about what is important and why.” Kronman wants to preserve excellence against the onslaught of egalitarianism, but without a robust conception of the good, excellence remains ultimately a matter of individual determination with no way of adjudicating which determinations are truly excellent—an excellence founded on a kind of egalitarianism.

Secular Humanism: A Flawed Middle Ground

Kronman’s earlier book Education’s End confirms this. There he argues that secular humanism replaced Christianity as the animating spirit of American education in the mid-19th century. Kronman’s view of secular humanism acknowledges that the meaning of our lives depends on larger structures of value beyond what we could create. But it denies that only an eternal God can provide those structures. With these two claims in hand, he writes:

teachers of the humanities joined the study of the classics to more modern works of literature, philosophy, and art in a complex and evolving tradition that forms a conversation of sufficient richness and strength to frame the student’s search for an answer to the question of what living is for. This was the tradition of arts and letters whose spiritual vitality secular humanism affirmed.

Secular humanism thereby provides a middle ground between the radical egalitarians, who say that no way of life is more valuable than another, and religious orthodoxy, which says that only one way is. Kronman explains: “Secular humanism accepts the pluralistic belief in a variety of paths to fulfillment; assumes their number to be modest but remains agnostic as to how many there are; and acknowledges that some ways of life are likely to be incompatible with others.” But, he adds, “there is no built-in rank order that makes one way of life superior to another.” Humanistic inquiry leads us not to the good life, but to good lives, none of which is better than the others. How do we know what makes those good lives, good? Kronman doesn’t say.

When Kronman wrote Education’s End in 2007, he predicted that the energy behind multiculturalism was subsiding, the period of its dominance coming to a close. As the cloud lifts, he concluded, it will be easier for proponents of secular humanism to make their case “and to represent their point of view as the genuinely progressive one that holds the greatest promise of leading the humanities forward out of their present malaise.”

Thirteen years later, it is impossible for graduate students in Classics to argue publicly that works in Greek and Latin are beautiful and true—at least if they want to teach at a place like Yale. Radical egalitarianism makes clear demands about the authors that should be off the reading lists and who should replace them. Many proponents of secular humanism hold prestigious chairs and control undergraduate education at elite universities. Yet they, like Kronman, remain incapable of offering a defense of why we should read great books—and why these books are great—capable of withstanding the attacks of the radical egalitarians.

If you want to claim, as Kronman does, that the works of the Western canon should be read because they express “universal moral and political aspirations” that rest on “transcendent foundations,” you will need to say what those transcendent foundations are. If you want to claim that a particular way of life is good, you will need to explain why you can make that judgment. There are conceptions of the good—even religious ones—that allow for more diversity and ambiguity than Kronman grants. Appeals to free speech, heterodoxy, or general excellence are insufficient in the face of radical egalitarianism. This does not mean that we should answer ideology with ideology. Rather, teachers in the humanities need to appeal to the transcendent and robust understandings of the human good. We need to tell students what is excellent, and we need to tell them why.