My new book, The Assault on American Excellence, describes and criticizes the politicization of campus life. It addresses the distinctive character of campus speech; the evolution of the concept of diversity; the value of humanistic study; and the tension between the democratic ideal of equality and the academic commitment to excellence. In one section toward the end, I criticize Yale’s decision to rename Calhoun College. My colleague and friend John Witt sharply attacks my account of the matter.
I wish he had addressed the book’s broader themes. These set the context for my discussion of the renaming of Calhoun, which I view as a political event emblematic of the creeping politicization whose dangers are the main subject of my book.
Witt’s focus on this one section is understandable, though. He chaired the committee that defined the general principles that eventually led to the renaming of Calhoun College. He has a dog in the fight.
I will not reply to all of Witt’s criticisms. But several merit a response and lead to the larger themes of my book.
First, Witt acknowledges that John Calhoun was a complicated figure with many legacies. No reasonably well-informed person would disagree.
What he fails to mention is that the report of the Advisory Committee, which applied the general guidelines of the Witt Committee to the specific case of Calhoun College, found Calhoun’s indefensible defense of slavery to be not merely one of his legacies but the most important among them.
This is not a small detail. It was essential to the renaming decision. If it were enough that one of Calhoun’s principal legacies conflicts with Yale’s values (as it surely does), the case for renaming would be straightforward. But it would set a dangerous precedent. Samuel Morse was an outspoken anti-Catholic. His strident nativism is one of the things for which he was and is best-known. To say that Morse’s leadership of a reprehensible political movement is not one of his principal legacies is either wishful thinking or historical ignorance. And like Calhoun’s defense of slavery, it was fiercely contested at the time. But if one awful, contested legacy is enough to justify renaming a residential college, mustn’t Morse be renamed too?
To contain the effects of renaming Calhoun—to prevent the “dominoes” from falling—it was therefore essential that his hateful endorsement of slavery be judged to eclipse all the other dimensions of his complicated career. This is a controversial judgment. The Advisory Committee attempts to justify it on historical grounds. But the evidence it offers is not compelling. Its historical defense of the judgment is thin.
Witt stresses the importance of historical expertise. But the Advisory Committee’s report is a disappointment in precisely this regard. I explain why in my book. I do not offer my own view of Calhoun’s legacy—as Witt misleadingly suggests. I argue that the Committee’s view is not sustained by the materials it cites to support it. That is an altogether different thing. Every lawyer knows the difference.
One is left with the impression that the decision to rename Calhoun College was driven by political realities—not the malleable conceptual scheme of the Witt Report or the weak historical analysis of the Advisory Committee. That is the truth, I think. By the time the decision was reached, these realities made any other outcome all but unthinkable. They were the driving force behind a decision whose public justification remains vulnerable to close review.
Second, Witt misses the main thrust of my criticism of his own committee’s report.
The Report states that “ultimately, the answer to a question about renaming must arise out of the mission of the University.” To define this more precisely, it refers to Yale’s most recent “mission statement.” This brief and harmless document is not false or misleading. It is merely vacuous. It offers no insight into the nature of the values that are at stake in this or in any serious renaming controversy. It says nothing about the purposes of education and how these bear on our relation to the past.
This is not a minor shortcoming. The committee’s reliance on a clichéd “mission statement” as the yardstick by which to measure the pros and cons of renaming leaves a hole at the heart of its report. Just where one hopes for an extended discussion of memory, learning, humility, moral courage and the relation between inquiry, freedom and character—the sort of thing one expects from a great historian— there are a few scattered remarks but little of substance.
My own discussion of renaming, of which the Calhoun episode forms but a part, is devoted to these topics. Many will disagree with what I say. But I take the subject seriously. The Witt Report fails to treat it in the depth it deserves. That is its educational failure. And despite what Witt implies, though I look to the limiting case of totalitarianism for instruction as to what is at stake in these disputes, I am at pains to remind my readers that there is a world of difference between the Politburo and Yale’s renaming committees.
Third, my principal criticism of the decision to rename Calhoun College is that it proceeded on the questionable assumption that a decision to keep or change the name should be based on a judgment as to whether Yale ought to continue to honor John Calhoun the man.
No one today would propose naming a college in Calhoun’s honor. But a decision to keep the name can be and has been supported on other grounds. It can be defended not as an homage to the controversial statesman who, among other things, touted slavery as a positive good, but as a recognition of Yale’s own commitment to shine a bright and public light on its morally compromised past—one brighter and more painful than the shadow cast by a stone carving here or there.
That commitment is worth honoring. It is a part of Yale’s legacy, not Calhoun’s. If a decision to keep the name of the College had been justified (as President Salovey initially did) as an expression of Yale’s resolve to remember what those in its own past chose to forget; to transmute their forgetfulness into a greater act of remembering; and never to confuse nominal change with real moral improvement— then perhaps keeping the name might have been presented as an opportunity of an especially valuable kind, not on account of John Calhoun’s history, but of Yale’s own fitful and continuing struggle to come to terms with its past.
The opportunity was lost, or at least, thought less important than other values. In any case, political realities swept it off the table. It would have taken immense courage to follow any other path. But the loss was not a small one. And the fact that the matter is now closed should not blind us to its magnitude or meaning. That would be a kind of forgetfulness too, as any historian will agree.
Toward the end of his essay, Witt stresses the fact that Calhoun’s name was attached to a residential college where students live and with which they are encouraged to identify. He accuses me of insensitivity, toward minority students in particular. He implies that I do not understand, and undervalue, student feelings. He denounces me for being “breathtakingly disrespectful.” I discuss the role and importance of student feelings at length in my book. Readers can judge for themselves whether my arguments are disrespectful or not.
Instead of meeting them head on, however, Witt ridicules my arguments with personal denunciation and belittling rhetoric. He asks “what kind of solidarity is achieved at the expense of a historically subordinated subset of the community?” He suggests that I see the “amazing students of today’s more dynamic campus” as “an obstacle to excellence.” He says that I “associate excellence with a dogged defense of white supremacy’s most glaring symbols.”
This is the sort of virtue-signaling and name-calling that I criticize in my book. It is the hammer held over the heads of those who question the weight that personal feelings and claims of injustice are given on many American campuses today. There is no better way to dismiss an argument than to charge its proponent with racial insensitivity, or hint that he’s soft on white supremacy.
Witt knows better, or should. He knows that I support the widening of opportunities for individuals from “historically subordinated” groups. He knows that I am an enthusiastic proponent of affirmative action as an instrument of reparative justice. He knows that what I oppose is not broader, fairer access to our colleges and universities, but the politicization of campus life.
We live in a democracy. Its fundamental axiom is that of equality. But Yale and schools like it are highly selective. Even a perfectly fair admissions process selects for talent. And once students are admitted, they are judged by standards of selectivity. We grade them. We evaluate their work by the criteria of excellence that are essential in every field of inquiry. If we are committed to a widened search for talent among “historically subordinated” groups, it is because we believe that those with talent, who have been unfairly excluded from the pursuit of excellence, should have the chance to join it.
Excellence in math and science is uncontroversial. The same is true of language instruction and economics. What about the humanities?
Students get graded on their philosophy and literature and history papers too. But the aim of these disciplines is, in part at least, to help students gain greater clarity about the range of possibilities that confront them as human beings hoping, as we all do, to shape or find a life of meaning.
Of course we don’t grade students on the lives they make for themselves. But if the goal is a serious one, then it is presumably worth exploring, and if it is worth exploring, then the idea of advancement toward it must make sense. Not measurable movement toward a single, well-defined goal, like the mastery of organic chemistry, but something valuable nonetheless: the refinement of one’s powers of aesthetic, moral and intellectual appreciation; of one’s judgments of success and failure in the enterprise of living; a subtler eye and sharpened sense of the distinction between what is durable and great and what goes in and out with the tide.
Different students and teachers will understand these qualities in different ways. But any view of them amounts to an interpretation of what we might call prowess in the work of being human. This is an old idea. It once had wide support. It has been subjected to criticism for all sorts of good reasons. But at its core, it is not only defensible. It is essential to the humanities. Without it, they become branches of technical knowledge. The question of how best to live disappears from view. If we give up on the idea of excellence in living, as distinct from that of accomplishment in a particular pursuit, the humanities lose a part of what makes them distinctive and important.
The politicization of campus life is no threat to the idea of excellence in physics or economics. But it has contributed to the trivialization of the idea of excellence in living. To many this idea now seems hopelessly privileged, undemocratic, unfair. In The Assault on American Excellence, I try to breathe some life back into it. And I try to show—what will seem counterintuitive to many—that the humanistic pursuit of excellence in living nourishes the independence of mind that the citizens and leaders of our wonderful, abrasive democracy badly need.
These are the big issues. The renaming of Calhoun College was merely a symptom.
My friend John Witt would like to portray the decision as the result of reasoned reflection and sound historical analysis. I see it as a political event, like others that convulsed the Yale campus in 2015-16. I see it as a painful, local expression of the politicization of campus life in general— of the intrusion into the academy of political values that challenge the idea of excellence in the common work of being human by distributing our humanity into separate silos of racial, ethnic and gender identity. I am as opposed to this as I am supportive of racial and gender equality in politics and law and of greater opportunities for disadvantaged groups in the college admissions process. These are divided but not contradictory commitments. It’s the conflation of the two that disturbs me.
It should disturb us all.
ANTHONY KRONMAN is a Sterling Professor of Law and a former Dean of Yale Law School. Contact him at email@example.com .