Like many other members of the Yale community, I read reviews of Anthony Kronman’s “The Assault on American Excellence” over the summer and followed the candid exchange of views in the News last week. As a scholar whose research and teaching concerns both the so-called Western classical tradition and the study of diversity, the book gave me plenty to ponder. In offering an account of what he describes as “the battle for the soul of the Humanities” at Yale and across American higher education, Professor Kronman implicates all of us who teach in the Humanities and who do not share his philosophy of the proper goal of higher education as an aristocratic education in human excellence (Kronman is very explicit that this goal differs from the conventional educational goal of academic expertise.) I offer the remarks that follow in the spirit of the “conversationalist ideal” of higher education which lies at the heart of Kronman’s philosophy of education.
As a classicist, I paid close attention to the use of ancient Greek classical texts in Kronman’s argument. While Aristotle is one of several sources of inspiration for Kronman’s “aristocratic ideal,” the ancient Greek thinker with whom Kronman most identifies is Plato’s Socrates, who embodies his conversationalist ideal of education. Specifically, Kronman cites the figure of Socrates in Plato’s early dialogues to illustrate the model of the academic seminar as a community of learning. In these early dialogues, Plato is often criticized for giving Socrates’ interlocutors dud arguments. Where this occurs, Socrates’ arguments are accordingly weak. Scholars vary in their judgment of just how weak some of these arguments are, and about Plato’s rationale for constructing the dialogues in this way. In my reading, Kronman has much in common with Plato’s elenchic Socrates in that he attributes weak arguments to his intellectual opponents. Also, in common with Plato’s Socrates, Kronman tends to characterize his opponents as emotionally and intellectually immature. Perhaps this unevenness is to be explained by the genre in which Kronman is writing—Leo Gutkin, interviewing Kronman in The Chronicle of Higher Education described the book as a “crisply argued jeremiad”—but it diminishes the book’s contribution to academic debate.
In a book that makes a case for the soul of Humanities, I was disappointed by Kronman’s one-dimensional approach to language. Kronman’s discussion of the decision by the Head of Pierson College to renounce the title “Master” is illustrative: “I found it hard to believe he was serious. In an academic setting, the word ‘master’ carries none of the connotations the complaining students found offensive. Instead of mindlessly deferring to their feelings, the master of Pierson should have told them what is obvious – that in this setting the word has an altogether different meaning …” Contrary to Kronman’s claims about the prevalence of the orthodoxy of political correctness on American university campuses, we do not establish the currency of words by fiat. It would have been pertinent here to consider the heteroglossia of human language use — the meanings that echo through us as users of language, whether intentional or dormant. This is all part of the complex intellectual diversity of what the Humanities know and how we know it. In taking every rhetorical opportunity to lambast the “sheeplike torpor” of political correctness, Kronman sells this knowledge short. I suspect that Kronman’s iussive tone (“the master … should,” “students should …”) and his lack of interest in linguistic polysemy is part and parcel of the aristocratic vision of an education in human excellence in which the professor’s authority is paramount and which favors arguments from authority. But the logical fallacy here is not hard to spot.
Questions of language and its historical resonances underlie larger questions of interpretation. By my count, the noun “ambiguity” occurs at least 18 times in the book, typically in the phrases “tolerance for ambiguity” and the capacity “to live with ambiguity.” In Kronman’s account, the capacity to live with ambiguity is essential for the expanded moral imagination that is the goal of the education in excellence. But in Kronman’s critique of diversity as a cause for the impoverishment of students’ moral imagination, I missed any discussion of the salience of ambiguity in African American history and literature, from Frederick Douglass to Harryette Mullen. Ambiguity and irony are governing tropes of African American literature, reflecting the fact that the gaping dissonance between ideal and real have marked and continue to mark African American experience. Kronman acknowledges the importance of this history, but does not dwell on the subject long enough to consider its relevance for his central theme of tolerance for ambiguity: “African-American history is a subject of great importance. Every American should know something about it. The same is true of gender studies. But to the extent these disciplines become cheering sections for those who share these identities, they push their education back toward self-absorption and self-congratulation rather than out into a wider, scarier world of human possibilities.” The phrase “to the extent that” is a subtle piece of verbal legerdemain. It is far easier (and weaker) to traffic in caricatures of “cheering sections” than to engage with the intellectual substance of other disciplines.
This brings me to the studied lack of engagement with diversity scholarship in Kronman’s book. In a book that blames the championing of diversity in higher education for the downfall of liberal education (“[diversity] is bad for the souls of our students and bad for democracy too”), it is reasonable to expect serious engagement with diversity in its academic manifestation — the substantial, interdisciplinary corpus of diversity scholarship. The chapter on diversity focuses on laws surrounding diversity in universities and colleges and their ramifications, drawing on Kronman’s expertise as a legal scholar. But even here, the sources cited are predominantly newspaper articles, university policy statements and legal briefs and judgments, with three citations of diversity scholarship, broadly construed, but no seminal works that might offer challenging counterarguments. Ironically, in ignoring diversity scholarship, Kronman sometimes espouses arguments that are mainstream in diversity scholarship in the very process of denouncing diversity as the gravest current danger to the survival of human excellence. These arguments include the bureaucratization of diversity, ways in which diversity strategies can inadvertently contain and constrain both demographic and intellectual diversity, and the epistemological limits of embodied knowledge and essentialist conceptions of personhood. Had he engaged with this scholarship, Kronman might also have been more alert to how his book’s thin caricature of diversity shares all the hallmarks of the “ideology of dismissal” — a familiar strategy for disdaining the contribution of scholarship in newer interdisciplines like Ethnic Studies or Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies.
At almost every turn, Kronman’s arguments resonate with larger contemporary debates in scholarship, which he too often ignores. For instance, the critique of “the triumph of the vocational ideal” in Chapter 1 would have been stronger and more interesting had it engaged with serious scholarship that represents a very different view. I think, for example, of Cathy Davidson’s advocacy, in “The New Education,” for a model of higher education in which students possessed of “crosscutting skills of human discernment and creativity” will be versatile and resourceful “public amateurs.” Kronman is offering a defense of an education that fosters independent-mindedness and an expanded moral imagination. How better to promote these goals than to expose oneself and one’s students to diverse, plural traditions of knowledge, not to mention applying frames of diversity scholarship to the traditional canon? It might interest Professor Kronman to know that I use his scholarship on law and precedent alongside diversity scholarship to explain Thucydides’ critique of ethnic-stereotyping as a form of argument lacking any rational force that was used to fan inter-state hostilities in the Atheno-Peloponnesian War.
Calhoun’s use of specious arguments lacking rational force to espouse a white supremacist agenda made a mockery of the pursuit of truth. One does not have to read very far in African American letters in the late 19th century to appreciate that Calhoun had a single intellectual legacy for African Americans. An entire generation of African American intellectuals encouraged each other with the observation that their intellectual achievements would help to refute Calhoun’s racist slur: Calhoun is reported to have remarked, “if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.” Calhoun’s slur was quoted by the Rev. Alexander Crummell at the inaugural meeting of the American Negro Academy on March 8th, 1897, and loomed large in the self-fashioning of Crummell’s black contemporaries (Michele Valerie Ronnick’s edition of the “Autobiography” of the African American classicist, William Sanders Scarborough, provides some pertinent examples.) When Kronman claims that Calhoun’s ideas continue to play a role in the intellectual life of Yale’s undergraduates, and limits this role to Calhoun’s constitutional arguments (“the positive side of Calhoun’s contribution to American thought,”) he is not sufficiently informed about the different ways in which Calhoun’s legacy is studied and analyzed across the undergraduate curriculum. As many have commented, it is no surprise that, at the beginning of the 1930s, Yale’s Corporation was not sensitive to the resonance of Calhoun’s name in African American history and thought, but this was a lamentable failure of moral imagination on their part and a symptom of America’s racially divided history. Kronman describes the Corporation’s decision as one of “selective memory — or, better, of selective forgetting,” but contends that the decision to rename Calhoun College repeats this forgetfulness. Instead, he imagines a counterfactual outcome in which the final decision on renaming might have said, “The name of Calhoun College memorializes Yale’s struggles to live in the full light of its own ambiguous history.” Reading this passage, and other sections of the book in which Kronman discusses the debate about renaming Calhoun College at Yale, I looked in vain for crucial information that would have a direct bearing on the credibility of his arguments. Given Kronman’s championing of a Socratic model of education as conversation, what role did he play in the campus debates in 2015 - 2016? Kronman is wont to characterize the debates over whether or not to rename Calhoun College as a period of mindless unrest (“at Yale, the question of whether to rename Calhoun College convulsed the university for a year and a half.”) Faculty members like myself who took time away from our regular teaching preparation to read up on Calhoun so that we might contribute to campus debates have a different recollection. Given Kronman’s argument that “retention plus contextualization is preferable in every case to destruction,” an even more pertinent question is whether Kronman advocated for the sensitive historical contextualization of historical monuments on campus during his 10-year tenure as Dean of Yale Law School when he held considerable institutional sway. It is all very well to hold oneself out as the champion of the “extended imagination,” but where the Calhoun renaming affair is concerned, Kronman’s apparent record of non-engagement tells a different story. The collective failure of the Yale community to offer any robust historical contextualization for Calhoun College over an 85-year period is vital for understanding why students and faculty received the proposal to leave the name “Calhoun College” in place, but to contextualize it, with so little trust.
As a member of Yale’s faculty, I find both Yale’s version of a liberal arts education and its commitment to a diverse student body exposed to diverse intellectual traditions doubly invigorating and consider this one of the great strengths of American higher education. Kronman argues that the gravest danger to our colleges and universities is the intramural tyranny of diversity that has led to the disappearance of an aristocratic conception of education. I submit that the gravest danger to our colleges and universities lies in ill-substantiated arguments put forward as classical verities, from whichever part of the political spectrum they come.
Emily Greenwood is Professor of Classics; she also holds a secondary appointment in African American Studies. Contact her at email@example.com.