I read with interest professor Emily Greenwood’s critical essay on my new book. I appreciate the scholarly attention she devotes to my arguments. In the end, though, it is difficult for me to tell where we disagree.
Greenwood stresses what she calls “the heteroglossia of human language.” That is a fancy phrase for a familiar phenomenon.
Words mean different things to different people in different circumstances. This is the starting point of every serious historical, philosophical or literary inquiry. But it is only a beginning. The goal in each case is to make as much progress as possible toward an understanding of the truth. This is a goal that remains forever beyond reach. But it shapes the direction of the inquiry. It gives it purpose and meaning.
If those who emphasize — as Greenwood does — the importance of “linguistic polysemy” mean to give up on this ideal, then we have a serious disagreement. If not, I see no reason to think we have a disagreement at all. Beginning with “heteroglossia” and moving toward the truth describes the arc of every Socratic conversation — both those he led so long ago, and the ones in which teachers and students of the humanities engage today.
Greenwood further stresses my ignorance of contemporary “diversity scholarship.” Yet the examples she cites confirm rather than challenge the main points of my book.
Cathy Davidson’s ideal of education as a process in which students acquire “crosscutting skills of human discernment and creativity” sounds a lot like the ideal I describe and defend, as does her notion of versatile “public amateurs.” I embrace her words enthusiastically and wholeheartedly endorse the importance of exposing students to “diverse, plural traditions of knowledge” as essential to the nurturance of these qualities of heart and mind. I welcome Davidson as an ally.
Greenwood suggests that my “vision of an education in human excellence” is one in which “the professor’s authority is paramount and which favors arguments from authority.” There is of course one obvious sense in which the professor’s authority in a humanities class is “paramount,” as it is in every other. The teacher calls the class to order and awards grades at the end of the term. But appeals to professorial authority as a way of resolving the tensions among “diverse, plural traditions of knowledge” is antithetical to the spirit of humanistic study in all its many branches. The professor’s responsibility is to highlight these tensions, not make them disappear. I’m confident Greenwood would say the same. We may have disagreements, but not this one. She writes as a critic but sounds like a fellow humanist to me.
Something similar may be said about the great contributors to our “African American literature,” who emphasized the “salience of ambiguity” and “the gaping dissonance between ideal and real.” This is not the only literary tradition in which these themes appear. They are central to every literature of lasting importance. But I value the special energy and urgency that our greatest African American writers bring to these perennial human concerns. They have much to teach us about them. They help us understand the tragic dimension of the ideal I defend in my book. They expose its immense demands. But this does not knock the ideal down. It gives it a grandeur that perhaps no one else in American letters can, other than Abraham Lincoln. I consider them allies as well.
Enough has been said about John Calhoun. The only observation I would make about Greenwood’s discussion of the subject is that here, too, it is difficult for me to discern where we disagree.
The reaction in the African American community to Calhoun’s defense of slavery is of course a vitally important part of his legacy, as is his theory of concurrent majorities and philosophy of government generally. No aspect of his tortured, complex thought should be erased or ignored. That is exactly my point. In the spirit of adding rather than subtracting, I welcome all of Greenwood’s suggestions for expanding our understanding of the historical meaning of John Calhoun. I don’t see how any responsible teacher could think otherwise. My judgment regarding the renaming of Calhoun College — with which many disagree, for reasons I understand and respect — started from this assumption, which so far as I can tell, Greenwood and I share.
As to my record of citizenship at Yale, it speaks for itself.
Anthony Kronman is Sterling Professor of Law and former Dean of Yale Law School. Contact him anthony.kronman@ yale.edu.