I read with a deep sense of unhappiness the article about Anthony Kronman’s book “The Assault on American Excellence.” Kronman’s is a controversial book — I do not agree with important aspects of it — but the article only cited Yale faculty who disagreed with the book’s premises. This gives the impression that everyone on campus but Kronman thinks alike on issues of diversity and renaming. This is hardly the case.

I take particular exception to Daniel Colón-Ramos who claims that as a “scientist” — he is an associate professor in the medical school — he has concluded that “the data” refute Kronman’s arguments, in particular, the “false dichotomy” it assumes between diversity and excellence. I wish the matter really were that simple.

Dr. Colón-Ramos gives the entirely misleading impression that debates over diversity and excellence — debates that are philosophical and normative at their core — can simply be solved by reference to big data. His telling use of the definite article suggests that there is only one body of facts on this matter, and it speaks with a single voice.

Colón-Ramos boasts that he seeks truth through data and not through “dialectic arguments.” So much, then, for Socrates, Plato and Hegel!

The great philosopher Isaiah Berlin taught us that our basic moral values and perspectives stand in a relation of irremediable tension, if not contradiction, with one another. Equality clashes with liberty, justice with mercy, autonomy with social cohesion and diversity with excellence. Perhaps it would be possible in some future world that we can only dream of that these values will cohere into a smooth and frictionless whole. But in the world in which we actually live, we must confront the fact of deep and probably intractable moral conflicts.

As a university, the first virtue we owe to ourselves is intellectual honesty, the ability to see things as they are and not as we wish they might be. The idea that diversity is simply excellence is not an error of fact; it is an error of logic. Everything is what it is and not something else. If we don’t understand this, we will fail to confront the difficult choices that lie ahead of us in the spheres of admissions, hiring and tenure.

The assumption that somehow “the data” can solve fundamental moral dilemmas is part of the problem that Kronman’s book skillfully diagnoses. Whatever our continued disagreements over diversity, excellence and the purposes of education may be, they are not likely to be solved by scientists appealing to their experiments and data sets.

Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science. Contact him at steven.smith@yale.edu .

  • allthat

    Inspiring perspective.
    Sincerely appreciated.

  • concerned

    I would caution giving data analysis short shrift here and remind all that a diverse academic campus is actually shared with scientists who are perhaps less visible in some of these discussions. Many biologists think biological survival is a form of excellence, even though cockroaches today still lack the expansive museum venues of the dinosaurs.

    • CentralJerseyMom

      I clearly depends on what you mean by “excellence”. Many eons ago when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a student of the sociobiologist (and entomologist) Richard Alexander at the University of Michigan. He taught us that there was no such thing as evolutionary “progress’ with man (or even the mammals) standing at the top. From a strictly evolutionary perspective, bacteria are probably the most successful organisms. Failing that, cockroaches are certainly contenders for the title. We are all trying to succeed at the game of life/reproduction. We come up with more and more clever strategies, but it’s by no means clear that the trade-offs we make in doing so are worth it. And, of course, as Prof. Alexander reminded us constantly, extinction is the fate of every species. “Success” is just a matter of where in time you choose to measure. As John Maynard Keynes said when accused of taking the “short run” view of economics — “in the long run, we’re all dead.”