I met with Kronman in his office at the Yale Law School to talk about democracy and aristocracy, campus debates over free speech, affirmative action, and what he calls “the conversational ideal.”
The Assault on American Excellenceis tonally restrained and evenhanded, but there’s also anger here. What are you angry about?
What is it that distresses me? The eclipse of what I call “the conversational ideal.” The idea of the university as a space apart, given over to the rare and difficult task of pursuing the truth.
That’s been compromised in a variety of ways.
Let’s talk about aristocracy. Much of your argument depends on the tension between democratic and aristocratic values. Colleges — and you’re really talking about elite colleges, here — ought to preserve, you say, “an aristocratic ethos in an otherwise democratic culture.”
Our most elite universities are today running away from their elitism, denying it, doing their best to conceal or suppress it. In running away from it, they not only disown values and traditions that are an important part of their identity, but they also disserve the great democratic country in which they sit. These elite schools are national treasures. Their elitism is what makes them such. It’s not a problem, it’s an asset, a value, something to be cherished and cared for.
But our colleges have sought to do more than just train their students in a discipline or equip them with the knowledge they need for vocational pursuit. They have sought to do something more general — to equip them for a life of responsible and enjoyable observation, judgment, and action. They have sought to instill in them those traits of character which are important and perhaps indispensable to leading a life of an intellectually, morally, spiritually, and aesthetically rich and full kind.
In fact, very little attention, certainly in the humanities, is now paid to the quality of the education these precious few are receiving once they’ve been admitted. What does it matter how difficult it is to get into a club if the club isn’t doing anything worthwhile?
I still believe with every bone in my body that what our universities are doing — or ought to be doing — at the undergraduate level is as worthy as any enterprise on earth. But I don’t think it is possible to explain what that is, let alone defend and justify it, without recurring to the aristocratic ideal of character that lies at the heart of a liberal education.