A timeout from the rest of life

Author says it’s not what students bring to college, but what college can deliver to students
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 16, 2019
Anthony Kronman is the former dean of Yale Law School.

In his book The Assault on American Excellence (Free Press, 2019), Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School and a current professor, argues that the feverish egalitarianism pervasive on today’s college campuses is out of place at institutions whose job is to prepare citizens to live in a vibrant democracy. To achieve their full potential as members of society, he says, college students have to be tested in a system that isn’t wholly focused on being good to them.
Kronman bases his argument on three “movements” that are changing the face of academia: diversity, campus speech and memory (or our relation to the past).
“Each is motivated by a legitimate concern with injustice in the society at large and with racial injustice in particular,” Kronman says. “But each does great harm to our colleges and universities when this commitment is extended to their interior culture.”

You say that diversity, as it’s understood on campus today, has a narrower meaning than its dictionary definition suggests.

Yes. When we use the word, we use it to describe all sorts of differences. For example, differences of belief, opinion, experience and the like. But today when the word is used on campus, it is used principally, most emphatically, to refer to diversity of race, ethnicity and gender.

Every college president and dean makes a speech about how diverse the new incoming class is. That one kind of diversity is singled out from all others and given priority in the way it’s thought of on our campuses today.

It’s wonderful that our colleges and universities today are populated by students of the most diverse sort—diverse in racial, ethnic and gender terms. I wouldn’t want it otherwise.
But over the past 40 years, diversity of opinion, viewpoint, and intellectual and moral
conviction has been joined too tightly with diversity of race, ethnicity and gender.

The freedom that college students ought to enjoy to make up their minds for themselves, and to find their own idiosyncratic way in the world, has been narrowed to a degree. It hasn’t been obliterated, but it has been narrowed because of the fusion of identity (beliefs, attitudes, convictions and the like) and membership in the particular group to which one is assigned under the conventional rubric of diversity.

That presents a real challenge to the educational purpose or mission of our colleges and universities, which should be to give students all the breathing room they possibly can to think for themselves in the very short interval between life before college and life after.

College ought to be a timeout from the rest of life, where you can put all of your allegiances and other identities in perspective, subject them to critical review, and find out what you think and believe. That has been compromised to some extent by the way in which diversity has been interpreted by our colleges and universities.

Let’s turn to speech. There are schools that disinvite controversial speakers whose views offend some students. You say it’s wrong to believe that such a move strengthens the community, but instead dilutes the special character of the college.

When thinking about campus speech, it’s important to ask: “What kind of community are we talking about?”

On the one hand, there are the communitarians who say: “We’re a special community here. Everybody is welcome. No one student should be offended or insulted; no one’s dignity should be wounded by words spoken or speakers invited.” But that is not the nature of an academic community; it’s putting too great a stress on feelings and concerns about one’s dignity.

On the other hand, some say: “Let a thousand flowers bloom; every point of view should be
welcomed on campus. You don’t have to agree with it, but free speech is the great engine of truth.”

It is a mistake to confuse the kind of inquiry in which faculty and students are engaged with the back-and-forth exchange of guest speakers and listeners.

The academic environment they enjoy provides a level of safety in their exposure to difficult, or even dangerous, ideas in the common pursuit of the truth.

I’m trying to restore an older idea, which I think still has validity, and that is the idea of the academy as a community of conversation.

The last movement that you discuss is memory, which has been in the headlines recently with the removal of statues and renaming of buildings.

That’s part of a larger phenomenon that has many more serious expressions.
For example, here at Yale, the decision to rename Calhoun College was carefully studied over a long period of time, and it divided the campus.

At the end of the day, though, I believed that it would be better to keep the name than to change it, for a number of reasons.

I’m trying to restore the idea of the academy as a community of conversation.

The most important being that keeping the name of Calhoun College shouldn’t be understood as a way of continuing to honor John Calhoun, the man, but rather as a way of remembering Yale’s own past and its fitful and incomplete effort over many generations to come to terms with its own institutional legacy—that a college was named after Calhoun, and that this was accepted without much real reflection for some time.

You suggest that it’s better to keep what’s there and maybe add commentary or even another opposing monument.

There would have been many ways of preserving the name Calhoun College, while surrounding it with commentary and memorials of the kind that reflect that our values today are light-years distant from those of John Calhoun.

Why wouldn’t it have been possible to keep the name and make Calhoun College the country’s preeminent center for the study of the history of antebellum America, or of race in higher education throughout the whole American experience?

I think this was an educational opportunity that was missed because of political pressure to change the name of the college.

What do you hope will result from publishing this book?

An open debate will start about the issues the book raises. My deepest hope is that the debate, which the book has already begun to stir, is one that can be conducted out in the open, in the light of day, without rancor or name-calling or the kind of dismissive treatment that has too often in the past made it difficult or impossible for views to be aired.

Of course, I would be a fool if I hadn’t known in advance that certain things in the book would provoke a furious reaction.

And yet at the same time, I thought that many of those same things that I knew would be so provocative were not far off the path of reasoned, moderate beliefs. Unfortunately, many people don’t see it that way.
I hope my view, whether you accept it or not, will become again a part of the accepted normal discourse on our college and university campuses around the country. We’ll see.

Tim Goral is senior editor.