Kronman wants his readers to believe that his own fears about his favorite, very exclusive university are really decisive for the future of the country as a whole ... Kronman goes on to assert that this education helps students become members of a natural aristocracy, developing a 'superior character' that should result in such people being 'elevated to positions of leadership with sufficient frequency for the regime to survive.' Kronman doesn’t say anything about how these superior beings would rule, but he does say they are more human and more real. He fails to give a single argument for his view of what real humans are or even a robust description of what superior character is. He just cherry-picks the canon to support the notion that his preferred mode of philosophic conversation does indeed raise one above everybody else. Socratic humility and irony disappear in the author’s commitment to his own taste ... Kronman paints a paranoid picture of campus life, and I am unpersuaded by the recycled anecdotes meant to show that a tide of levelers rejects the very notion of recognizing great achievement.
The Assault on American Excellence may well be the most full-throated attack on the academic embrace of diversity produced by a prominent, if former, senior university official in the entire half-century history of affirmative action in higher education ... in his frequent invocations of aristocracy, Kronman can sound as if he is an English earl who was raised on an ancestral estate ... He is deeply drawn...to focusing on diversity as the serpent in the garden, the major corrupter of his rococo educational vision. To do that is to blame it for something it didn’t cause; conversely, removing it would not produce the kind of university Kronman wants. His book ought to draw attention not so much to the continuing controversies around diversity as to the larger idea in which his attack on diversity is embedded. Do we really want our universities to become undemocratic institutions, ruled by a class that thinks of itself as being existentially superior to the rest of us?
In his new book about universities, former Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman rounds up the usual suspects for an unusual reason ... But he foregoes the usual next move of extolling the free exchange of ideas. A university, he knows, isn’t a speaker’s corner in a public park ... The Assault on American Excellence deserves many readers. But even fans will wonder, if the forces against which Kronman contends are both stronger and more deeply rooted than they were in 2007, how his arguments can prevail.
To put it gently, Kronman’s ideal of humanist education...has become, in his new book, a dogma whose plausible criticisms of cookie-cutter diversity, chilled speech, and politicized public memories are misapplied to events whose origins and ironies he misses completely. Contrary to Kronman’s formulations, today’s storms of negation aren’t 'democratic' but are provoked from above, diverting democratic passions in order to entrench elitist distinctions of rank. The riot that’s sweeping over the colleges and drowning their humanism is originating from economic and political powers that orchestrate the rage of multitudes they’ve dispossessed. (Has Kronman ever attended a Trump rally?) It’s not coming mainly from 19-year-old students and campus mentors who register these far-more-dangerous developments, like hyper-sensitive barometers or canaries in a coal mine, often doing so maladroitly, to be sure, but often more constructively than Kronman acknowledges ... Yet some of Kronman’s arguments are well wrought and would be easier to ponder had he applied and integrated them more judiciously into his account. He isn’t wrong to warn...that effervescences of democratic negation can asphyxiate humanism and liberal democracy ... Kronman’s fundamental mistake is to embed his plausible arguments in provocative but vague paeans to 'human greatness' and 'aristocratic' superiority and in his seething accounts of particular developments at Yale and other universities that offend his standards but that also respond to realities he barely acknowledges or else condemns.
Kronman writes well and is an articulate defender of the Western tradition. The Assault on American Excellence is a learned work that goes against the grain, and its support for the return of a hierarchical and aristocratic academia is so clear-eyed and correct that it is impossible to deny ... Kronman is on far less stable ground in other ways, however ... Kronman’s biggest error is his attachment to liberal democracy. This is not intrinsically bad. Rather, Kronman’s support for islands of aristocracy in democratic seas makes logical sense, but is near impossible in practice ... a fantastic book. Its research is impeccable, and the writing is superb. Its only weakness is its inability to take its arguments to their logical conclusion.
A defense of academic elitism ... Invoking Arendt, Orwell, de Tocqueville, and others, Kronman delivers a coherent, provocative case for a return to traditional academic values—though it’s one that is not likely to sway those who adhere to modern/postmodern mores. Certain to cause more arguments than it settles and likely to appeal most to the Allan Bloom/Jacques Barzun wing.