The Assault on American Excellence

The legacy of liberalism

More than anything else, liberalism was responsible for the great enrichment that pulled humanity out of the poverty trap that has afflicted people always and everywhere from prehistoric times until just a few centuries ago. Liberalism was the instrumental in the scientific, democratic and market revolutions that created our modern prosperity. W/o liberalism, slavery would not have been abolished, our free market democracies could not have flourished and our great universities could not have developed into the innovative and free places they became. The last of these, or more accurately the danger of losing it, is the subject to the short book “The Assault on American Excellence,” by Anthony Kronman.

Let me add a note for both my liberal and conservative friends. The liberalism we are talking about here is not closely related to political liberalism. American Liberals and American Conservatives are both equally heirs to the small l liberal tradition. In fact, the use of the term liberal in the USA tends to confuse foreigners, since parties that call themselves liberal in Europe often tend to resemble moderate Republicans and the term “neo-liberal” refers to free market liberalization.

Back to the book.

Politics versus scholarship

The author is careful to make distinctions that we often ignore. A big one is the distinction between politics and scholarship. In politics, Americans generally believe in democracy and equality. Nobody’s vote should count for more than others. We decide by majority rule and we are generally suspicious of anybody who claims special expertise. Beyond that, winning is important. A political party is not seeking objective truth, but rather seeking to persuade, cajole or even intimidate people into supporting their candidate or platform. This is the opposite of what is true (or should be true) in scholarship.

Scholarship is by its nature hierarchical. All opinions are NOT assumed to be equal and decisions are not achieved by majority vote. Scholarship seeks truth, stipulating that the final truth never available to the mortal man. A university is elitist and maybe even anti-democratic, and we need institutions that are elitist and anti-democratic in a functioning pluralistic democracy.

Islands of excellence

Kronman makes the analogy of islands of aristocracy in a sea of democracy. I thought his choice of wording would get him into trouble, as many people will read that far and dismiss him as elitist. It is useful to read on. He is arguing for true diversity.

I would describe is islands in a way that I know is more obscure, but I think more accurate. These are like the “sky islands” of the Southwest Deserts. As the climate got warmer and drying after the last ice age, plant and animal communities adapted to the cooler and wetter environments moved north and up the mountain sides. Today if you go to the Southwest, you can find remnants of forest and biotic communities on the mountains. There is glorious diversity different from the many miles around.

This true diversity of the university – the diversity of ideas – is being eroded by the bogus diversity of identity and the general democratization of inclusion.

Excellence versus inclusion

Kronman traces the problem to the Bakke case in 1978. Bakke argued that he was denied admission to the University of California Davis medical school because of his race. He was technically correct. The school had set aside a quota of places for minority applicants. Had Bakke not been white, he would have gotten in. The Supreme Court declared quotas illegal but opened the door to a broader diversity standard. This made sense, but it opened the door for the mendacious system we have today and created all sorts of collateral damage for scholarship.

Kronman describes himself as liberal. He marched against the Vietnam War and has always supported Democrats for office. He saw no problem with a quota system, since it was transparent and could be justified based on past wrongs. It also could have a limit based on results. For example, in 1978 Asians were included in the quota as underrepresented minorities. This is no longer applicable, and Asians are among the chief victims of current affirmative action programs.

Diversity of ideas matter; others are mere proxies

The problem with the diversity argument, besides its mendacity, is that it is open ended, and it freezes people into identity, exactly what university is supposed to break down. Student are expected and sometime expect, to be “representatives” of their group, rather than scholars seeking to improve themselves and seeking truth. They are encouraged not to engage, but rather assert of message.

Kronman does not dismiss identity, emotions or peculiar points of view, but he says that they cannot be used to stop the discussion or as a trump card. For example, you might have as special point of view because of your experience. You might say, “as someone with this experience, this is my view.” BUT you cannot expect that experience to be accepted as proof. Rather you need to explain and make the other understand. If you believe your experience is so unique that it cannot be shared, at least intellectually, it is valueless in the greater search for truth.

Marketplace of ideas versus seeking to improve them

Kronman makes another useful distinction about free speech, and contrasts speaker’s corner free speech with an academic seminar. A speaker outside university has no obligation to seek truth, nor does his audience need to listen. The speaker is often trying to convince or cajole – in the political sense above – rather than find truth or even common ground. Audience members are free to heckle the speaker, within reason, and are under no obligation to add useful points. The speaker’s corner experience is a free market for ideas in the unregulated sense. An academic discussion, in contrast, has a leader, a subject and a goal of improving the outlook of all participants. Participants are expected to disagree, but they need to give good reasons. They are also expected to alter their own views based on what they hear or learn. In that end, the whole of the experience should be better than sum of the parts. Participants are expected to grow intellectually. If they come out with exactly the same views that they started, it was probably a waste of time.

Important to note that in the seminar above, participants are not subsuming their identities into the group nor is it necessary to come to consensus. Individuals will still come to their own conclusions, now better informed and more open to ideas. Ideas are not all equal and we can always improve.

If you leave college with the same ideas had when you came, you failed

Returning to university admissions, Kronman advocates a more explicit inclusion of factor such as race and other identities but says that once in everybody should be subject to the same sorts of criteria for judging and improving. What you come in as, you should not go out as. Education means change and we hope improvement, else why bother with it at all. A good university education should break down preexisting identities, predilections and prejudices, not protect them. There should be no intellectual safe places.

The book is very much worth experiencing. I listened to the audio book while driving and working on the farm, so I cannot go into deeper detail in some of the specifics.

Liberal values in university worth protecting.

I fear that we are losing the great value of our universities to excess inclusion, identity and just a lack of rigor. I recall reading “The Closing of the American Mind” back in the 1980s. That book warned of many of these trends. Unfortunately, it has gotten worse. Our universities were and still are a fantastic resource. Yes, the best of them are elitist and elitism in the pursuit of truth is good.

Our universities should be like those sky islands, higher, more diverse and more timeless.

The former dean of Yale Law School argues that the feverish…
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