The former dean of Yale Law School argues that the feverish egalitarianism gripping college campuses today is out of place at institutions whose job is to prepare citizens to live in a vibrant democracy.
In his tenure at Yale, Anthony Kronman has watched students march across campus to protest the names of buildings and seen colleagues resign over emails about Halloween costumes. He is no stranger to recent confrontations at American universities. But where many see only the suppression of free speech, the babying of students, and the drive to bury the imperfect parts of our history, Kronman recognizes in these on-campus clashes a threat to our democracy.
As Kronman argues in The Assault on American Excellence, the founders of our nation learned over three centuries ago that in order for this country to have a robust democratic government, its citizens have to be trained to have tough skins, to make up their own minds, and to win arguments not on the basis of emotion but because their side is closer to the truth. In other words, to prepare people to choose good leaders, you need to turn them into smart fighters, people who can take hits and think clearly so they’re not manipulated by demagogues.
Kronman is the first to tie today’s campus debates back to the history of American values, drawing on luminaries like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Adams to show how these modern controversies threaten the best of our intellectual traditions. His tone is warm and optimistic, that of a humanist and a lover of the humanities who is passionate about educating students capable of living up to the demands of a thriving democracy.
Incisive and wise, The Assault on American Excellence makes the radical argument that to graduate as good citizens, college students have to be tested in a system that isn’t wholly focused on being good to them.
Anthony T. Kronman served as the dean of Yale Law School from 1994-2004, and has taught at the university for forty years. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including The Assault on American Excellence; Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life; and Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.
“What would happen if the academy lost its reverence for excellence and instead took on the virtues and methods of argumentation found in political life? Universities would lose their souls, as Anthony Kronman shows in this brilliant book. He weaves together legal and intellectual history, a humane concern for students, and a love of the life of the mind to diagnose the core confusion undermining the confidence and coherence of the academy. The book is beautifully written, it is erudite yet accessible, and it is essential for any discussion of the future of higher education—or of liberal democracy.” — Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business and New York Times bestselling coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind
“Brilliant and exceedingly provocative. This book is bound to infuriate many, but it’s the wakeup call this country needs for an urgent conversation about the role of colleges and universities in a rapidly changing America. You may not agree with this book, but it will open your mind.” — Amy Chua, Yale Law professor and New York Times bestselling author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and PoliticalTribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
“An extraordinary book that is sure to launch many impassioned conversations. Kronman brings erudition, eloquence, and candor to bear on the most controversial subjects roiling our campuses. He unflinchingly defends elitism in academia, maintaining that doing so is essential not only to the maintenance of scholarly standards, but to the strengthening of democratic values. His arguments are brilliant, arresting, memorable. Although I do not agree with all that he wrote, I gained instruction on nearly every page.” — Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School professor and author of For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law