Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Most Controversial Book of the Decade?

On August 20th, Free Press will publish what may turn out to be the most controversial book of the decade: The Assault on American Excellence by Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School.  Here is how the abstract describes the book:

"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."

As you can see from the abstract, Dean Kronman attacks several basic principles of higher education today, including the importance of diversity and egalitarianism on college campuses.  Rather, he argrues that universities should return to their core commitments to reasoned argumentation and, more controversially, to the development of an "aristocratic ethos."

Despite the obvious controversy that the book will generate, it has already received favorable commentary from several prominent publications.  The New York Times declared, "This is a bracing, even brutal, assessment. But it’s true. And it explains why every successive capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion has not had the desired effect of mollifying campus radicals. On the contrary, it has tended to generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement."

The Wall Street Journal stated, "On American campuses, the dogmatic embrace of identity politics has damaged not just the pursuit of truth but the independence of mind necessary for democracy to flourish. . ."  "But diversity, as it is understood today, means something different. It means diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Diversity in this sense is not an academic value. Its origin and aspiration are political. The demand for ever-greater diversity in higher education is a political campaign masquerading as an educational ideal."  "The commitment was honorable, but the conversion has been ruinous."  "The relentless campaign for diversity and inclusion on campus pulls in the opposite direction. Motivated by politics but forced to disguise itself as an academic value, the demand for diversity has steadily weakened the norms of objectivity and truth and substituted for them a culture of grievance and group loyalty. Rather than bringing faculty and students together on the common ground of reason, it has pushed them farther apart into separate silos of guilt and complaint."  "The damage to the academy is obvious. But even greater is the damage to our democratic way of life, which needs all the independent-mindedness its citizens and leaders can summon—especially at a moment when our basic norms of truthfulness and honesty are mocked every day by a president who respects neither. . .  [Diversity] has become the basis of an illiberal and antirational academic cult—one that undermines the spirit of self-reliance and the commitment to truth on which not only higher education, but the whole of our democracy, depends."

The Tax Prof Blog has additional commentary, including an interview with the author.

Comments are welcome, and please let me know if you see additional reviews.

(Scott Fruehwald)


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What a wonderful article. Thank you very much. Stay safe and healthy!

Posted by: E. Robinson | May 29, 2020 6:47:01 AM

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