Tuesday, August 20, 2019


Professor Kronman On Higher Education and Democracy

Sterling Professor of Law Anthony Kronman ’75 has written a new book on higher education, The Assault on American Excellence (Free Press). In it, he explores the issues that in recent years have roiled college and university campuses from coast to coast.

In this excerpt from the epilogue of the book (below), Kronman outlines his philosophy.


An excerpt from The Assault on American Excellence by Anthony Kronman

Anthony Kronman new book

The American experiment in democracy is as grand as any that human beings have ever devised. But it has its own pathologies. It levels the distinction between great men and women and ordinary ones; converts greatness into popularity; encourages conformism and group thinking; and denounces all aristocracies, including the natural one that John Adams thought essential to wise leadership in his newly founded country.

The humanist tradition, with its aristocratic respect for excellence in living, is a partial antidote to these pathologies. It softens and offsets them. It encourages a respect for standards and independence of mind. In this sense it helps our democracy rather than hurts it.

This tradition is Tony Kronmanprincipally in the custody of our colleges and universities. Because it is, they have a special duty to conserve it. They have an obligation to protect the aristocratic idea that some human beings get further than others in mastering the art of living—not just because it is true, but also because it provides some balance against the worst shortcomings of our glorious if imperfect democracy.

Those who feel, as I do, a double loyalty to America and to the humanist idea of excellence know how foolish it would be to try to extend the latter idea to the country at large. That would be undemocratic. It would be unwise and unjust. There is not, however, much danger of this happening.

But there is a real danger from the opposite direction: that some will try to remake our colleges and universities in the image of the principle of democratic equality. This danger has always existed. Today it is very great. The three movements I have discussed in this book are warning signs. The move to restrict campus speech in the name of respect and inclusion; the transformation of diversity from a political to a pedagogical value; and the demand that the past be renamed to fit our current understanding of equality, are all symptoms of the increasingly aggressive intrusion of democratic politics into academic life. They are the manifestations of a general and intensified assault on the aristocratic ideal that underlies the humanist tradition. This hurts our colleges and universities, which have a responsibility to shelter this tradition from the hurricane of democratic belief. But it hurts the country too, by damaging one of the few places that cultivate the habits that counteract the worst tendencies that even the best democracies produce.


Kronman served as the Dean of the Law School from 1994 until 2004 and teaches in the areas of contracts, bankruptcy, jurisprudence, social theory, and professional responsibility. Among his other books are Confessions of a Born-Again PaganEducation’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, Max Weber, Contracts: Cases and Materials (with F. Kessler and G. Gilmore), and Lost Lawyer.

Excerpted from The Assault on American Excellence, published by Free Press. Copyright 2019 by Anthony Kronman.