Leveling and conformity

Anthony Kronman, former Dean of Yale Law School, got triggered by an episode at Yale that to a lesser mind would have provoked merely a bit of tongue-clucking about “precious snowflakes” or some such thing. In his mind, it triggered deeper reflection, which I missed on first reading of Bret Stephens’ review column of Kronman’s forthcoming book:

Yale has been ground zero for recent campus unrest, including … the decision to drop the term “master” because, to some, it carried “a painful and unwelcome connotation.”

It’s this last decision that seems to have triggered [Anthony] Kronman’s alarm. The word “master” … means … a person who embodies achievement, refinement, distinction — masterliness — and whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic. Great universities are meant to nurture that spirit, not only for its own sake, but also as an essential counterweight to the leveling and conformist tendencies of democratic politics that Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed as the most insidious threats to American civilization.

What’s happening on campuses today [is] a reaction against this aristocratic spirit … It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.

“In endless pronouncements of tiresome sweetness, the faculty and administrators of America’s colleges and universities today insist on the overriding importance of creating a culture of inclusion on campus,” Kronman writes.

“They stress the need to respect and honor the feelings of others, especially those belonging to traditionally disadvantaged groups, as an essential means to this end. In this way they give credence to the idea that feelings are trumps with a decisive authority of their own. That in turn emboldens their students to argue that their feelings are reason enough to keep certain speakers away. But this dissolves the community of conversation that the grown-ups on campus are charged to protect.”

I said earlier that Kronman’s book is brave, but in that respect I may be giving him too much credit. Much of his illustrious career is now safely behind him; he can write as he pleases. Would an untenured professor have the guts to say what he does? The answer to the question underscores the urgency of his warning.

Bret Stephens

The urge to pick on Ivy League schools often is itself a leveling and conformist tendency, but not when picking on them is for their squandering a tradition of rigor and excellence, and that’s what Kronman apparently has done.

It boggles my mind to imagine someone smart enough to get into Yale sheltering in place, avoiding the storms of real challenge and growth, as if the transaction were merely commercial, a pricier version of buying a degree at an online diploma mill. Who wants to live a life of fraud and humbuggery with bought credentials?

More disturbing, I think, is the answer to “where else in our millieu do we see Tocqueville’s leveling and conformist tendency?”

It’s bad enough that we are competing in a marketplace full of people who are “the real deal,” who work their tails off to attain mastery. Worse still is that we’re selling our souls for some damned pottage.

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