The war on standards and the assault on American excellence

I have written many times about the war on standards — the effort to discard or lower standards because members of certain groups fail, to a disproportionate degree, to meet them. Battlegrounds in the war on standards include, but are not limited to, college admissions, employment selection, school discipline, and the criminal justice system.

A new book by Anthony Kronman bears the title The Assault on American Excellence. Predictably, American excellence seems to be a casualty in the war on standards.

Kronman taught at Yale for 40 years and spent a decade as dean of its law school. He is a self-identified political liberal.

I haven’t read his book yet, but according to Bret Stephens, Kronman contends that what’s happening these days on college campuses is nothing less than a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few.

That revolt is meeting little resistance from college administrators. Indeed, they seem to be on board. Kronman told the TaxProf:

Our most elite universities are today running away from their elitism, denying it, doing their best to conceal or suppress it. In running away from it, they not only disown values and traditions that are an important part of their identity, but they also disserve the great democratic country in which they sit. These elite schools are national treasures. Their elitism is what makes them such. It’s not a problem, it’s an asset, a value, something to be cherished and cared for.

It seems almost suicidal for elite colleges to deny that they are elite. But Kronman argues that such institutions aren’t so much denying elitism as defining it down to the point of near triviality:

“Elite” today means hard to get into. And our elite schools trumpet that, they play to it, they market it, and they pride themselves on being elite in this respect. But that is a perversion of what I mean by elite. It is focused entirely on what happens at the turnstile, at the point of entry. It completely disregards the other side of the turnstile.

In fact, very little attention, certainly in the humanities, is now paid to the quality of the education these precious few are receiving once they’ve been admitted. What does it matter how difficult it is to get into a club if the club isn’t doing anything worthwhile?

But why would colleges decide to pay “very little attention” to “the quality of the education” their students receive? Why would they abandon their commitment to intellectual rigor?

Without having read Kronman’s book, I don’t know how he answers this line of questioning. However, judging from a column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, called “The Downside of Diversity,” the quest for “diversity” and “the dogmatic embrace of identity politics” are key drivers of “the assault on excellence.”

Kronman explained:

[T]he transformation of diversity into a pedagogical theory. . .encourages minority students, and eventually all students, to think that a departure from the beliefs and sentiments associated with their group is a violation of the terms on which they were admitted to the university.

If students contribute to the good of diversity by expressing the racially, ethnically or sexually defined views that members of their group are expected to share, then a repudiation or even critical scrutiny of these views threatens to upset the school’s entire educational program. It takes special nerve for an African-American student to defend inner-city policing or a gay student to support the baker who refuses to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. . . .

Today, the spirit of grievance has been imported into the academy, where it undermines the common search for truth by permeating it with a sense of hurt and wrong on the part of minority students, and guilt on the part of those who are blamed for their suffering. . . .

What is new and discouraging about today’s academic culture is the unprecedented weight that these grievances are given by teachers, students and administrators alike. Even to raise them puts one on a high moral ground that requires all other considerations to be put aside until the grievance has been assuaged by an appropriate act of apology or reform. Raising it amounts to a demand. It brings the conversation to a halt. It converts the classroom from an open space for the free exchange of ideas into a political battleground.

Excellence has very little place in this poisoned environment. How can it flourish when open-mindedness and independent thinking are discouraged or constrained? How can it be demanded when those doing the demanding may be one student complaint away from seeing their careers wrecked?

There can be no excellence without neutral standards with which to distinguish among the excellent, the good, the mediocre, and the poor. Thus, the war on standards entails an assault on excellence.