A Defense of Aristocracy

A Defense of Aristocracy

One of the most charming, historically evocative apparitions of an American liberal arts college is Williams College, founded in 1793 in the high Berkshire Hills at the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, less than a day's hiking distance from Vermont and New York. In autumn the campus is bowered in scarlet and gold, its air as bracing as wine, its students and faculty “under no pressure […] to come to a judgment about the rights and wrongs of the Israeli Palestinian conflict or the case for black reparations,” having “‘all the time in the world' to consider them from every angle” — or so Williams alumnus Anthony T. Kronman tells us in his new book, The Assault on American Excellence, reminding us that the cultivation of academic distance and ambiguity is “part of what a college or university is for.”

Kronman first encountered that ideal in 1965 as a Williams freshman studying Plato and Kant in a seminar that met in the professor's home, where two golden retrievers dozed by a crackling fire, and Kronman gazed out at the Berkshire Hills, enraptured by his epiphany that “[t]he meaning of life is a teachable topic.” He recounted that revelation four decades later in his 2007 book, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, distinguishing its summons to “a cultured appreciation of excellence in human living” from what he considered the sterile research protocols, narrow disciplinary silos, incentives to careerism, and “egalitarian” hostility to Western civilization's standards and hierarchies that had come to replace it.

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