A few weeks ago, UATX (commonly known as the University of Austin), a new institution that plans to open its doors to undergraduates in 2024, held its first high school summer program. For three days, 92 students aged 16 and older gathered in Austin to attend intensive seminars taught by UATX faculty on subjects from the trial of Socrates, American political thought, and Hamlet to the evolution of corporations, game theory and probability, and big data. They also came together in larger groups to debate hot-button issues such as “cultural appropriation” and to reflect on the present and future of artificial intelligence.
The program gave students, many of whom are homeschooled or studying in classical academies, a preview of Intellectual Foundations (IF), the university’s core liberal studies program. IF seminars are designed to help freshmen and sophomores develop fluency in the various languages of understanding through the integrated study of history, politics, philosophy, religion, literature, art, music, economics, quantitative reasoning, and the sciences. These seminars presuppose that students are willing to learn not only from deep and challenging texts taught by dedicated professors but also from one another—to share their opinions and be ready to argue for them, and to give and receive criticism with humility and grace.
If the high school program is any indication, it won’t be hard for UATX to attract an inaugural undergraduate cohort in which these virtues have already taken root. The students’ openness, curiosity, and intellectual energy were exceeded only by their gratitude for the opportunity to spend three days with “people who are just invested in learning,” as one student put it. They delighted in the chance to learn in an environment where the only thing to be feared was irremediable ignorance. They rejoiced in meeting others who share their hunger for real education, and they formed friendships that will likely last well beyond their time in Austin. “The most valuable thing in my seminar,” one student wrote, “was the discussion I had with my peers.” “Both my instructor and my fellow classmates seemed to enter the conversation as equals,” another noted, while a third appreciated “knowing that I am really capable of looking into issues and not being defined by a polarized opinion. I can look for what is good and true!”
My seminar started out with Plato’s cave image and then turned to the Euthyphro and Apology. One student who had never studied philosophy subsequently enrolled in a community college course on the subject. Another brought Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus to class and referred frequently to Kant, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky. His mother told me that he had registered failing grades as a youngster in a public elementary school because he was bored. She homeschooled him, then quit her job as a public school teacher to work for Great Hearts Academy in another state. She enrolled her son there, and he flourished when exposed to serious study of the liberal arts.
Other parents told me about sons and daughters who spontaneously developed unexpected intellectual passions. The immigrant wife of a commercial airline pilot told me how surprised she was when her intelligent and energetic daughter, who plans to learn how to fly, asked if she would chaperone her at a major political conference. Four or five students asked me what books they should read next. My recommendations included Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (for a young woman traveling to Italy), Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and Ernest K. Gann’s memoir Fate is the Hunter. I also recommended two films: Witness and The Lives of Others.
Many students said that they intended to apply for admission to UATX, and one has plans to graduate high school early so he can apply next year. After the program was over, the instructors received half a dozen handwritten notes from students and numerous emails of thanks. Parents—including a co-founder of Heterodox Academy’s East Asia branch, who traveled from South Korea to meet with us—were even more enthusiastic about our new university than their children (though one father joked that his son might someday stop bending his ear about Hamlet). They repeatedly expressed the desire for their sons and daughters to have the kind of education they themselves enjoyed in college: one simultaneously rigorous and playful, broad and focused, and in which no important subject is off the table.
The closing reception buzzed with excitement and curiosity about UATX’s plans. President Pano Kanelos fielded questions about financial aid, student life, housing, admissions criteria, and other nuts-and-bolts issues. And Kanelos captured the significance of the previous three days in a way that resonated with students and parents alike: “When you are engaged in dialogue, you are part of a great conversation that has passed from generation to generation, across time and place, asking questions and seeking answers, through speech, through books, through the arts, in classrooms, in the public square, participating in the most noble of human activities—the quest for truth.”