Joseph Conlon looked out over the 24 students in his care, said “Let’s begin!” and launched into a discussion of the rhetoric and imagery of the depiction of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. Not remarkable in itself—except that nearly every word Conlon spoke for 90 packed minutes, starting with arxōmetha (“Let’s begin!”), was in John’s language: ancient Greek. And except that, just four months earlier, almost none of the students would have understood so much as a syllable. Whatever word was in the beginning for these students, it was not logos. Now, however, their sense of Greek is magical: for the most part, they use it themselves when responding to Conlon’s questions and speaking with one another in class.
Since last summer, Conlon has been professor of Classics at Ralston College, a new educational enterprise based in Savannah whose webpage proclaims in large letters, “TO THINK IS TO BE FREE.” After an initial eight-week term in Greece, the members of the first student cohort in the master’s program in the humanities are spending the year in Georgia, where, from October through early December, they immersed themselves in Homer, Aristotle, and Iamblichus and continued their studies of both ancient and modern Greek. In the coming months, they’ll further deepen their knowledge of the languages while moving on to Shakespeare, Descartes, and Goethe. The overarching theme of the year is “the human self”; next year it will be “the whole.”
Some of the students came straight from college; others had jobs but decided to go back to school. All were selected from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants, which makes admission to Ralston more competitive than to Harvard College. Why did they decide to devote the year to so countercultural an experience? Most of all, students told me when I spent a couple of days in their company last fall, they are looking for a real education: serious reading of serious books, with teachers who know their stuff and care, and in fellowship with other seekers of truth, beauty, and the good life.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Ralston owns several gorgeous nineteenth-century houses in the heart of one of the most beautiful cities in America—or that communal dinners are held over wine and candlelight. Which would you prefer? To enjoy such a meal presided over by the founding president, Stephen Blackwood, an amiable and passionate scholar of Boethius, who had by his side (but didn’t need to consult) the wonderful compendium The College Graces of Oxford and Cambridge? Or to listen to deanlets at some elite institution instruct you on microaggressions while sipping Diet Pepsi in a concrete box?
One thing is clear: Ralston students are not there to one-up Harvard. By and large, they don’t seem to care about Harvard—at least not Harvard in its current state. They’re as interested in playing Ultimate Frisbee as the next person their age, but they’re not looking for A’s in gut courses and a lifetime of pushing around other people’s money at Morgan Stanley.
So what will they do after Ralston? Some plan to enter Ph.D. programs, while others want to teach high school, find a job in publishing, or go into the family business—or, they’re still trying to figure it out. And they will. Let’s ask the question again in five, ten, 20 years—remembering that Harvard, too, was a start-up in 1636. Not all of Ralston’s first students want to become, much less will become, household names, but these are young people to whom we can safely entrust the hearts and minds of the next generation.
I’ve suggested that, by enrolling at Ralston, the students are being countercultural, but this isn’t entirely accurate. In recent years, Americans have demonstrated just how fed up we are with our country’s once-vaunted educational structures and opportunities. Homeschooling and charter schools are on the rise, and so are new and increasingly visible institutions of higher education, ones at which the word “American” is not considered “potentially harmful.” (Yes, Stanford walked back this admonition, but imagine the amount of money wasted on preparing a ludicrous document titled “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.”)
The rebellion should come as no surprise. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and her allies have laid waste to our public schools. The top admission-by-examination schools in places like New York City and Virginia are under siege by those who refuse to be happy for the success of the successful. Most fancy private schools have gone full-on woke, and many parochial schools are putting “social justice” above religious education. And then there are the daily reports of craziness at colleges and law schools and medical schools.
All of this is to say that one way of being countercultural these days is to commit to more or less traditional education. “More or less,” because there are different ways to achieve the goal of helping people read, think about, argue productively over, and learn from foundational works of art, music, literature, and philosophy—not to mention understand how to calculate compound interest, balance a chemical equation, and use an em-dash.
Consider the contrast between Ralston and the University of Austin (UATX), on whose Board of Advisors I am proud to sit. Ralston, which was founded in 2010 and finally enrolled two dozen master’s students in 2022, has been given degree-granting powers by the state of Georgia; UATX, founded in 2021, started offering non-degree programs already last year and is awaiting authorization from Texas to grant degrees. It hopes to begin admitting both undergraduate and graduate students in 2024 and have as many as 1,000 students by 2028. Both colleges are secular, both value truth and free speech, and both are, in my view, admirable ventures.
They are, however, not the same—and this is a good thing. The increasing homogenization of American higher education is a trend to be deplored. How can it be controversial that there should be differences in atmosphere, ethos, focus, and—yes—traditions? For example, UATX has just launched its inaugural Polaris Fellowship, which offers “a rigorous study of classical and contemporary leadership” and is geared toward entrepreneurs. This is a far cry from the introspective study of “the human self.” Yet both Ralston and UATX are about building better futures through attention to the past. Ralston is hoping to reestablish a tradition; UATX is hoping to forge a new one. I hope that both succeed, and I will do what I can to make this happen.
It’s also good that some new institutions are religious rather than secular. This is not the place for me to discuss them—or the success of more established religious colleges in the past decade—but I am following their fortunes with great interest. Among them are Hildegard College in Costa Mesa, California, an ecumenical Christian school that is set to admit its first undergraduates later this year; the Massachusetts campus of Thomas Aquinas College, which is Catholic and opened its doors in 2019; and perhaps the most ambitious, the Orthodox Christian Saint Constantine College in Houston, which was founded in 2016, one year after the associated K–12 Saint Constantine School. To be clear, these new institutions need not be Christian: in part because of the success of its excellent journal Renovatio, Zaytuna College in Berkeley, founded in 2008 and the first accredited Muslim college in the country, has influence far beyond its student body, which numbers only in the double digits.
Let me return to Joseph Conlon and the Gospel of John. Since I spent nearly a quarter century teaching ancient Greek at Princeton, you can believe me when I say that the session of Conlon’s class I sat in on was extraordinary. True, I have a bias: Conlon was my Ph.D. student, earning his doctoral degree from Princeton in 2016 with a dissertation on the early Roman playwright Plautus. By his own admission, he is not a twenty-first-century scholar, in the sense that he has no interest in writing articles and books that only other classicists will read. But he is a teacher and mentor of uncommon brilliance.
I’m a good teacher myself, I’m told, but the fact is that I would have to work extremely hard to conduct a class in Greek half as well as Conlon does. As for his students, while it is probably the case that the immersion method of instruction means a certain fuzziness on fine points of grammar, their large vocabulary, unselfconscious ease, and sense of the language are all very special. Indeed, the students themselves are very special.
Ralston has two Latin mottoes. One comes from Salman Rushdie: sermo liber vita ipsa (“free speech is life itself”). The other, more recent and devised by none other than Conlon (so Blackwood tells me), makes use of the polyvalent word animus, variously translated as “soul,” “spirit,” “mind,” or “courage”: animus crescat (“Let your spirit rise!” or “Let your mind expand!”). In English today, “animus” is usually a negative emotion, but this sense was rare in classical Latin. It is rare, too, at Ralston.
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