When I interviewed in 2022 for the job of Dean of Intellectual Foundations at the just-founded University of Austin (UATX), Pano Kanelos, the university’s founding president, asked me what I thought the new institution’s mission was. “To save civilization,” I said. “And here I thought the mission was to save American higher education,” he replied.
Informed observers have known for some time that our universities are broken. But the cheerleading on American campuses for terrorists who unleashed a pogrom of a magnitude and viciousness not seen since the Holocaust has made it clear that the collapse of higher education imperils Western civilization itself. Without real higher education, we would forget the past and stumble blindly into the future. Without universities worthy of the name, there would be no civilization.
Higher education exists to preserve, transmit, and extend knowledge, including the sound judgment and knowledge of the whole we call wisdom. Universities stand at the threshold between past and future, self and society, the eternal verities above and the flow of time below. Their job is to join what would otherwise fall apart: to remember the past, fructify the present, and incubate the future. At their best, they are modern temples of Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looks backward and forward, inward and outward—a symbol of wakeful, vigilant minds that receive tradition with gratitude, seek knowledge with grace, and face challenges with grit.
But in the United States, universities have never been worse than they are today. Barbarians have invaded the temples of teaching and learning, ransacked the sanctuaries, and defiled the sacred scrolls. For decades, students have been steeped in a postmodern intellectual culture of repudiation, relativism, and reductivism. They’ve been taught to “deconstruct” the great books and noble ideals of the West; to regard morality, and even the criteria of scientific truth, as social constructions; and to understand politics and society as “discourses of power” illuminated by the doctrines of “critical theory” and “intersectionality.” Bereft of precious civilizational compasses and maps, they have learned to regard fundamental social relationships as zero-sum games of domination and servitude.
The events of recent weeks have brought home an ugly truth: far from equipping students to preserve and extend civilization, American universities—especially elite ones—have been teaching them how to destroy it. They’ve reminded a forgetful public that pernicious academic theories can have appalling consequences. As private equity investor and Penn alumnus Marc Rowan wrote in a letter to the University of Pennsylvania condemning the institution’s platforming of anti-Semitism on campus, “words and ideas matter.” The way that students, professors, and academic administrators have welcomed the real-world application of hateful ideas leaves no doubt on this point.
At Georgetown, Students for Justice in Palestine posted signs explaining that “decolonization” is not just “an abstract academic theory” but a “tangible event.” Hamas’s efforts at tangible decolonization included burning families alive. Pathologists at Israel’s National Center of Forensic Medicine have been working hard to identify 297 bodies so brutalized as to be unrecognizable. An article reports that Chen Kugel, the Center’s director, “wept as he described how they had received remains so disfigured they had to perform a CT scan to understand there were two bodies. One big, one small.” “You can tell from the shapes of their spines that it is an adult and a child, and they are sitting together and they are hugging tightly together,” he said. “In their final moments. They were burnt to death like this. Cremated alive in their own home, clutching one another.”
It’s bad enough that university students have enthusiastically supported such horrific acts. But it’s not as though they leave behind their schooling in postmodern doctrines and revolutionary ideologies when they graduate. Many go on to assume influential positions in education, media, culture, and politics, where they proceed to indoctrinate others. Elite universities are primary feeders in all these areas, especially higher education. A 2012 study, for example, found that “the top 11 institutions were responsible for half the faculty doctorates” in political science. The same is probably true of most academic fields.
Some radicalized graduates now teach at elite universities, like the Cornell professor who told a rally in support of Hamas that those who “weren’t exhilarated” by Hamas’s actions “would not be human,” or the one at the University of Michigan who tore down posters of kidnapped Israelis. Some become journalists at major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which immediately reported that Israel was responsible for a missile attack that struck a hospital in Gaza, killing 500 people—except that the missile didn’t hit the hospital (it landed in the parking lot), didn’t kill 500 people, and apparently wasn’t launched by Israel. Others become directors and curators at major art museums, where they cultivate racial resentment and anti-Western attitudes by lecturing visitors about white supremacy and colonialism. Still others enter government, where genuinely totalitarian ideas—like Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that Trump supporters should be “formally deprogrammed”—are now aired openly. (In practice, that would require the kind of reeducation camps China has established for the Uyghurs.)
The saddest thing about the collapse of higher education may not be that it bodes so ill for our country’s future, though that is certainly depressing. It is that our nation’s most esteemed universities, and many others to boot, have defrauded their students. They’ve cheated them of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive a real education: one that opens their minds to the deep pleasures of learning, and to the precious inheritance of knowledge and wisdom that has sustained civilization for millennia.
So what is to be done? There are two ways forward: attempt to reform existing institutions, and found new ones. Both paths are worth trying.
First, alumni must speak up, and, if necessary, close their checkbooks. The short letter to Penn president Liz Magill written by Jon Huntsman, former U.S. ambassador and governor of Utah, shows how it’s done. Universities depend on the generosity of graduates who are grateful for their education and have fond memories of their time on campus. But those warm feelings should not blind them to what is happening at their alma maters. I graduated from Swarthmore College, where Students for Justice in Palestine praised Hamas “martyrs” for resisting the “imperialist apparatus” of Zionism. President Valerie Smith responded with unconscionable equivocation. I’ve contributed thousands of dollars to Swarthmore over the past three decades, but when Smith ignored my email, I told her Never Again. Imagine if thousands of alumni did the same.
Still, it’s unlikely that elite institutions will change course. The moral and intellectual rot has gone too far. Donors should find more deserving institutions to support and should place strict conditions on their gifts. Universities must dismantle their diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and eliminate oaths in hiring and tenure to support DEI imperatives. As Peter Berkowitz has written, the “fine words” of DEI “conceal the divisive ambition to vilify the supposed oppressors and exalt the supposed oppressed.” (That ambition was openly expressed after the Hamas attacks by a DEI director at Cornell, not in fine words but in expletives.)
Every college and university in America claims to support academic freedom and open discourse. These words, too, are honored more in the breach than the observance. Donors and alumni should demand that institutions live up to them. They should support initiatives that cultivate the virtues of reflective openness and civility, including the new schools of civic leadership that have been founded, or are under construction, at Arizona State, the University of Texas, and the University of North Carolina, among others. And they should push to rebuild genuinely liberal education, which has been progressively dismantled at many institutions since Jesse Jackson led chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go” at Stanford in 1987.
The other way forward is to found new universities. That’s an expensive and complicated undertaking, but it makes it possible to begin with a clean slate. UATX offers a model of such educational entrepreneurship, one that emphasizes the public as well as personal blessings of a liberal education.
UATX champions academic freedom—“the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable”—not for its own sake, but as a means to discover truth. Human flourishing, and its civilizational preconditions, are central to our curriculum. We require all students to study the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Greek poets and philosophers, and Confucius; to learn about Islam and European identity; to reflect on the nature of modernity and the uses and abuses of technology; to study the American experiment in liberty and the ideological tyrannies of the twentieth century; and to acquire the basic scientific, technical, economic, and entrepreneurial knowledge they will need to succeed in the twenty-first century.
Human beings desire not just to know, but to put their knowledge into practice. All UATX students must undertake a substantial project to discover or build something that serves the human good. These undertakings will help them to discover how their greatest passions might meet humanity’s greatest needs. Along the way, they will develop essential skills and virtues of cooperation, communication, resilience, imagination, and flexibility.
The philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy defined the citizen as “a person who, if need be, can re-found his civilization.” Civilization is collapsing today, and such individuals are needed more than ever before. Whatever form new institutions and programs may take, they must above all aim to educate citizens.
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