A few years ago, I’m told, the president of Dartmouth College remarked to a professor that “we have to get out of the knowledge game.” Mission accomplished. The self-destruction of the American academy—its repudiation of education, the core business of universities since their inception a millennium ago—is well under way. But American higher education got some rare good news today, with the establishment of the University of Austin (UATX).
Pano Kanelos, who formerly headed St. John’s College in Annapolis, will be the university’s president. Kanelos maintains that all education is either liberal or illiberal; if it is illiberal, it isn’t even education. Plato’s Republic makes this clear. Before we are educated, Plato famously teaches, we resemble prisoners chained to the bottom of a cave, watching shadows play across a wall. We trust the shadows and the stories they tell because they are the only things we know. We have no idea that they are cast by unseen puppeteers competing for power and wealth, much less that higher realms of truth and existence lie above and beyond us.
Education—from the Latin educare, to lead out or bring up—liberates us from the shackles of ignorance and leads us into the light and warmth of reality. It makes us capable, as St. John Henry Newman wrote in The Idea of a University, of forming an “instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us.” But today’s universities are hell-bent on leading students down, not up. Everything is domination and servitude, power and oppression: the cave is all that exists. In the dim and pervasive light of critical theory and intersectionality, everything appears small and flat and grey. Heroism is toxic masculinity; mathematics and English are instruments of racial oppression. Interpretive charity and intellectual humility, once cardinal academic virtues, are now as dispensable as Greek and Latin are for classics majors at Princeton, or Shakespeare and Chaucer for English majors at Yale.
Enter UATX. As our elite universities sink into the muck of activism, demand increases for genuine teaching and learning—and the supply is growing of good professors who have left or been pushed out of dying institutions. Many, including me, have argued that the time is ripe to start a new university. The master plan for UATX describes it as “committed to open inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse” and “fiercely independent—financially, intellectually, and politically.” It draws inspiration from Yale’s 1974 Woodward Report, with its defense of “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”
Talk is cheap, but Kanelos’s plan is serious. UATX is backed by distinguished and independent minds. Kanelos’s founding team includes historian Niall Ferguson, journalist Bari Weiss, evolutionary biologist Heather Heying, and investor Joe Lonsdale. The advisory board includes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Arthur Brooks, Steven Pinker, Nadine Strossen, Glenn Loury, Jonathan Haidt, David Mamet, Wilfred McClay, and Leon Kass, among other big names. Ten founding faculty fellows “will actively participate in curricular and institutional planning and design,” the first three—Hirsi Ali and philosophers Peter Boghossian and Kathleen Stock—having already been named. This group is long on courage: Hirsi Ali lives under threat of death from Islamists, while Weiss, Heying, Boghossian, and Stock resigned from positions at the New York Times, Evergreen State College, Portland State University, and the University of Sussex, respectively, after weathering sustained and vicious attacks by their colleagues and students.
UATX will introduce a “forbidden courses” program next summer. Possible topics include “Is Our National Security State Authoritarian?”, “What Are The Limits of Free Speech?”, and “Is Gender Socially Constructed?” An entrepreneurship and leadership master’s program will launch in 2022, and an undergraduate college, featuring an intensive liberal arts curriculum and “Oxbridge-style instruction, with small tutorials and college-wide lectures,” is slated for 2024.
If UATX flourishes, its success could lead to the founding of more such institutions—and perhaps even to the resurrection of higher education in the United States. Let us hope it thrives.
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