The world of higher education is sometimes scandalous, sometimes shocking, and sometimes depressing. But the news this this week seemed to have most people darkly amused more than anything else. Because the thing that everybody was talking about was at once terrible, but also seemed to a lot of people maybe kind of a joke. I’m talking of course, about the University of Austin.
According to their website, The University of Austin is a fiercely independent – financially, intellectually, and politically – university being built from the ground up in Austin, TX that is “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth.” It will be “a liberal arts university committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse.”
Pano Kanelos, president of the new institution, published a letter on November 8th announcing the new venture. In it, he claims that higher education in America is fundamentally broken and that rather than waiting for universities to fix themselves, they are starting a new one.
Kanelos is no stranger to “experimental” education. Kanelos hails from St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico. St. John’s has a particularly unique, and some might say myopic approach to education, thought it fashions itself as a classical liberal arts school.
Alum Tammie Teclamariam writes,
“Everybody takes the same classes and reads the same books based on the core selection of classics that are said to be responsible for Western civilization. The Great Books — take a look — are bolstered by math classes where you can spend up to an hour proving a proposition about the motion of the planets on a chalkboard and a requisite study of Ancient Greek among other scholarly things. Other schools teach these books and topics as well, but other schools also teach stuff like Adobe and computer programming, I think so you can get a job after graduation, as well as non-European history, as a result of violent woke mobs.
Classes are discussion-based in groups of about 20, so in addition to the white people in print, you must also contend with talking to the white people who chose the white supremacist curriculum, many of whom will never learn to listen in their 4 years of discussion-based classes. From here, many will graduate into lives almost exclusively surrounded by other white people, particularly in academia, where their lack of social skills will be tolerated or overlooked.”
She continues her somewhat derogatory description of her experiences at St. John’s:
You won’t read something written by a black person until the second semester of senior year, but that gets written off in the name of the program. It’s chronological — it just can’t be adjusted. Whatever. I’m not saying this school shouldn’t exist, but its whole mission is irrevocably trying to preserve white history in a way that cannot be overhauled or corrected by enticing more people of color to attend, which, if you haven’t caught on by now, I don’t think they should.
For a school whose motto promises to “make free human beings out of children by means of books and a balance,” it makes it pretty hard for its graduates to do anything that would free them from their considerable student loans unless they have a predetermined motivation to become a lawyer or politician or go to grad school at a different institution. As with most things, it always helps to start rich.”
“At St. John’s, you aren’t encouraged to talk about the news or how things apply to the world we’re in now. You’re supposed to live in the text itself and its connection to the other texts you read at St. John’s. It’s an effective way for someone to develop and harbor very unreasonable or stupid or cruel ideas without getting their ass kicked. It’s no wonder then that St. John’s attracted a guy like Kanelos, the same way it attracts a lot of ambitious neoconservatives for whom no safe haven will ever be safe enough.”
Kanelos left his position at St. John’s to start the University of Austin. Was St. John’s too progressive for him? Did it bend too much to woke mob inclinations? He doesn’t seem to say.
In his announcement about the founding of this new educational institution Kanelos writes,
“There is a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education. Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas, light and truth. Harvard proclaims: Veritas. Young men and women of Stanford are told Die Luft der Freiheit weht: The wind of freedom blows.
These are soaring words. But in these top schools, and in so many others, can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue? Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end—freedom of inquiry and civil discourse—prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?”
Later in his letter he claimed,
“It’s not just that we are failing students as individuals; we are failing the nation. Our democracy is faltering, in significant part, because our educational system has become illiberal and is producing citizens and leaders who are incapable and unwilling to participate in the core activity of democratic governance.
Universities are the places where society does its thinking, where the habits and mores of our citizens are shaped. If these institutions are not open and pluralistic, if they chill speech and ostracize those with unpopular viewpoints, if they lead scholars to avoid entire topics out of fear, if they prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth, who will be left to model the discourse necessary to sustain liberty in a self-governing society?”
“At some future point, historians will study how we arrived at this tragic pass. And perhaps by then we will have reformed our colleges and universities, restoring them as bastions of open inquiry and civil discourse.
But we are done waiting. We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew.”
He is not alone in his mission, as he points out in his letter. Joining him in founding the university are a veritable who’s who of “cancelled” academics such as Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, Kathleen Stock, Dorian Abbot, and Peter Boghossian.
Ferguson made headlines in 2018 when he resigned from Stanford University after leaked emails revealed that he urged a group of Republican students to conduct opposition research on a leftwing student (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/jun/02/niall-ferguson-quits-stanford-free-speech-role-over-leaked-emails).
Bari Weiss published her letter resigning from the New York Times on her website. In it, she claims that she was subjected to unlawful discrimination and a hostile work environment, stemming from the fact that the paper had succumbed to self-censorship and fear of the Twitter mob.
Heather Heying and her husband, Bret Weinstein, became embroiled in controversy in 2017 when he voiced his opposition to the “Day of Absence” event at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Eventually, the couple filed a $3.85 million lawsuit against the school. They settled out of court, each receiving $250,000 and resigning from their positions.
Joe Lonsdale, cofounder of Palantir Technologies, recently tweeted in response to Pete Buttigieg taking paternity leave that “any man in an important position who takes 6 months of leave for a newborn is a loser.”
Kathleen Stock quit her job at the University of Sussex in response to protests on her campus that called her transphobic after she published a book claiming that biological sex is more “socially significant” than gender identity.
Dorian Abbot was disinvited from giving a planned public outreach lecture to high school students through MIT due to a Newsweek opinion piece in which he claimed that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives at universities are “repeating the mistakes that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century.”
Peter Boghossian resigned his position at Portland State University due to mounting pressure and protests after he published a series of absurd papers in low level journals to illustrate that they would accept anything if it fulfilled a “woke” agenda.
This motley crew is all in this for one purpose – to create a school that addresses the perceived injustices of higher education. They’re the anti-woke university. Canceled College.
There are a few things I think that need to be addressed, here.
First is this fearsome illiberal nature of education.
What does it mean to have a liberal education?
It definitely doesn’t mean what the rabid pundits are afraid of. Liberalism in education is not about a progressive agenda. And that doesn’t seem to be what University of Austin is talking about. Because they’re concerned about ILLIBERALISM in education. So they seem to be thinking about the classical definition. Which I appreciate. So let’s think classically.
First and foremost, liberalism is a focus on the rights of the individual and the free market. And the question is, has education really fallen so far away from that philosophy, or has it dug in?
Ask any educator and they will tell you one of the biggest problems in education is the model of student as consumer. Schools have started behaving like businesses and not institutions of higher learning. When we have customers instead of students, we stop being educators and start acting like sales people. So what looks like illiberalism isn’t illiberalism, it’s the product of the liberal market taken to its late stages. Students (and parents) think they run the institution. When education is a product, acting as a business instead of a public good, then the result is bad education because those who don’t know what a good education is are in charge.
As for individual rights, what do they think that means? Students assume that their specific situation trumps all other situations – because the individual is always more important than the group. That’s liberalism. Liberalism is just what the University of Austin fears – each individual demanding special treatment because they matter just as much as anyone else. So I don’t know exactly what they think they are going to get away from.
Finally, there is the notion of a liberal education. Here is where I think the University of Austin makes the least sense. A liberal education is a tradition that goes back to the middle ages. It means you have a broad understanding of all of the core subjects and you are a versatile thinker. It is a system or course of education that is supposed to cultivate freedom. It has been described as “a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a stronger sense of values, ethics, and civic engagement … characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, and more a way of studying than a specific course or field of study” by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. In a liberal education you study broadly. You study the social sciences, the sciences, and humanities. It is focused on making you a well-rounded and productive citizen.
So the fact that their first program will be in entrepreneurship doesn’t exactly engender in me a great hope that they understand the purpose of a liberal education. When you think liberal education you generally think broad understanding of the world with a focus on ethics and citizenship – not necessarily how to start a business and make money.
Finally, I think we need to address what they are really afraid of – and that is the actual republican nature of education. And I don’t mean Republican like the GOP. I mean civic republicanism, which believes in the common good and doing what is best for society as a whole.
The truth is, education is good for the individual, but it is more importantly a public good. Education is a civic good or a civic virtue. It is good for all of us. We all benefit from a well-educated public. That’s one reason why we have public education – to make education accessible to all people because it’s good for our society as a whole if we have certain shared knowledge and experience. We’ve talked on this podcast before about how Brown v. Board was decided on the idea that education is supposed to teach us how to be American citizens and we’re all supposed to share in that experience together. Education is, in many ways, a republican endeavor.
So some of what the founders of the University of Austin seem to be upset about is the fact that some people are rehabilitating higher education’s republican nature. If education is supposed to be for the good of society, then they see education as being just that – a force for good. That is not to say it is a censorial force or a silencing force – but a voice for what is just and what is best for the community.
And people complain about how they are being silenced – but they are awfully loud for people who are silent.
When education fulfills its role it is a force for good in the world. It betters society. Detractors claim there is no room for dissent, but conservative thought is pervasive in education. Business schools get some of the most funding and support on almost any campus and white male authors are taught more than anyone else. Economics is almost always from a capitalist perspective. Gender studies and Ethnic studies programs are some of the first on the chopping block when funding is low. Foreign language programs are disappearing at an alarming rate and arts and humanities programs are under constant threat of retrenchment. White, cis-gendered, male privilege exists at every level. Pushing back on any of that isn’t censorship.
It’s not that the University of Austin represents dissent. It’s that they’re suddenly not the only game in town, so they’re taking their ball and going home.
Look, ultimately the University of Austin probably isn’t that big of a deal. I don’t know that it will ever get off the ground. But what it represents is a bigger problem. There are a lot of people out there who see education, both K-12 and higher education as fundamentally broken because it doesn’t teach hegemony any more.
Just look at what is happening in Virginia. Their governor’s race was largely run on issues of education and the moment they voted in their new Republic governor groups formed in school districts across the state to start demanding that “inappropriate” or “bad” books be removed from curricula or library shelves in schools. These were generally books that had LGBTQ+ representation or anything to do with racial equity. This is the “dissent” and “individual rights” that people are demanding in education. Notice that these “rights” inevitably trample on the rights of other people, who are just as deserving, but just not quite as powerful. This is the end game we’re talking about.
We can’t turn back the clock. Education has been a force for good. Libraries and universities have made things better, even in the face of administrations working directly against their efforts. Don’t let these voices fool you. If there is anything at all to a liberal education, it is that it teaches equality and citizenship. And that means for everybody.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.