Imagine you are a teenager newly arrived at college. You’ve had a couple inspiring teachers of literature or philosophy in high school and you’re eager to read some of the books that have come up in conversation with them and seem to be reference points: Plato, say, or Shakespeare, Voltaire or Thomas Aquinas. You are uncertain about the best way to live your life and would like to ponder your choices carefully under the guidance of great thinkers. You hope you can find a teacher or two at college who knows about all those famous authors and is willing to teach you. You wish you could find other students with similar interests whom you could trust to respond in a friendly way as your ideas unfold and mature. You want to use some of your time in college to go further down the road of finding out who you are and what you believe.
If you are looking for this at an elite university these days, you are going to be out of luck. Things have changed since I was a young teacher at Columbia in the early 1980s. Then, self-understanding was the whole point of its famous core curriculum. Its centerpiece, the comically misnamed “Contemporary Civilization,” took you on a tour of the great thinkers from Plato to the present day—“Plato to NATO,” as student wits called it. It was assumed that the purpose of the course was to help you form your own ideas and build intellectual muscle. Students in those days were expected to have a “philosophical position” they would refine while arguing with friends in cafés and bars and during late-night bull sessions. By graduation, most Columbia students had some idea of where they stood on the great questions they cared about and were able to defend their positions with facts and arguments. Even if they couldn’t, they had developed the ability to recognize trustworthy facts and valid arguments. They were educated, in the now old-fashioned sense of the word.
That type of education is mostly gone at universities today, and it’s obvious why. Universities have become so politicized that many students dare not speak their minds to their teachers or fellow students for fear of social stigma, punitive grading, or the emotional trauma of a hostile tweet-storm. As the “campus expression surveys” of the Heterodox Academy and many other studies confirm, students across a wide range of political perspectives now engage in self-censorship and hold divisive stereotypes about their fellow students, particularly conservative or religious students. Substantial minorities don’t want to engage socially with students who don’t share their opinions and think it’s okay to silence views they believe are wrong. University administrators show an alarming authoritarianism, a readiness to discipline students who challenge progressive pieties. All this contributes to a propensity among students to keep their mouths, and their minds, firmly shut.
It’s not that you can’t find courses in elite schools any more about great works of literature or philosophy. There are still professors offering courses on Milton and Machiavelli. Most schools no longer require such courses and would regard it as a crime against Diversity and Inclusion to signal that some subjects are more important than others. There are honorable exceptions like Columbia and the University of Chicago where alumni and faculty have stood up against the forces of cultural entropy. There are still devoted professors in most schools who don’t treat the great books of the Western tradition as the poisonous detritus of an oppressive, sexist, and racist civilization. But how can a student find out which professors will treat great writers with respect and don’t see their own role as the conversion of deplorables to correct thinking? And how can students encounter fellow-students who are ready to engage in the kind of friendly, open-ended debate recommended by Socrates, following the argument wherever it leads?
Fortunately, the free marketplace of ideas is not yet dead. The unmet demand for a traditional humanities education in elite universities is increasingly being supplied by offshore institutions that set up shop near universities but are not officially part of them. Indeed, the last decade has seen an extraordinary blossoming of private humanities institutes that offer what progressive academe no longer offers: a space to escape the suffocating taboos of contemporary university life, a place to explore the deep questions of human existence and form friendships in the pursuit of meaningful lives and (dare one say it) truth.
There are now many such foundations across the country, including the Morningside Institute near Columbia, the Elm Institute at Yale, the Abigail Adams Institute at Harvard, the Berkeley Institute at UC Berkeley, and the Zephryr Institute at Stanford. These institutes present themselves as non-political and non-religious but welcome students with religious convictions or unorthodox political views. The Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education currently provides support for 21 entities of this type. Others offshore institutes, like the Collegium Institute at the University of Pennsylvania or Lumen Christi at Chicago, were set up to foster the Catholic intellectual tradition but have become places that support the liberal tradition of humane studies generally. Many of their events are oriented to students with no religious commitments but who value the chance to discuss the great landmarks of the Western intellectual tradition in an atmosphere that treats those works with the respect they deserve.
The new offshore institutes exist to serve students who feel isolated by their beliefs or who are bewildered by the fragmentation and specialization of intellectual life in today’s corporate university. They typically organize reading groups or study sessions on authors that students want to read. They publish guides to the university’s courses that help students locate the classes and professors best able to nurture their minds. Or they sponsor lunches, teas, and dinners with professors, distinguished professionals, and prominent businessmen, speaking on questions of deep human concern. A common goal is to build intellectual friendships among students and help orient them morally and spiritually to the world of work that awaits them after graduation.
If we are to preserve the study of Western history, literature, and philosophy at—or at least near—elite universities in the present bonfire of the verities, institutions such as these will have to be strengthened and multiplied. But I believe they would be even more valuable if their remit was expanded to support graduate students in history and the humanities. Miraculously, there remain a good many graduate students in Ph.D. programs who want to study their subjects in traditional, non-political ways. They just want to teach Shakespeare or Plato—imagine that!—without making the texts vehicles of political propaganda. That’s transgressive behavior in the woke academy. But such students are finding it increasingly difficult to make a career in in American universities without adhering to the latest ideological line promulgated by their departments and professional organizations. Most of the foundations that support graduate and early-career research have also become politicized too, and are adept at sniffing out heterodox thought. Such thinking is now labeled “controversial,” which in the woke academy counts as a mark against you, meaning your views might conceal a challenge to sacred progressive values.
So even if a grad student with traditional interests manages to finish the Ph.D., he or she will find it hard to publish their research and gain the professional esteem that leads to tenure. As a recently-published report from the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology demonstrates, graduate students of a conservative bent are more and more experiencing a climate of hostility to their beliefs. And the trend is against them, as the report shows, since the younger the academic, the more intolerant of political heterodoxy he or she is.
Right now, the offshore core flourishes because it is still possible to find sympathetic professors inside the university to nurture students interested in the Western tradition. If the supply of tradition-minded professors dries up, as it is likely to in the next decade if nothing changes, the offshore institutions that rely on them will also suffer. Recent college graduates of a more conservative bent are already avoiding graduate school in history and the humanities, and those inside graduate programs increasingly head for the exits without taking their degrees. The point is worth underlining. Potential donors concerned with the direction of American academe are well aware of the poisonous dreck being fed to American undergraduates these days, to be sure. But they are less aware of the hidden obstacles to restoring the traditional purposes of a university education: the filters that prevent traditional scholars from passing through the Ph.D. pipeline and into fruitful teaching careers.
My own view is that the only way to prevent the woke university from excluding or demonizing the Western tradition, long-term, is for government to take action in defense of classical liberal values. Eric Kauffman in the Quillette article linked above makes a strong argument that government support of liberal values is not the contradiction in terms it might appear to be to libertarians. But political action takes time, and the time we have left to defend the civilization we have inherited is shorter than most people think.
In the meantime the offshore humanities institutes already in place could do a great deal to keep traditional scholarship alive by investing in graduate education. They could provide grants for graduate students who have been denied funding for political reasons and post-doctoral fellowships to keep their prospects alive over the two to five years that is often needed to find a job in a college or university these days. Having graduate students take part in the institutes’ programs would enlarge and enhance those communities and provide much-needed solidarity to individuals isolated by their beliefs. I can testify from my own experience that without the support of like-minded friends, university life soon becomes intolerably alienating.
Offshore institutes could also offer the kind of training in traditional scholarly disciplines and basic research that is now disappearing from the academy. These include disciplines like historical hermeneutics, philology, and other rigorous ways of evaluating written evidence and testing hypotheses. We used to teach such methods to every graduate student to ensure that their research was solid and could pass professional scrutiny. But we were aware of a larger social purpose as well. Empirically based scholarship of a high standard in the past helped keep alive in the academy a scientific spirit of impartial devotion to truth. It used to nurture a community that valued neutral, universal standards of quality and a shared sense of what constituted valuable research and what did not. This idea of the republic of letters is now rapidly disappearing in a university environment which judges the value of scholarship, above all, on the basis of its political messaging.
There are still plenty of scholars around trained in the old methods who could teach graduate students the sublime and difficult art of finding true answers to historical and literary questions. These are arts developed over centuries in our civilization but ones that could easily disappear in the space of a generation if they are not cultivated somewhere. Traditional scholars have been retiring from their universities in droves, especially in the last year, and many would welcome the opportunity to teach graduate students and undergraduates who share their love of the subjects and authors they have taught for so long. An intergenerational community of established scholars, apprentice scholars, and undergraduates could provide what the monasteries of the early Middle Ages once provided: light in a dark time.
The Roman poet Horace wrote in a famous line, “Drive Nature out with a pitchfork, and she’ll come right back, victorious over your ignorant confident scorn.” The progressive university may have driven out the natural desire of intelligent young people to win a deeply-considered philosophy of life. It may be undermining scholarly standards in graduate schools with its relentless political dogmatism. But thanks to the offshore core, the battle may not yet be lost.