Last week a group of prominent conservative intellectuals—Arthur Brooks, Bari Weiss, Larry Summers, Andrew Sullivan, Steven Pinker, among others—announced that they are starting a new university: the University of Austin. The president of the new enterprise is Pano Kanelos, formerly president of the “great books” school St. John’s College, in Annapolis. Announcing the school’s formation, Kanelos argued that higher education is now trapped between two, equally bankrupt models—a small group of elite schools, busily engaged in the reproduction of privilege, and a larger group of poor schools, fighting to stay afloat:
I’m pretty liberal in most of my thinking. But I have to say, I’m all in.
In fact, I’ll go further than that. If I were a high school senior, looking for a college to go to, my first choice would be... the University of Austin.
In. A. Heartbeat.
Now why do I say that? My ideological leanings are to the left, and the people behind the University of Austin seem to be mostly conservative in orientation. And I don’t know for sure that the University of Austin will succeed in being less expensive or less exclusive than our existing top private colleges. So it seems like a bad fit, right? Why would I go to a school backed by Steven Pinker? I can’t stand Steven Pinker! The answer is because our definition of “fit” is all wrong. Let me explain.
When I was in high school, I was a conservative. I subscribed to the National Review, the intellectual mouthpiece of the American right. I can’t exactly remember how I came to that position, because I wasn’t raised in a politically conservative home. Quite the opposite. But by the time I was 16 I was a little right-winger. I even named my jade tree William F. Buckley, put a picture of Buckley on the side of the pot, and composed a small rap in its honor (with apologies to MC Chris and his immortal “Fett’s Vette”):
Then I went to Trinity College, at the University of Toronto, put a poster of Ronald Reagan on my wall and discovered... that there was no more than the smallest handful of conservatives at my college. (Shout out to Nigel Wright, if you are reading this!) I was all but alone in a sea of comfortable, 1980s Canadian liberalism—and guess what? It was one of the best things to ever happen to me.
From my time as a conservative outcast, here’s what I learned.
1. You learn more from those whom you disagree with than from those you agree with. This seems to me inarguable. I used to engage in raging debates in my conservative years about Canada’s system of national health care. The people I was arguing with were repeating the party line: their job was easy. I, on the other, was taking a heretical position. Everyone else was waiting to pounce on my every claim. I had to think! I had to learn. (And before long that enforced thinking and learning made me realize my positions on health care were pretty weak.)
2. College years are a great time to be intellectually uncomfortable. I mean, imagine if I had been a card-carrying, standard-issue Canadian liberal in those years. What exactly would have been the point of going to the University of Toronto? I would’ve done as well staying home, listening to the reassuring murmur of CBC radio, and re-reading old Robertson Davies novels.
The single most exhausting and ridiculous thing about the current discourse around education—on both the left and the right—is the notion that the college years represent an all-or-nothing battleground for the hearts and minds of young people: that if you don’t win someone over at 18, they are lost to you forever. Is there a single shred of evidence to suggest that this is true?
Far from being this high-stakes window of intellectual development, college should in fact be thought of as the opposite. It ought to be an exhilarating indulgence. It ought to be four lazy, serendipitous, meandering years during which a student has the freedom to dabble and experiment and make massive intellectual errors. For goodness sake, when I was in my third year of college, I wrote an essay defending McCarthyism. I actually re-read it recently. It was totally bonkers! And what happened? Not much. Except that one day after dinner I had a long, animated discussion about it with a very brilliant, older classmate named Peter Johnson (who has gone on to be history professor) who very gently and wisely explained to me all the ways I was a lunatic.
The after-dinner discussion with Peter Johnson was the education: my crazily contrarian essay on McCarthyism had the wonderful side effect of luring me into productive discussion with older and wiser peers. Had I written the standard anti-McCarthy version of that argument, then my conversation with Peter Johnson would probably have been about the Toronto Maple Leafs or the new Rush album. What a waste!
Now today, of course, if I did a Revisionist History episode defending McCarthyism, there would be consequences. And correctly so! I’m an adult. Ideas matter in the adult world. And when adults take stupid positions, they deserve the full weight of opprobrium. But the whole point of adolescence is that at that age your ideas don’t matter yet. Be brave! Try and defend Joe McCarthy to Peter Johnson!
The reason we go to such pains to build dedicated spaces for academic discovery is that we want people to take advantage of that freedom at the one time in their life when making stupid arguments can be done without penalty.
3. Finally: What you are taught and what you learn are two different things. Again, I would have thought this was perfectly obvious. But for some reason, in 2021, this is a radical idea.
Think about the (absurd) debate over Critical Race Theory, which is powered by the idiotic assumption that if you expose tender young minds to Critical Race Theory they will come to espouse Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory is, to its detractors, the ideological equivalent of crack cocaine—a theory so addictive, so powerful, so intimately connected to every dopamine receptor in the brain—that even the briefest exposure to it will cause students to forever believe that white people are the devil. Really? Why wouldn’t it have the opposite effect? I have read a fair amount of CRT, particularly the (marvelous) work of Derrick Bell. Silent Covenants, his classic, is a really good book! Reading it made me think about things I had never before thought about. It made me see the effects of racism in a new light. It made me love Derrick Bell.
But did it turn me into a CRT disciple? Not really. Mostly because, if you read Critical Race Theory, then you realize that it isn’t a theory, like E=MC2 is a theory. It’s just the attempt by a group of scholars to reframe our understanding of how racism works. One of Bell’s arguments, for example, is that white people tend to embrace policies aimed at helping black people only when those policies help... white people. It’s an idea that really helps you understand the motivation behind things like the Brown v. Board of Education decision or, for that matter, late 20th-century policing policies.
Do I think that it’s always the case? I’m not sure. That’s why I’m not a member of the CRT school of thinking. But I’m happy I read Silent Covenants, because now I understand part of what Critical Race Theory is all about. Which, by the way, is precisely what higher education is supposed to do: it is supposed to help you appreciate the world of ideas. It is not intended to turn you into a clone of your professors.
So if 18-year-old Malcolm had been a liberal, I would say—he should definitely enroll at a school like the University of Austin! Give his ideas a stress test! Learn how to defend his positions against worthy opponents. But if all the University of Austin does is attract students who already think the way the professors at the University of Austin think, then I would say the school is a failure. So to all you young conservatives out there, I say: Stay away from Austin! Go to Oberlin, and spend four years engaged in some very productive squirming and double-taking at the back of the classroom.