Does America Need an Anti-Cancel-Culture University?

Will the University of Austin promote “the often uncomfortable search for truth”, or create a new safe space for traditional biases?

Last Monday, the former president of another educational institution announced that he and a collection of intellectuals who feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in academia (as it is currently constituted) were forming a new University of Austin in Texas. “We can’t wait for universities to fix themselves,” wrote Pano Kanelos, the former head of St. John’s College in Annapolis, “so we’re starting a new one.”

His essay is dotted with high-minded phrases like “the fearless pursuit of truth”, “freedom of inquiry and civil discourse”, and “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” It includes stirring rhetoric like: “We can no longer wait for the cavalry. And so we must be the cavalry.”

Many of his criticisms of existing universities are hard to argue with: “At our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite.” Four in every ten students who enter a college or university leave without graduating. The soaring cost of higher education has left students with $1.7 trillion of debt — much of it owed by that 40% that didn’t even manage to buy a marketable credential. “[A]n increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction.” Those who do graduate learn “ever-more-inaccessible theories while often just blocks away their neighbors figure out how to scratch out a living”.

Kanelos’ conclusion that “something fundamental is broken” is not one I’m inclined to dispute. Too many college classes, particularly introductory ones, belong in a credential-producing factory, not a successor to Plato’s Academy. Like Kanelos, I feel the romance of a school “where there is no fundamental distinction between those who teach and those who learn, beyond the extent of their knowledge and wisdom”.

But beyond the educational theory and his nostalgia for Golden Age Greece, Kanelos’ truly motivating concern seems to be the “illiberalism” that “has become a pervasive feature of campus life”. One factor unites the truly impressive list of names Kanelos gives us: original co-founders Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, and Arthur Brooks, later joined by “university presidents: Robert Zimmer, Larry Summers, John Nunes, and Gordon Gee, and leading academics, such as Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, Leon Kass, Jonathan Haidt, Glenn Loury, Joshua Katz, Vickie Sullivan, Geoffrey Stone, Bill McClay, and Tyler Cowen” not to mention “journalists, artists, philanthropists, researchers, and public intellectuals, including Lex Fridman, Andrew Sullivan, Rob Henderson, Caitlin Flanagan, David Mamet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sohrab Ahmari, Stacy Hock, Jonathan Rauch, and Nadine Strossen.” They’ve almost all been critics or self-styled victims of “cancel culture”. [1]

That’s the context through which I read Kanelos stated goal: producing “a resilient (or ‘antifragile’) cohort with exceptional capacity to think fearlessly, nimbly, and inventively.” Today’s university students, with their trigger warnings and safe spaces and whatnot, Kanelos seems to imply, are snowflakes. Austin U won’t cater to such whimps, but will forge tough-minded students who can take the rough-and-tumble of real debate.

That vision is undercut, though, by one of the surveys Kanelos quotes to bolster his argument about the current campus illiberalism. He summarizes a survey by Heterodox Academy as saying that “62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented students from saying things they believe”. However, if you dig into that survey, you’ll find the main reason students give for suppressing their opinions is that “other students would criticize my views as offensive”. In other words, I keep quiet because other students might respond to my free expression with their own free expression. [2]

So who’s the snowflake?

Which makes me wonder: Will Austin U really have more “free inquiry and discourse”, or will it just be a safe space for those who like to say things that are racist, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise offensive to people who didn’t previously complain because they didn’t previously have a voice? Kanelos’ essay may criticize institutions that “prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth”, but looking at his list of participants, I have to ask if the University of Austin will just prioritize the emotional comfort of a different set of people. [3]

The more I think about “free inquiry” the more I’m reminded of “free markets”. We may imagine that such freedom occurs naturally whenever authority gets out of the way. But in reality, neither discussions nor markets can be “free” without a substantial structure of rules and values and habits and institutions. The “natural” freedom idealized by pre-revolutionary philosophers like Locke and Rousseau happens in the wilderness. Bringing freedom into society requires structure.

There are questions a community can’t discuss without undermining the discussion itself. At German universities in the early 1930s, for example, Jewish students and professors (before they were banned completely) had to face discussions of “the Jewish question“, or even “the Jewish problem” — whether or not they should have a place in German society at all. How freely could they discuss that topic, or whatever topics might follow?

Or suppose I freely state my opinion, and the next person uses his freedom to suggest that people who think like me should be killed — and, by the way, here’s Doug’s home address for anybody whose plans might require that information. How long will that discussion stay free?

We need to understand that freedom inside society can never be pure or absolute. We can only be free in certain ways, and only because we accept limitations on certain other aspects of our freedom. My freedom to drive across the country depends on giving up my freedom to drive on the left side of the highway.

In particular, the kind of “free inquiry” Kanelos champions can only happen if all the participants retain their safety and dignity. This is easy to grasp when your own safety or dignity is threatened — as Austin U’s prospective faculty apparently believes theirs has been. But it is more difficult to appreciate how your own freedom may need to be reined in to accommodate others. Maybe an American university should discourage debate over the genetic inferiority of its Black students, or whether its gay and lesbian students are sick and need to be cured. Maybe women on campus can’t be kept safe from harassment and rape without men yielding some of the benefit-of-the-doubt they have historically been granted. Maybe respecting the dignity of trans students requires using their chosen pronouns, rather than insisting that you know more about their gender than they do.

And so on.

An age-old adage says that your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose. Until recent decades, though, large classes of people understood that they just needed to keep their noses out of the way, because other people’s fists had to remain free.

That has changed — not everywhere and not completely, but moreso on college campuses than most places — and if you belong to one of the previously dominant classes you may feel disoriented. What a repressive world it suddenly seems to be, when you have to look all around before you start swinging your arms! How can you still be free, when the people you have been offending for years acquire their own freedom to respond?

There actually is intellectual work to be done here: I don’t think anyone perfectly understands yet exactly where the boundaries ought to be. Perfectly free discussion and inquiry is a myth; as long as we live in society, we will have to live within rules. But what rules, values, practices, and institutions do the best job of creating the environment we want for our universities, one where people of all descriptions can come closest to achieving the Socratic ideal?

That seems to me to be exactly the kind of question that universities ought to work on. And if they do that thinking well, they may become models for the rest of society.

So if the founders and supporters of the University of Austin truly have something positive to contribute to that discussion, I wish their experiment success. But if they just want to turn the clock back to a time when they felt more personally comfortable, I doubt they’ll do much good, even for themselves.

[1] I’d say “all” rather than “almost all”, but I’m not willing to do the research necessary to back that up. I recognize many of the names from various controversies and anti-cancel-culture manifestos.

MSNBC’s Katelyn Burns describes the U of A backers as “a group of self-described ‘heterodox’ academics and journalists (who all happen to have the same opinions on the the two topics they collectively discuss most often, trans rights and racism)”.

[2] A question worth asking: How many conservative students’ fears are justified, and how many have been manufactured by Fox News’ anti-cancel-culture propaganda?

[3] The Intelligencer’s Sarah Jones compares U of A to conservative Christian universities like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty U.

Falwell was no outlier. The right has long dreamed of alternatives to traditional higher education. The televangelist Pat Robertson founded Regent University for similar reasons. Michael Farris, the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 to shelter homeschool graduates and funnel them into Republican politics. Hillsdale College has assumed a sharply right-wing political identity over time, and rejects federal funding “as a matter of principle.” (A Hillsdale professor sits on the University of Austin’s board of advisers.) These schools exist as laboratories for right-wing thought; they are committed not to free expression but to indoctrination. The University of Austin will be no different.

I will add that Fox News’ founding rhetoric sometimes sounded as idealistic as University of Austin’s: It would be the “fair and balanced” alternative to the “liberal bias” of the mainstream media.

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  • Timothy Swanson  On November 15, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    That is an intriguing list. I tend to suspect, however, that some of those people will be forced out in fairly short order. In particular, Geoffrey Stone is nowhere near a conservative. I would guess that sooner rather than later, the legit intellectuals will be quietly “retired” and their places filled with better ideologues.

  • Ulu Aiono  On November 15, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    16Nov21 0900 Hey from New Zealand ! Clear writing; thank you. Must be a global phenomenon? I don’t read much about this in the context of Asian society or East European but they perhaps have the same cancel culture issues? Definitely the same down here in NZ. Thank you again.

  • ADeweyan  On November 15, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    As a fan of St. John’s College (Annapolis and Santa Fe), I’m saddened to see Kanelos’ role in this — but no longer question why he left his position in Annapolis. I have tended to view St. John’s unique Program through a liberal lens, but I can also see how a program that holds thoroughly and exclusively to the western intellectual tradition could appeal to conservatives viewing it as a way to preserve “Western” heritage.

    Feel free to interpret the scare quotes around “Western” however you like.

    • weeklysift  On November 17, 2021 at 6:42 am

      I know. Back when I was looking for a college, I remember being charmed by the vision of the Great Books Program at St. John’s. I still think it could be a wonderful education, if some allowance gets made for the implication that all the world’s great ideas came from White males.

  • Bill Camarda  On November 15, 2021 at 8:28 pm

    I don’t buy that there’s a massive commitment amongst the University of Austin’s promoters — much less their funders and the parents of their potential students — to true free inquiry. Any more than I think millions of conservative Americans are deeply principled constitutional originalists or free speech purists. I suspect most of this institution’s stakeholders will have outcomes in mind that’ll only be popular if couched in the noble language of free inquiry.

    But maybe I’m wrong. So here’s my testable prediction: The University of Austin’s “Forbidden Courses” and faculty recruitment will veer rapidly towards prominent discussion of “Why Blacks are unfixably inferior.” Because, whatever Bari Weiss or Glenn Loury might desire, *that’s* the “forbidden topic” many of its stakeholders will be searching for and paying for.

    If that happens, they’ll face the same question mainstream institutions (and right-wing social media startups) always encounter: what to do? Is there speech that taints them so badly they can’t afford to host it? Or isn’t there?

  • Thomas Paine  On November 16, 2021 at 2:37 am

    This is going to be as much of a real “university” as PragerU is, which is to say, of course, it’s going to be nothing but another right-wing propaganda mill. And a target-rich environment for grifters of academia like Gordon Gee, a guy who never met an expense account he couldn’t max out.

    Pray tell, what has Bari Weiss ever done that remotely suggests she’s qualified to be included in the creation of a real university? But the creation of an apartheid-apologist, Islamophobist one – well, that’s right up her alley.

    This farce really should be called Snowflake U. It’s a place where the children of the entitled can go to spew their toxic, repugnant orthodoxy as they ape their natural mascot Tucker Carlson (a fourth-rate trustafarian who could only manage third-rate private schools), safely protected from criticism and well on the way to the right-wing make-work ecosystem that awaits their ‘graduation’.

  • Kit  On November 16, 2021 at 6:51 am

    I dug into those Heterodox Academy figures. Over one third of women were hesitant to express their views on the recent election. Snowflakes is an acceptable term for them, at least around these parts. When it came to atheists and agnostics, 40% were hesitant to express their views on religion. More snowflakes! In the South, 30% of those not identifying as straight were hesitant to express their views on sexuality. Snowflakes wherever we look, it would seem.

    The other interesting aspect that jumped out was in comparing the 2019 results to those of 2020. The fear of suffering consequences from authority, in the form of a professor or the university itself, was down significantly. On the other hand, fear of one’s fellow students remains high and constant.

  • butimbeautiful  On November 17, 2021 at 1:20 am

    I’m not sure. I have a lot of sympathy for academics and others who can’t argue a case without worrying about being sacked for their opinions. If you have a point of view, you should be able to stick up for it in debate. If you believe that people are whatever they say they are…vampires, the opposite gender, psychic etc…then go ahead and argue on the basis of your evidence, and let others argue back. Not allowing people to speak does no good for any cause. In society it’s good manners not to offend, but universities are engaged in the search for truth. On the other hand, maybe as you say this will just be an institution where racist, sexist etc people get to congratulate each other.

    • weeklysift  On November 17, 2021 at 6:58 am

      I think there’s a difference between what a university allows and what it promotes. If a faculty member does honest research into, say, the biological roots of race or gender, and finds unpopular answers, then the university ought to stand by them. But I don’t think the university has any obligation to feature them in some distinguished lecture series.

      My impression of most cancel culture controversies isn’t so much that people are being fired for their views (though I’m sure that happens in both directions, liberal as well as conservative), but that they feel slighted or disrespected.

      Bari Weiss, for example, left the NYT in a huff, but if you read her resignation letter, her only personal complaint was that she had become unpopular among the staff, not that she couldn’t get her work published, or that she had been told to change her tune or get out.

      • LdeG  On November 18, 2021 at 12:49 pm

        I just reread her resignation letter, and perhaps here “person” complaint is the harassment she experienced, but the thrust of the letter is no – it is “Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else” which is what I am finding in the intellectual circles I am not tenuously attached to, including the UUA. I have found that when I question any statement. I am hushed (sometimes loudly hushed) – and that includes questioning the idea that one shouldn’t question statements – originally by people who in an oppressed group, but in the last few years, statements, not just of opinion or analysis, but of fact – all are taken as evidence that one is being defensive and is motivated solely by defensiveness of of one’s racism, transphobia, lack of sympathy for the poor, or at best, utter ignorance and venality.

  • Wade Scholine  On November 18, 2021 at 11:00 am

    I’m reminded of the item from the other week, about “what is meant by freedom anyway?” I think we have another case of people mistaking absence of constraint for freedom.

    A “free debate” has to exclude voices that want to keep the debate from happening. Unfortunately there is no X-ray machine that can look into another person and see that they are acting in bad faith, so there’s no way to write a policy that can exclude bad-faith talkers without somebody having to make a judgement that said talker has no business opening their mouth in the free debate. It is, in other words, a problem that is beyond the capacity of any bureaucracy to solve.

    Historically, bad-faith talkers only shut up when they’re faced with a problem they can’t bullshit their way out of: often this winds up happening on a battlefield. It’s supposed to be possible in courtrooms and polling places, but the bad-faith talkers have succeeded in breaking those, by all appearances.


  • By Word and Deed | The Weekly Sift on November 15, 2021 at 12:23 pm

    […] This week’s featured posts is “Does America Need an Anti-Cancel Culture University?“ […]

  • By Tuesday: Hili dialogue – Why Evolution Is True on November 16, 2021 at 7:30 am

    […] at The Weekly Sift, Doug Muder asks the question “Does America Need an Anti-Cancel-Culture University?” He is of course referring to the newly created University of Austin, a venue and refuge for […]

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