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American education needs a revolution A new university will end the climate of fear

A new Renaissance has begun (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


November 11, 2021   5 mins

Perhaps I was naĂŻve, but when Brandeis University offered me an honorary degree in 2014, I accepted it in good faith. Brandeis’s motto, after all, is “Truth, even unto its innermost parts”. Yet what followed proved the very opposite: that, at Brandeis, the innermost parts of truth don’t count.

After a bit of encouragement from my usual critics, the Council of Islamic Relations, followed by a petition from a motley array of faculty members, Brandeis rescinded their offer. Frederick Lawrence, who was then the university’s president, rang me just hours before the university issued a public statement.

At the time, I dismissed it as a one-off incident; an anomaly that could simply be brushed off. How wrong I was. That same year, a group of Muslim students tried to cancel my study group on the political theory of Islam at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, part of the Kennedy School. First, they complained to the university’s administration. When that didn’t work, they sent a letter to the funders of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. Then they suggested that I should install an imam in my class to counter my arguments. Unlike at Brandeis, the university authorities didn’t capitulate.

In both incidents, the challenge to academic freedom and free speech was posed by Islamists. But that didn’t disturb me: as an apostate who has spent many years criticising them, and received death threats in return, I was used to their antipathy.

Fast forward to 2021, however, and it seems I was wrong to dismiss this censorious attitude as an Islamist impulse. Hardly a week goes by without reports of a professor being protested, disciplined, and sometimes fired for violating the new and stringent norms of academic discourse. We read of scholars such as Kathleen Stock being driven to resign from their positions after constant hounding and threats. We read of a lecturer being no-platformed for daring to suggest that evaluations should be based on academic merit. We read of a Native American student being forced to apologise by a Yale University diversity tsar for making a harmless joke in an email.

And that’s just in the past month. We have reached a point where grace and forgiveness are near extinct on American campuses; where reputations built over decades can be destroyed in a week. Some people still describe the phenomenon as “political correctness”. But this is much more like a religious movement. It’s hardly surprising that the Islamists’ opportunity to piggyback on existing illiberal and intolerant forces is now even greater.

Social justice, critical race theory, diversity, equality and inclusion — such terms are difficult to object to when taken at face value. And as a consequence, they have grown and spread like weeds in almost every institution. By the time we recognised the deeply illiberal notions that lurked behind these bland phrases, it was too late; they had already taken over whole departments, embedding their extensive roots into the fabric of academic institutions.

I didn’t see this coming. Seven years ago, I considered those who sounded the alarm to be engaged in histrionics. But today it is impossible to deny that the alarmists were right.

After the Brandeis cancellation, I published my intended remarks, stating that “we need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking, where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged”. At the time, I was hopeful. Yet every passing year, free discourse increasingly became the exception in academic settings.

And while countless academics have been crucified for daring to speak out, it is ultimately their students who have suffered most in this tragedy. Our education system is failing them: rather than being a place of learning, universities have transformed into a place of fear. They demand safe spaces and a life free from all forms of aggressions: micro and macro. They graduate ill-prepared for the future, no longer equipped with the critical skills needed to thrive in a society where safe spaces, trigger warnings and preferred pronouns are not the norm. Their lives as students have been stripped of opportunities to overcome challenges and adversity, to develop inner-strength and confidence.

Faced with such a toxic climate, riddled with the weeds of intolerance, one might think the solution is to simply give up. But to do so is not only cowardly; it ignores the fact that there is cause for optimism in the future. There are seedlings sprouting that point to renewal.

This is partly because America’s markets remain strong and reactive, bringing supply to wherever there is demand. The American market is hungry for a new approach to education. Demand is high for a university that delivers on academic freedom, merit-based recruitment of students, and is a safe space for people to learn and exchange ideas, not imagined injuries. And the supply is coming.

This week, I joined an intellectually diverse and curious group of professors and scholars in launching the University of Austin (UATX). It is an institution that stands, above all, for the pursuit of truth. It will offer a rigorous, liberal education from leading experts in their fields; a place that will teach students how to think, not what to think; a place where they will be intellectually challenged and, at times, made to feel uncomfortable.

Professors will be able to explore ideas and topics that are taboo elsewhere, without threats to their reputation, livelihoods or well-being. Unlike nearly a fifth of universities, we will not require statements of commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. All we are looking for is a commitment to learning. And that doesn’t seem to be in short supply: within 12 hours of announcing the University of Austin, more than 900 academics submitted inquiries seeking a position.

Their students, once applications open, will be accepted on the basis of merit, based on an admissions exam. The university states: “UATX will not arbitrarily factor in race, gender, class or any other form of identity into its decisions. UATX stands firmly against that sort of discrimination in admissions.” Of course, none of this matters if spaces are only reserved for a wealthy elite. So we are working on a financial model that will help lower tuition costs and provide scholarships or bursaries, providing an equal opportunity for students, regardless of their financial background.

Starting a new university will no doubt be challenging, but the truth is that this is only the beginning — the first of many new educational institutions. American parents all over the country are in revolt against the increasingly divisive educational opportunities available to their children (witness the results of the Virginian gubernatorial elections). In the coming decade, it is not inconceivable that the market will deliver new grade-school opportunities for students, as well as other new institutions of higher education.

There are those who fear that the political extremes of the Left and Right may one day destroy the republic. But the only way to destroy America is to destroy our market system. As long as individuals have choice and the market self-corrects, we will continue to thrive. Where there is demand — and the result in Virginia prove there is demand — the supply will follow.

This is what the University of Austin symbolises: a new choice for all those disillusioned with the established institutions. For too long we have looked on as universities have been disfigured, blissfully unaware that all we needed to do was create our own. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new Renaissance.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an UnHerd columnist. She is also the Founder of the AHA Foundation, and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her Substack is called Restoration.

Ayaan

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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

The author says: “They graduate ill-prepared for the future, no longer equipped with the critical skills needed to thrive in a society where safe spaces, trigger warnings and preferred pronouns are not the norm.” Sadly they seem to be successfully importing these absurdities into society.
Let us indeed hope the University of Austin thrives and does not succumb to the illiberal climate that envelops most Universities today.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

There are so many difficulties to be overcome establishing a new university but thankfully the founders of UATX were not deterred. I wish them all the luck in the world.
I recently read a book (‘Guilty Admissions’ by Nicole LaPorte) about the 2019 college admissions scandal where wealthy parents bribed university coaches and other officials to obtain entry for their kids into elite colleges. The author was a bit too willing to give the parents the benefit of the doubt, imo, but she did place the actions of the parents in context.
Most of these parents were successful individuals in LA, many connected to the movie industry. They wanted their kids to have the best education and competition started at pre-school level for entry into the most elite kindergartens and continued through high school. At every step, parents were expected to donate to the school and much prestige was attached to those donations. The end goal was entry to an ivy league college.
But nowadays these privileged kids face a problem. The top colleges already have a huge volume of applications from similarly privileged, overachieving white and asian kids and, in true woke fashion, the colleges are offering preferences to non-asian minority kids. So it seems the diversity industry is now working even against the kids of rich, typically very liberal, parents.
My question is whether there will be a backlash by these people against elite universities? Those universities still need rich kids to pay full tuition which funds scholarships. But what if these privileged families come to believe the game is now rigged against them and start sending their kids elsewhere?
We read again and again that the elites are happy to advance woke policies secure in the knowledge the resulting social problems will not affect them. But what if that’s not true in higher education anymore? Are the elites finally paying a price for their faux wokeness?

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Spot on mate! May I add the following: to your first point, Operation Varsity Blues–taking down the parents (but not the unis)–was a complete scam to the extent that the legal theory of the case was that the unis were victims. They were not victims, they were co-conspirators! A bit like CASABLANCA–I’m sure the unis were shocked, shocked that people would try to game the system, even with money (how dĂ©classĂ©) to get their kids in.
Those universities still need rich kids to pay full tuition which funds scholarships.
Maybe. But as long as the unis have Chinese students who will pay full tuition, its possible that the rich kids are replaced, to a degree, and the middle class will simply pay more. This is what has happened at state universities, and let me inform our European readers of the unique, truly insane admission/tuition process.
Suppose State uni charges “in-state” students $25K in tuition, they charge “out of state” students $50K. In-state means the student lives in the state before admission–usually but not always–and the unis are reluctant to give a “tuition break” to those with summer homes in a particular state, even though they pay taxes. Out of state students are people from other states and foreign students.
This means that a student from the neighbouring state pays the same as a Chinese student. It also, in a sense, makes foreign and out of state students more desirable since they generate more revenue for the uni. Illegal immigrants–not the children of illegal immigrants, but illegal immigrants themselves–usually pay in-state tuition. One of many examples where illegal immigrants have more rights than American citizens.
Finally, with respect to the massive numbers of Chinese students, they fall into two categories: enemy agents and future enemy agents. Think I’m kidding? Military and industrial espionage is massive by the Chinese in the US and likely the world, and war is coming. The Chinese have built mock-ups of US aircraft carriers for target practice. Which will come first, the invasion of Taiwan or Hong Kong?

pdrodolf
pdrodolf
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

To your last question, Hong Kong doesn’t require invasion. It will be Taiwan, sooner than later I would guess based on the utter helplessness of the current administration in the US.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

“Finally, with respect to the massive numbers of Chinese students, they fall into two categories: enemy agents and future enemy agents.”
Completely agreed.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“UATX stands firmly against that sort of discrimination in admissions.” Of course, none of this matters if spaces are only reserved for a wealthy elite.”

Wrong. The wealthy elite will move out into the power structures – they are the ones you need to De-Program, and educate properly, most of all. Getting some Privates in the army agreeing is not nearly as useful as getting the Generals to agree.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

I didn’t see this coming.
I did. I agree with AHA and applaud her efforts with the University of Austin. Well done!
AHA mentions but does not emphasize that this new insanity has all the trappings of a religious movement, and that has implications for how the war–and it is a war–is fought. Try telling a born-again Christian that Jesus isn’t coming back, doesn’t love him, and isn’t going to save him. Try telling the Hasidim that the books by which they live their lives are utter rubbish, and that god doesn’t exist.
Good luck to the University of Austin but it will take much, much more to defeat these religious fanatics.

Fennie Strange
Fennie Strange
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I don’t think the purpose of the University of Austin is to defeat religious fanatics, is it? It’s to encourage rational debate and offer a “rigorous, liberal education”.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

You all need to get over this stupid ‘Religion’ anology – or just debase the word Religion to mean everything a person takes interest in. Sports fans are religious, along with vegans and porn-addicted…..

It is political/philosophical fixation, like Fas*ists, Communists, and so on; it is about power. I know the modern thinker hates Christianity – but you do not have to equal everything you dislike to it.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Everyone who studied Thin Edge of the Wedge 101 at Common Sense U. saw this coming.

Colin Black
Colin Black
2 years ago

I first caught a whiff of the minefields ahead in 1993 when, as a fellowship holder at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, I noted that when a fellow student asked the distinguished educational philosopher D. C. Phillips if we could look at the then new expression “political correctness”, he quickly shut down the topic. He said he did not know anything about it, but my own feeling was that we were asking him to go into dangerous territory. Intellectual cancers take a long time to metastasise but when they do we certainly know it. I wish the University of Austin all success.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Colin Black

Well Columbia University was the gateway to this all – 1934, and again 1980 the Frankfurt School migrated there. Did they not teach you about this at all?

“In 1934, the Frankfurt School was reborn at Columbia University. Its members began to exert their ideas on American culture. It was at Columbia University that the school honed the tool it would use to destroy Western culture: the printed word.
The school published a lot of popular material. The first of these was Critical Theory.
Critical Theory is a play on semantics. The theory was simple: criticize every pillar of Western culture—family, democracy, common law, freedom of speech, and others. The hope was that these pillars would crumble under the pressure.”

“After Hitler came to power, the Frankfurt intellectuals came to the United States. Ironically, Adorno, the hater of popular culture, settled in Los Angeles. Marcuse ended up in NYC, where the work of the Frankfurt School was continued on a formal basis at Columbia University.”

John Hicks
John Hicks
2 years ago

Hope you can impart some of your own inspiring intellectual and moral courage to your students at the University of Austin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Best wishes that you try.

Philip May
Philip May
2 years ago

The author is in excellent company. Niall Ferguson is on board as well. Best of luck.

Jane Morris-Jones
Jane Morris-Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip May

Since they are married to each other, one hopes they do indeed find each other excellent company


Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip May

He’s very impressive. Changed his mind on Brexit and was brave enough to admit it. Good man.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago

I worked in an internationally recognised university for some 40 years. It was slow to adopt all the mechanisms of identity politics; but my heart sank when, last year, it advertised for its first diversity officer. I was glad I had retired in 2015.
So I hope that the University of Austin will keep administrators and regulatory positions at the minimum necessary for the proper academic functioning of the university. Such functions used to be administered by academics. The rot started to set in with the arrival of people who were not academics, but bureaucrats reared on management-speak and social-justice aspirations. Countless academics have been infected with the same poison; but presumably that can be taken care of by the university’s recruitment procedures.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago

The lack of free-market in UK education is a barrier to such initiatives here.
Anyone see any light at the end of the UK tunnel?

Keith Johnson
Keith Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

As a school governor, I constantly push back against ideas of diversity training and importing Critical Race Theory into British education. I get roundly condemned for my efforts by some, but we need more people to stand strong against the tide of woke indoctrination that is rising in our academic institutions. Ayaan is correct by saying we need to teach students how to think, not what to think.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

My concern is what happens after these students graduate from this new university. No woke corporation, or “approved business entity” will dare hire one of their graduates?

Fennie Strange
Fennie Strange
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

I fear you may be right, and what will happen if the woke brigade demand the banks and the big tech companies withdraw support from such a “hate-fillled” institution?

David George
David George
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

I suspect they’ll have no desire to work for the woke corporations.
Let’s hope they don’t have to, that there are businesses and institutions that don’t require ideological submission.

Keith Johnson
Keith Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  David George

Many of the graduates may be thus motivated to start their own enterprises. They will find plenty of clients among the woke-weary masses.

Christina Dalcher
Christina Dalcher
2 years ago

Very happy to hear about UATX, and hope it’s a success.
Now, can we please do the same thing with the publishing industry?

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

I suspect the university will be completely oversubscribed – and hopefully encourage more to follow suit.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Too little too late I fear.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

“By the time we recognised the deeply illiberal notions that lurked behind these bland phrases, it was too late; they had already taken over whole departments, embedding their extensive roots into the fabric of academic institutions.”
Not really fit to be an educational establishment then

Last edited 2 years ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago

I thank Ms Ali here for not calling the woke “liberal” but highlighting their illiberal nature.
In fact there’s a great historical equivalent to the woke – that’s the “intelligentsia”. The parallels are surprising. These “intelligents” are academics, journalists, teachers etc in Russia who think they know better than the plebs. They’re mostly of a liberal background. In the case of Russia, they end up not being able to stop the Bolsheviks from their revolution in the end:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/violent-protest-and-the-intelligentsia-11591400422

Last edited 2 years ago by Emre Emre
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

I had heard of the coming uni. We can wish it well with great success. Let UTAX be a model for the future.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

“Equity” (sic)

Rob Jones
Rob Jones
2 years ago

I know non of you, but I love you all! I’m a committed atheist, but “God Bless”.