American education needs a revolution

UnHerd, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali,  11/11/2021

Perhaps I was naïve, 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critics, the Council of Islamic Relations, followed by a petition from a motley array of faculty members, Brandeis rescinded their offer.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.

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And that’s just in the past month. We have reached a point where grace and forgiveness are 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.

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