Universalizing the life of the mind
Niall Ferguson on free thought, the role of higher education, and his new project: the University of Austin
This is a second (unplanned) part to my first Pull Request interview with Niall Ferguson. What started as quick initial call for further commentary on Niall’s latest news turned into an entire disquisition on the role of higher education in history and American elite politics. As with the first interview, I’ve edited essentially nothing as it was all too good to cut.
Here we go.
I like the wonderfully unpacked room.
Oh God. Yeah. I bought a little writing cottage out in the high desert outside of the Reno/Tahoe area, and everything's still packed and has been for a month.
I've been following your peregrinations on Twitter. It's kind of exhausting. I like people whose lives look more insane than mine because it just makes me feel better. So carry on.
I'm sure yours is a lot more insane than mine, Niall. I mean, who just breaks out a university, just like that?
Yeah. I was bored. What else was I going to do?
So tell me about the university. To quote what I quoted in your bio last interview, the university is dedicated to “the fearless pursuit of truth,” and that you want to revitalize universities that have ossified into havens for liberal intolerance, per your Bloomberg piece. Why is creating a university the solution? My techie friends would say we have to do away with what is now a frayed and quaint institution.
Well, I think there's a general recognition that something's not right. The economics seem completely weird, because nothing has gone up more in price in the United States than tuition at colleges. If you just look at public colleges, a 1400% increase since 1980. There's more student loan debt than credit card debt in the U.S today. So there's an economic problem, which does suggest a lack of competition. That would be part one.
Part two, if you do any surveys of student sentiment or the sentiment of professors, you see there's something wrong there too. Heterodox Academy, they regularly do a campus expression survey and in the most recent one, 62% of students said that the climate on their campus prevented them from saying things they believe. And there's plenty of other evidence for this. It's also an even more disturbing evidence of a culture of denunciation and informing, which, as I mentioned in that Bloomberg opinion piece, reminds me of the way people used to behave in the Soviet Union or Mao's China.
The Challey Institute did a really good survey of people in four year programs. And this was the number that really leapt out at me: 85% of self-described liberal students would report a professor to their university administration if the professor said something they found offensive and 76% would do it to a fellow student. Now that's definitely unhealthy. And if you then turn to the morale of faculty, there is ample evidence... Eric Kaufmann's been gathering this for some time, that academics feel unable to speak freely, especially but not only conservative academics.
So I think it's pretty clear that something's not right. This is not academic life as I knew it when I was an undergraduate in Oxford in the 1980s. However, and I said this to Peter Thiel the other day, I think just throwing up our hands and saying ‘a plague on all their houses’ isn't really a solution because we need universities. They perform a very important function and they've been doing it for a thousand years in the Western world, and that function is knowledge transfer between the generations. I don't believe it can be done online. I don't believe people can just educate themselves on the internet.
I think that we are evolved to learn in relatively close proximity to one another. That's why campuses work as places. We need a campus that has real freedom of thought and speech. They don't seem to exist. So I've come to the conclusion, and others shared my view that we need to create one, to model academic freedom and to attract the kind of students that I, or you I suspect, or Peter would.
I mean, where would we go now? I'd get canceled on week two if I was at Yale. I wouldn't know where you could do what I did at Oxford with Andrew Sullivan, what Peter did at Stanford … you would really not be able to do it now. And this, I think, is the critical argument for creating a new university: Where do we want our kids to go? I've got a nine year old, I've got a four year old. And I look around this wasteland of unfree, illiberal academia, and I think, well, there has to be something better for them than this.
Nothing has surprised me more, nothing in the last 30 years, than to discover that people can inform on their colleagues; they can participate in show trials; they can have people canceled in a regime that is apparently free and democratic. We voluntarily have started to behave as if we're in a totalitarian state on many, many American campuses.
There's no question there. I guess where I do have a question is, you're sort of positing that kids have to go to university to begin with, right? You have the historical perspective more than most: as you rightly point out in your Bloomberg story, we shouldn't have this nostalgia for the university system because it was heavily religious or entirely something else in the past.
As you also wrote, much of the intellectual heavy lifting of the Enlightenment actually happened outside of the university. In fact, much of intellectual activity, whether in science or the humanities, has often happened outside of the universities. What's wrong with imagining a future where—you mentioned Peter Thiel—somebody like Thiel funds companies or people outside of the conventional university track. Thus, people with ambition and intellect could still apply those to the world, but outside of the conventional four-year college process?
I struggle to imagine Peter having the career he's had without at least academic institutions at the formative stage. Same with Mark Zuckerberg. The truth is that Facebook needs Harvard to come into existence. I think if we conclude that we don't need these institutions and that our smart kids will just figure it out in isolation or in a Facebook group or some more sophisticated social network, we'll be wrong.
And this is why. What you said is true: historically, a really significant proportion of innovation happened outside universities, but not all of it. The Enlightenment without Kant at Königsberg would've been a different thing. Adam Smith certainly needed his university positions. The alternative in those days was you had to crank it out as a private tutor. Newton needed Cambridge, just as John Maynard Keynes did. I think that universities provide a particularly important role, which is to allow highly cerebral people to opt out of the market, to be liberated from the daily grind, so that they can do their thinking and dare to think. Remember, that was Kant's great Maxim for the Enlightenment: sapere aude, dare to think, but you need academic freedom and the security of a professorship to do that daring thinking.
And the other thing that's really key here is that in a university that's working well, there isn't just instruction and lecture halls. There's also social interaction where the generations share not only formal knowledge, but the kind of wisdom that can best be communicated well over a glass of Sherry. It's very odd that that social piece of university life has become almost impossible.
Amy Chua has been subjected to a sustained campaign of harassment by the bureaucracy at Yale for—shock! horror!—having undergraduates enter her home or graduate students enter her home. So I think this is why universities have a certain magical function, and that's why they've persisted. Remember the oldest universities … Bologna, Oxford … they're a millennium old and they've survived a whole succession of technological changes, including the advent of printing as well as more recent technological changes. The business model hasn't changed that much at Oxford: it's still older people, communicating ideas, often in quite an intimate setting.
The old Oxford tutorial is a one-on-one thing in a study in some ancient building. That stuff matters. It's been incredibly important to my development. I could not have done the kind of things I've done in later life if I hadn't had three years of uninhibited brainstorming at Oxford, and it then continued when I was a graduate student with no downside risk to saying stupid things. And I certainly said and did a quite remarkable number of stupid things when I was a young man at Oxford.
So I don't think we can do without these things. In any case, whatever we do, they're going to carry on doing what they do. It's not like Harvard or Yale are threatened with imminent insolvency. Those franchises are incredibly strong and elite formation happens there. Whether we like it or not, the ambitious people go to Harvard, go to Yale, go to Stanford, and then they fan out into the commanding heights of U.S. or indeed the world economy and politics.
If they've spent four years being subjected to woke indoctrination, there are two possibilities. One, they'll believe some of this profoundly illiberal stuff. More likely they'll learn to pretend to believe it and live the kind of lying life that was such a central pathology of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the period after the war. And I hate the fact, I really hate the fact that people are behaving on major campuses like they live under an authoritarian regime.
Nothing has surprised me more, nothing in the last 30 years, than to discover that people can inform on their colleagues; they can participate in show trials; they can have people canceled in a regime that is apparently free and democratic. We voluntarily have started to behave as if we're in a totalitarian state on many, many American campuses. Everybody knows this, though not many people are willing to say it out loud. They'll tell you privately, “Well, of course, I agree with you, but I have to keep my head below the parapet.” Remember, the dominant force in academic life is cowardice and risk aversion.
So it's very difficult to get people to say out loud, “This is terrible. We need to stop this.”
I want to ask you about the reaction from other academics, but before that, I wanted to address some of things you mentioned.