Have the University of Austin Founders Been in a Classroom Lately?Roundup
tags: higher education, University of Austin
Aaron R. Hanlon is an associate professor of English at Colby College and director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program.
Earlier this week, a varied but like-minded group of public intellectuals and entrepreneurs announced the founding of a new university, one they consider wholly unique. Located in Texas’s booming capital—because, a FAQ tells us, “If it’s good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it’s good enough for us”—the University of Austin should not be confused with the University of Texas at Austin (though it surely will be, not least by Google). UATX, as its founders hope we’ll call it, is fashioned as a free-thinking start-up meant to disrupt the status quo of hidebound, ideologically rigid higher education. The closer one looks at UATX’s self-important literature, however, the clearer it becomes that its founders aren’t faithfully representing what actually occurs in university classrooms like mine.
So what makes UATX different? They’re glad you asked. Three things: a “commitment to freedom of inquiry,” a “new financial model,” and an “innovative curriculum.” “Our students and faculty will confront the most vexing questions of human life and civil society,” their site declares. “We will create a community of conversation grounded in intellectual humility that respects the dignity of each individual and cultivates a passion for truth.” We’re told that in UATX’s eventual in-person classroom, “every opinion will be heard” and “every opinion must be supported by evidence.”
The university also proposes to “lower tuition by avoiding costly administrative excess and overreach”: “Student affairs, athletics, and extraneous services will be outsourced or streamlined whenever possible to keep costs down.” Its academic curriculum, meanwhile, will distinguish itself through “immersive learning experiences” that bring students outside the traditional classroom, through “internships and competency-based coursework” and “research centers, which will be more akin to interdisciplinary think tanks than traditional ‘departments.’”
To those of us who work at colleges and universities, it’s clear that much of what’s meant to distinguish UATX is instead commonplace. Internships, externships, and out-of-classroom “immersive learning experiences” are already well integrated into curricula at liberal arts colleges, research universities, and community colleges. We already have interdisciplinary research centers and institutes—like the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which employs Niall Ferguson. In fact, if you type “university center for the” into a search bar and hit enter you’ll see how ubiquitous these are. Search for “entrepreneurship” or “leadership” degree programs while you’re at it and, behold, a staggering number of choices. It’s also not clear what funding model would make UATX more financially, intellectually, and politically independent than any other university, given potential conflicts of interest arising from any investment of the magnitude required to reach the desired $250 million base the founders identify as necessary to stand up a four-year university.
What, then, truly distinguishes UATX from what’s already on offer? It’s the claim that our higher education institutions are so illiberal that they’re not up to the task of educating democratic citizens. As Kanelos puts it, “So much is broken in America. But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all.” That’s a bold claim, as well as a conventional one. For decades, culture warriors have obsessed over provocative stories—often blown hilariously out of proportion—from a narrow slice of mostly elite colleges. If you read the headlines but don’t have regular business on a college campus or in a college classroom, it’s easy to get the impression that higher education is “fractured”—by which, Kanelos makes clear later, he means that groupthink prevails and dissent is punished. But let’s look beyond the headlines.
It’s true that in most college classes you won’t find an emphasis on lively debate over divisive issues, because that’s largely not what class time is for. The UATX founders say they’ll hear every opinion, and every opinion must be supported by evidence, but not all opinions have evidentiary support. Knowledge comes first in the classroom. Staking out an opinion in search of evidence has the process exactly backward. Professors spend most of our class time teaching and leading discussions over technical matters, building knowledge from particulars. It’s easy to see this in the natural sciences, computer science, and mathematics—not because these fields entertain no value questions or moral controversies but because you have 75 minutes on a Tuesday to introduce shell commands in Python or the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. But social science and humanities course material is also technical. Forget arguing over “deeper meaning,” just try scanning Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, covering the history of the heroic couplet, and explaining Pope’s classical references in 75 minutes just to help students looking at this kind of writing for the first time develop a solid paraphrase of what’s going on. That’s a normal class for me. Class discussions can be lively, even contentious, but proceed from technical instruction, not political commitments.
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