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Pursue truth or fight cancel culture? The University of Austin must choose.

<h5>Several buildings in Austin, the future home of UATX.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>“The skyline and Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas” by Michael Barera / <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Austin_August_2019_19_(skyline_and_Lady_Bird_Lake).jpg" target="_self">CC-SA 4.0</a></h6>
Several buildings in Austin, the future home of UATX. 
“The skyline and Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas” by Michael Barera / CC-SA 4.0

A group of anti-cancel culture public intellectuals, including former New York Times Opinion writer Bari Weiss and University classics professor Joshua Katz, recently announced their plans to start a new university — The University of Austin (UATX). The news seemed designed to generate Twitter outrage. But it’s worth spending some time analyzing the college they’re planning to create. While the idea isn’t as laughable as it might initially seem, the college’s single-minded focus on combating cancel culture is blinding it to the real trade-offs that come with devoting a college to nothing but discourse.

Making fun of the new venture is easy. Its FAQ has some lines that elicit eyerolls (“Why Austin? If it’s good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it’s good enough for us”), and some of its advisors seem to be more interested in waging partisan battles than actually making a point about academic freedom. But at the same time, elite higher education does struggle with stasis, and UATX has some genuinely good ideas. A universal, all-encompassing two-year core curriculum is innovative. Spending the next two years on a mix of research, internships, and experiential learning in a think-tank environment is fascinating. Cutting back on bureaucratic bloat would be a positive trend.

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Where UATX stumbles is its raison d’etre: cancel culture. Its battle against cancel culture in academia is ultimately the least interesting part of the college. Dorian Abbot’s disinvitation from MIT was legitimately outrageous. But there are plenty of universities — including the University of Chicago, where Abbot works, and Princeton, where he ultimately spoke — that genuinely do support academic freedom. It’s not clear what more UATX would add in this space.

To the founders, the answer seems to lie in what its plans are for students. UATX suggests that the real problem in education is that pursuit of truth among students has sagged and needs to be reinvigorated, that students these days don’t engage with hard ideas or participate in hard enough debates, thus never questioning their preconceptions. There’s a long philosophical tradition that puts the constant reexamination and debate of contentious issues at the heart of ensuring our beliefs are true. UATX’s founders would like us to, like 21st century incarnations of Descartes, overturn our apple baskets of ideas and methodically examine each apple. I agree that this is not happening enough, even at universities with a strong tradition of academic freedom, like Princeton.

Where I disagree is the cause. The founders would like to suggest that this is just an extension of cancel culture in academia — that if we were less scared of societal ostracism, we would actually engage with ideas more thoroughly. This seems to me to be stretching the concept a little too far. No one would claim you could get cancelled for preferring capitalism over socialism or proposing deregulation. Yet we don’t have large debates about economic issues on campus any more than we have them about social issues. If all UATX’s founders want to accomplish is destigmatizing certain right-wing opinions, they’ll find very little will change in terms of the quality of classroom debate, though the tables may be turned, especially if the college attracts more conservative students.

The real causes of rhetorical stasis are far less fun to talk about. Discussion-based classes are too short. How close can you get to the truth (apparently UATX’s cornerstone) in a 50 minute precept or even a three hour seminar? It takes time to get through the formalities of the class, establish common definitions, and then work your way through a text. So much has to be discussed in a single class period that we often rush through — even if we make enough time to analyze deeply, we very rarely devote enough time to an idea to truly take a debate to its conclusion. If UATX really wants to get to the pure truth through discussion, we’re going to have to give the discussion the same amount of time as Plato or Cicero did: full days devoted to a single idea.

Another problem: students have different interests. If you take a complex text, not everyone will want to engage in a spirited debate on the same topic. Even if it does happen, it’s never going to be a “fair fight” the way some of UATX’s conservative advisors would want it to be, simply because it’s rare to have a class split 50/50 on ideological leanings. 

There are solutions to this problem — but UATX disavows all of them. The biggest one is affirmative action. The class could be selected specifically to maximize ideological and experiential diversity, selecting students likely to disagree with each other vociferously. One of the most probing courses I’ve taken at Princeton has been FRS 137: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Conservatism. That class only worked because the professor specifically chose students for their ideological leanings. Yet UATX specifically disavows affirmative action of all types — pandering to a conservative ideological belief rather than truly following its professed mission.

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UATX could also develop a culture where students are expected to articulate positions they don’t believe for the sake of truth-seeking. Yet there’s no evidence that’s in the cards. “Our classrooms will be places where 1) every opinion will be heard and 2) every opinion must be supported by evidence,” one FAQ declares. These are the rules of a high school debate tournament, not an academic setting. Once again, it seems like UATX is placing the right of conservative students to express their opinion over a genuine emphasis on truth seeking.

Perhaps we’re being a little unfair to UATX. After all, the incoming President comes straight from St. John’s College in Annapolis, a college that really does take truth-seeking to its extreme, spending four years discussing the Western canon. But St. John’s, highly respected as it may be, is an institution with a very niche audience. The founders of UATX seem to have a much more expansive vision. Will they be willing to sacrifice full fields so that students can spend full days fixated on a single word or idea? That may be more than some of them bargained for.

UATX’s core task is going to be to prove that it’s more than a right-wing grievance machine. How UATX’s founders manage their undergraduate curriculum will be a key test. Perhaps they will embrace a niche role as a more broad-based version of St. John’s. Perhaps they’ll settle for academic freedom for the professors and run classes more traditionally. But if UATX classrooms simply create a conservative ideological bubble rather than a liberal one or become a dysfunctional cesspool of ungrounded debate, truth will be as lost there as it is anywhere else.

Rohit Narayanan is a sophomore electrical engineering major from McLean, Virginia. He can be reached at rohitan@princeton.edu

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