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Higher Ed Needs a Reboot
But being “anti-woke” won’t be sufficient
What does education look like?
Education looks like people standing at the edge of a precipice in eastern Washington, looking out over a harsh and unforgiving landscape, and considering: What forces made this? They discuss what they think might be true given both what they can see, and what information they brought with them to the precipice. They do not google the answer.
Education looks like a three-hour lecture period in which questions are posed by the professor, and the students coalesce in small groups to discuss possible answers before coming back together as a class. Students move around, forming fission-fusion groups, questions are posed that are not immediately answered, and they are reframed and refined as new information comes in.
Education looks like three-day field research projects in the Amazon—on topics ranging from ant foraging strategies to fern biodiversity to the calls of howler monkeys—which, upon completion, are to be presented to the class. But a rainstorm on the corrugated metal roof is so loud that the presentations cannot happen. Education looks like wandering off into the steamy jungle night, armed with curiosity and caution, headlamps and rubber boots.
Education looks like a lot of things, but too often, institutions of education—both higher ed and K-12—are failing to educate. The problems with the modern academy are many. Virtual space is replacing real space. Many faculty inflict information dumps on their students, inspiring compliance rather than independent thought. Perverse incentives have corrupted not only the way we do science but also the kinds of questions that get asked. Universities have been captured by malevolent forces.
What follows is a discussion of many of these problems, followed by the hint of a new initiative that stands a chance of resolving them.
Modern Higher Education
The standard modern educational model—a sage on the stage, with students in rows taking notes—works for some disciplines, sometimes. But it is not the best model for all disciplines, and it may not be the best for any. Engaging ideas and people in real time, over shared physical space, is utterly necessary for some kinds of learning. Some subjects and material can be successfully, and perhaps most efficiently, learned on-line, but not all.
True things can be gleaned and incorporated into one’s pre-existing model this way. But while, to some extent, learning what to think can be accomplished via on-line courses, or standard sage on the stage delivery from faculty directly into the brains of students, learning how to think cannot. Fact-checking yourself is best done by engaging directly with other people, in real time and space, and allowing them to challenge you.
We are losing physical libraries and quads to the virtual sphere, a process that accelerated in the last two years. Those who would assure us that nothing is lost are surely working from a reductionist, metric heavy understanding of what education is, what cognition is, and what humans are. Metrics are all well and good, as a first pass, and for simple systems. But education, cognition, and humans, are all complex systems. Human cognition is embodied, changed by physical activity and place in the world. Furthermore, physical spaces allow chance meetings, with ideas or with people, and can open up entirely new worlds.
The modern university also tends to cordon off disciplines from one another. This is to appease faculty egos, and draw territorial lines, and because it’s the way it’s always been done (which is not, in fact, true). Its effect is to reduce the opportunity for discovery, creativity and analysis, by faculty and students alike.
And as much as one of the hottest educational buzzwords for many years now has been “interdisciplinary,” how this is instantiated is all too often very narrow.
Interdisciplinary, sensu stricto (in the narrow sense), might involve two researchers from different but compatible disciplines collaborating on a project. Interdisciplinary, sensu lato (in the broad sense), can mean so much more. Instead of training only specialists, who get narrower and narrower with every year of school they endure, we ought not just allow generalists, but expect them. We need generalists who can, within a single brain, cross disciplinary boundaries. Furthermore, undergraduate students, who have even less reason to be trained narrowly than do grad students, ought be encouraged to take dives that are by turns both deep and broad, to come up for air frequently, and to dive again.
Rather than imagining the progress towards a university degree as a linear process, with a clear goal and established checkpoints, we might recognize that at least some of our goals for college graduates are themselves archaic, and need an update. We have created a world in which the rate of change itself is so swiftly changing, that even an incoming first-year college student cannot know what world they will graduate into at the end of four years. In this environment, exposing students to enduring human truths and values, demanding that they engage those things with people with whom they disagree, introducing them to an analytical framework that allows them to work from first principles to discriminate between fact and fiction, rather than relying on authorities to do the math for them—all of this would make for an educated 21st century person. A truly interdisciplinary education would integrate these topics and ways of understanding the world, rather than separating them into four credit classes, in which students learn to parrot the professor in front of them, even when it is diametrically opposed to what they parroted in the last hour.
Meanwhile, the universities themselves are making decisions based on their bottom line rather than their values. Future students are courted with promises of resort-like grounds, facilities, and amenities, as if they are potential customers, mere consumers of a product rather than our future leaders and creators, discoverers and explorers, healers and communicators. Education is not a consumer product, although things that pass for education can be. Meanwhile, graduate students solve an immediate problem for their universities by providing cheap labor, but they may not yet have the academic chops to put students through their paces, to do anything but repeat conclusions and lists, rather than engage in, for instance, the scientific process with their students. Furthermore, after finishing their educations, newly minted PhDs find that too many people with degrees just like theirs have been produced, and jobs are scarce. A tenure-track position is an ever-rarer bird, while cobbling together enough to pay the rent as an adjunct or lecturer is a likely fate for most of those who will do much of the teaching at most schools.
How Science Is Funded
An even deeper problem is the way that science is funded, which itself creates two intertwined, deeply troubling issues for both science, and the modern university.
Across Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), particularly in the natural sciences and medicine, research is largely funded by external agencies. In the public sector, the primary agencies funding science are the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Defense (DoD). Faculty write grants, at which point they are called Principal Investigators (PIs). The budgets for scientific grants may include equipment and materials required to do the proposed research; pay and benefits for personnel, from undergrad assistants through postdocs and researchers who are entirely dependent on such “soft money”; and summer salary for the PIs, among other things.
The university takes a percentage, the overhead, from any grant that a faculty member brings in. The overhead, or indirect, rate is set individually by each university, and varies somewhat by type of grant, even within a university, but is generally between 50% and 70% for on-campus research. The overhead doesn’t leave individual PIs with less money than they budgeted, as it is factored into grant applications, but it does leave universities with an income stream that is massive, and which, if it were to dry up, would leave those institutions in a very tight situation. The bigger the science, the more money it brings in for the universities. Research 1 (R1) universities are those that give the highest priority to research, and receive the greatest amount in federal grants. R1 universities are often considered the most elite institutions of higher ed, but if “elite” is a proxy for “wealth,” we should reconsider why we value the elite, and what we might value instead.
As an undergraduate, I was the research assistant to one of the greatest living biologists (Dr. Robert Trivers, who was then at UCSC, the University of California at Santa Cruz). Trivers was a force of nature—still is—and wholly unimpressed with the sorts of social indicators and niceties that many of his peers felt constrained by. Furthermore, his work was not expensive to conduct. Much of it was theoretical, requiring only time and space, really—paper and pens and freedom to think and an excellent library. The work was facilitated, it turned out, by a research assistant who was capable of sourcing a seemingly unending stream of primary literature from the library, back before the internet made wandering through the stacks for journal articles a luxury rather than an obligation. Trivers also had an on-going research program in Jamaica, which was also low tech, and where Bret Weinstein, then my boyfriend and now my husband, worked as his research assistant for a quarter. That work also cost very little to do.
It was thus not until I spent a year working in the academic grants office at UCSC (between finishing college and beginning grad school), that I came to understand how unusual Trivers was for a modern, academic scientist. UCSC, despite its crunchy reputation, is an R1 institution. But Trivers had few grants, none of which were gigantic. His work neither demanded nor qualified for such grants. This may partially explain why the university administration did not seem as eager to please him as it did other science faculty—whose work cost, and therefore brought to the university, rather a lot more money.
STEM faculty are cash cows for their universities, much more so than are humanities or arts faculty, or even than those in the social sciences. Administrators who want to facilitate the procurement of grants—entirely separate from an analysis of whether the science that demands big grants is the most interesting, or valuable—do so by making their STEM faculty’s lives easier. For most faculty positions, there are broadly three categories of job expectation: research, teaching, and governance. Governance refers to committee work and the like: serving on hiring and admissions committees; assisting the ombudsman and student affairs staff; facilitating re-accreditation; budget work, including prioritizing hires, technology, and upgrades to the physical plant. Governance can also include the power to make fundamental changes to the hierarchy of the institution, remaking the org chart that describes who answers to whom, sometimes changing it to enhance—or disrupt—functional systems. Such changes often come in the language of progress—we are updating!—but time and again, that which is regressive or authoritarian can be snuck in under the banner of progress.
Governance is thus both critical to the functioning of the university, with tremendous potential for power, and also widely understood by faculty to be something to be avoided if they can. It takes time away from research and teaching, both of which are more in line with what faculty imagine they will be doing when they go into academia. Furthermore, at most universities, faculty are specifically and explicitly focused on research (at liberal arts colleges, there is typically a little more slack given to those who would focus their attention on undergraduates). Given that university administrators have more money to work with when their faculty bring in more grants, and that science faculty are the most likely to bring in large grants, it is perhaps inevitable that, without explicit prohibitions on this sort of horse trading, big-grant-getting scientists will be gifted with release from some or all of their obligations regarding governance and teaching. Many scientists thus become grant writers more than actual science doers. Those who do so most prolifically rise quickly through the academic ranks—which should not be conflated with doing the best science—and thus have little interest in upsetting the status quo.
Meanwhile, the teaching of science to undergraduates is funneled to grad students and adjunct faculty, and the governance of the institution is concentrated among the non-science faculty, a growing percentage of which are deeply confused about the very nature of reality and objective truth (on which, more below, under The Woke Revolution).
The second of the intertwined, deeply troubling issues for both science and the modern university which is facilitated by the way that science is funded, is that the granting agencies, and those who staff them, control not just what particular grants do and do not get funded, but more broadly, and more insidiously, they control the direction of research itself. They can upregulate some research programs, and drive others extinct. Individual faculty and students not being free to speak their mind is an ever more widely recognized problem on university campuses. More cryptic, though, and more influential, is that entire lines of research can be edited out of existence by the granting agencies that pay the bills.
The scientific method would seem to allow ideas to compete on an equal playing field, allowing us to distinguish between the true and the false, the promising and the not so promising. But if before any science can even be done, the gatekeepers of science step in and decide what questions can be asked, science has taken a huge hit. Society has also taken the hit, as have all those interested in free inquiry and the pursuit of truth. This intrusion of the market on the scientific method then becomes so embedded in the ethos of academic science, that even many scientists forget what it is that they are supposed to be engaged in. Having accepted the financial incentives of mass processing large datasets, for instance, having effectively thrown out hypothesis in favor of data, many scientists are now scientists in name only.
Grant-driven science will always, for instance, favor empirical science—which often relies on expensive instrumentation, and tends to collect lots of data—over theoretical science, such as that which Bob Trivers achieved recognition for. When the scales tip that way—loosely, favoring “data driven” over “hypothesis driven” research—predictive power is lost, scientists turned into cogs. Bending the arc of science to the easily measured is beyond foolish. Bending the arc of science to those who think data collection or modeling are the pinnacle of the scientific endeavor is more dangerous yet. We need scientists who value hypothesis and prediction above grant money and tenure.
Science is a process by which observations are made; hypotheses and predictions generated then tested; and those hypotheses that are not falsified are, over time, understood to be the best fit for the evidence. Science is not the conclusion; it is the process. The scientific process allows us to distinguish truth from fiction—not perfectly, but over time, increasingly well. Therefore, having people involved in university governance who themselves live and breathe the scientific process, will be necessary for universities to function.
If I may be forgiven for quoting myself, here is how I expressed a related thought when invited to speak at the Department of Justice in 2018:
The search for truth and beauty, in its many forms, is what higher education is for, and about. The Enlightenment opened up our world, and gave us, among other things, the beginning of a formalization of the scientific method. One of the great strengths of the scientific method is its ability to reduce the role of bias and emotion in what we understand to be true. It is, at its core, a method for reducing bias. But in an era of information overload, when it seems that nothing can be trusted, many are reverting to trusting their own feelings above all else. It is ironic that, as people have come to lose faith in our system, they have run from science, and not toward it. For while scientists themselves are humans, and therefore fallible, rigorous application of the scientific method is the best cure for human fallibility ever devised.
If we are to be free, we need the scientific process to be free. Instead, money is driving what questions get asked. As a result, some research that passes for science is not worthy of the name. And other research, which would be science had it been allowed to happen, never gets done. This is perhaps the largest problem of all at modern universities.
The Woke Revolution
Into this environment arrived an ideology, which quickly became so widely adopted that it can now justly be called a revolution. As science and scientists were being bought by market forces, the door was left open for more patently craven forms of anti-intellectualism.
Flying under the beautiful-sounding banner of “social justice,” embodied by growing legions of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” officers and administrators, it is most succinctly called “woke.” What social justice aspires to—or claims to aspire to—is the adoption of policies that recognize past and on-going bias in society, reduces such bias going forward, and helps those who have been negatively affected by it. In practice, though, it is authoritarian, dogmatic, illiberal and mean. As linguist John McWhorter writes in his new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, this ideology directly blocks the ability of people who adhere to it from getting ahead.
Of the movement’s three key words—Diversity, Equity and Inclusion—only one is an accurate representation of what the movement stands for. The woke do not embrace or pursue diversity: they are on a mission to reduce human experience and thought to a single note, one that agrees with the conclusions that they have already arrived at. And the woke are not inclusive: indeed, they would exclude all those who disagree with them, to the point of deplatforming and preventing dissenters from speaking.
The movement that claims to advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion is, therefore, both anti-diversity, and exclusionary. What may be surprising to those not already immersed in this landscape, however, is that the woke revolution really is about equity. The disconnect is that equity doesn’t mean what you probably think it means.
The concept of equity has been around since at least 1981, when it was included in the first Principles of the American Society for Public Administration. The ASPA had this to say about a key distinction:
Equality: “citizen A being equal to citizen B”
Equity: “adjusting shares so that citizen A is made equal with citizen B.”
Most people, when they hear the word “equity,” synonymize it with “equality.” We 21st century WEIRD people broadly—nearly universally—value equality. We are all equal under the law, and we ought defend that fiercely. Equality refers to having equality of opportunity. Equity, in direct contrast, promotes equality of outcome. This is a dystopian idea that was brilliantly satirized in Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron, wherein those with greater ability are handicapped in order to bring society into full compliance:
“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”
The Vigilance of the Agents of the Handicapper General
Here in 2021, the movement to handicap those with privilege is strong, and those who adopt the woke ideology are often dependent on it for their entire livelihoods. Whole academic fields have emerged that depend on an anti-diverse, exclusionary, equity-focused assessment of human behavior and society. These fields have been dubbed “Grievance Studies” by Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose, whose exquisitely biting, hilarious, and accurate reveal of the inanity behind such work includes a paper they wrote positing that dog parks are “rape-condoning spaces and a place of rampant canine rape culture and systemic oppression against ‘the oppressed dog’ through which human attitudes to both problems can be measured.” This paper was not just accepted and published in the academic journal Gender, Place & Culture, but was honored as one of “twelve leading pieces in feminist geography” before being discovered as a hoax, and retracted.
Meanwhile, supposedly serious contributions to these fields gin up fear and confusion with claims-sans-evidence like “education policy is an act of white supremacy”. Asking for evidence of such a claim is, apparently, an assault in and of itself, and there is jargon to prove it: epistemic exploitation. Add to this that asking for evidence of racism is itself evidence of racism, and we have a fully gameable, authoritarian, and anti-intellectual climate. That is what is becoming of our campuses.
The woke takeover has been made possible, however, by the business model of the modern university, which privileges currency over contribution. No matter how elite and aspirational to a life of the mind the institution might be, if it is in the habit of ignoring the ways in which granting agencies steer what research is allowed, while rewarding the biggest grantees among their faculty with freedom from teaching and governance, and if it, additionally, gives even an inch to the woke mob, those aspirations will die on the vine.
The new ideology has taken a few direct aims at science: some readers will remember #ShutDownSTEM, in June 2020 (which we discussed on DarkHorse), and the too-stupid-to-be-true (but it is) kerfuffle over whether 2+2 does in fact equal 4. Mostly, though, science is falling to more indirect forces. Scientists are either too busy writing grants, too freed from the workaday concerns of the university to have noticed a hostile takeover, or have training that is too specialized for them to recognize that the machinations happening in other parts of the university affect them too. What happens in Grievance Studies does not stay in Grievance Studies.
Two friends of mine—highly successful entrepreneurs in the tech sector—see the problems this is causing from the other side. They regularly hire young people, often from the most elite schools—MIT, Stanford—with training at those schools in fields—e.g. engineering—that one might expect to be immune to the problems of the modern university. Woke ideology is even making inroads into STEM, but it is the pre-existing rot in higher ed that is most to blame for the persistent problems in STEM fields. The highly credentialed young people whom my entrepreneur friends keep hiring too often prove incapable of thinking independently, or of problem solving. It is becoming nearly impossible to find recent graduates who are up to the task.
That is an anecdote, a story. But that story is being repeated all over the country. We need liberal arts institutions that educate and inspire young people to challenge their own preconceptions, reflect on the old, imagine the new, and think from first principles as much as possible. Graduates of such institutions will be inspired to problem solve and to explore and understand, and thus, graduates of such institutions will be inspirational to others. Our current institutions of higher ed are failing to produce such inspiration. Higher education is not dead, but it is dying. Long live higher education.
The University of Austin
The University of Austin was launched two weeks ago, on November 8, 2021. I am one of five founders, along with Pano Kanelos, Joe Lonsdale, Bari Weiss, and Niall Ferguson. We each bring unique experience and insight to the project. Pano was most recently the president of St. Johns College in Annapolis, is dedicated to the liberal arts, and is a Shakespeare scholar. Joe is a tech entrepreneur, investor, and CEO, having co-founded Palantir, and founded Addepar. Bari is a journalist who was an editor at Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times before launching her own platform, Common Sense. And Niall is an historian, author, and filmmaker, who holds senior fellow appointments at both Stanford and Harvard. I am the only liberal among the founders, the only natural scientist, and also the one with the most extensive experience educating undergraduates.
This new university has as one of its core values freedom of inquiry. The founders share that value, along with many others. We disagree on other things. Of course we do. That is to be expected in a system in which discussion is not just accepted, but required. That said, the founders have written the following op-eds, with which I largely agree:
Pano Kanelos in Bari Weiss’s Common Sense: We Can't Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We're Starting a New One.
Niall Ferguson in Bloomberg Opinion: I'm Helping to Start a New College Because Higher Ed Is Broken
Joe Lonsdale in the New York Post: Why I’m Co-founding a New University Dedicated to Freedom of Thought and Study
Heather Heying (that’s me) in The Spectator: Can the University of Austin Spark a New Enlightenment?
What College Faculty Need To Be Capable Of
My presence in this nascent institution might seem to be due to the very public eruption at The Evergreen State College, which my husband Bret Weinstein and I experienced in 2017. The attempt of a mob to cancel us, which backfired dramatically, was called, by Lukianoff and Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, a “most dramatic portrait of what can happen when a witch hunt is allowed to run its course.” As college dustups go, it was well over the top.
If you don’t know the story, you can read our telling of it here, watch Mike Nayna’s excellent three part documentary here, or watch Benjamin Boyce’s exhaustive, entertaining, and somehow still not comprehensive (but man is he getting close) set of documentaries here. In very brief:
We were two of the college’s most highly ranked professors. We were both tenured. Our students did not turn on us. A mob of other students, organized by activist faculty and staff, arrived at Bret’s classroom on May 23, 2017, with claims of his racism, which then morphed into claims of his and my racism. As it turns out, we’re not racist. We checked. Furthermore, the claims of widespread racism and “white supremacy” across the campus were also utterly unfounded. One of our students, who is Afro-Caribbean on one side of her family, was called a “race traitor” for—wait for it—studying science. The library and the science labs were vandalized. Books and scientific inquiry were quite literally under attack. Baseball bat wielding students battered other students if they showed resistance to the new world order. Public shamings occurred. Bret was targeted, hunted. The campus police chief told Bret to stay off campus, and to stay off his bike anywhere in town, for his own safety. The president of the college told her—the police chief—to stand down her entire force. This was the same college president who was kidnapped in place, forced to remain in his office with his abductors. This was also the same college president who then responded by publicly and exuberantly celebrating the mob.
All of that is true. It was horrifying to live through. But the fact that I and we did live through it is far from the most interesting or valuable thing that I bring to this new university. The avatar of publicly-cancelled-but-not-dead-yet college professor at some out of the way public liberal arts college is just that: an avatar. Having been at ground zero of one of these events does not, in and of itself, mean that a person has anything of note to say about higher education.
As it turns out, though, both Bret and I were, for a decade and a half, exploring and creating new ways of educating students to great effect, using the unique model afforded by Evergreen. We thus do have uniquely valuable insights on higher education.
I have discussed some of these insights in an essay that I posted here last week (The Twin Virtues of Trust and Uncertainty). I also celebrated risk in education yet more briefly in a New York Times op-ed (Nature Is Risky. That’s Why Students Need It.). And we also touch on it in the “School” chapter of our co-authored, NYT bestselling book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century. I, and we, know how to reach people, and how to teach them.
Why were Bret and I two of the most popular professors on campus, despite being called “challenging” and “tough but fair” by our students? In part, it was because we were challenging. People actually crave challenge—21st century students included. It is also true that our nearly diametrically opposed experiences in school ourselves, and knowing each other as well as we did, prohibited us from making the kinds of assumptions that many do of “the other side.” I had always been an ace student—but not because I was a bootlicking sycophant who dutifully repeated back to professors what they wanted to hear. Bret had always been a terrible student—but not because he was lazy or stupid or uninterested. Having theory of mind is necessary to be an excellent educator—and not just theory of minds that look like yours, but theory of all the minds.
Another way to characterize what we were doing as successful educators is to take it back to basics. We were successful educators for three broad reasons:
We knew real things, and therefore had real things to teach. We used our classrooms (and labs and field trips and all of the educational interstices between) to continue to build the model of human evolution that we had begun to frame as undergrads, then as graduate students, and then as professors. Our book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, is an encapsulation of the model—and is something we were asked to write by many of our students. In the acknowledgments of that book, we thank our students at Evergreen, and we mean it. They pushed us. They pulled us. We thought harder because of them, and our thinking is better because of it.
We learned how to communicate those real things. It is insufficient to know true and important things if you cannot communicate them. Bret and I taught in very different, but (mostly) compatible ways. I architected detailed and creative curricula with explicit space for exploration, for the unexpected, for serendipity. I created fictional organisms and social systems and environments and asked my students to tell me what else would likely be true of those imaginary systems, given all that we had learned of evolution and ecology and animal behavior. I imagined into being, organized, and orchestrated elaborate study abroad trips, first in Panama, later in Ecuador, leading students not just through biology but also history and pre-history, language and narrative and awe. Bret also led field trips, and voyages both literal and metaphorical that embraced discovery. He led his classes on wild rides full of ideas, the likes of which you can barely imagine if you have not experienced it.
We fundamentally, always and without fail, saw the individual human in every one of our students. Not every single one of them was up to the task that we presented them with: that of showing up with openness, with preparedness, with eagerness to learn and question and push and change their minds when it was called for. Not every single one of them was up to that task, but the vast majority of them were. These were students from every academic demographic: from top of the class 4.0+ GPA students, to students who had been told since elementary school that they were incapable of learning. Our students also spanned all the other demographic markers, which made our classrooms and field trips richer places, but on which basis we did not discriminate.
Thus, if college faculty are to be granted the opportunity to educate, my simple rubric for what need be true of them is this:
Know real things.
Be able to communicate those things.
Fundamentally believe in the humanity of your students.
It seems a low bar, this rubric, but it’s one that many faculty do not meet. The reason for this is many fold, but part of it is that there is little incentive to devote any analytical or creative effort to education, if your discipline is something else—like, for instance, evolutionary biology.
Here is perhaps the even more difficult thing to grasp. Number one—knowing something real—is necessary, but not inherently because that thing is what students need to know. History majors generally do not become historians; philosophy majors generally do not become philosophers; biology majors generally do not become biologists. There are exceptions—and in grad school, the rules and expectations are different. But undergraduate students are learning to have a life of the mind, to engage honestly and carefully with the world so that they can make it, and themselves, better. Thus, knowing something real is in some ways more about coming to grips with epistemology—how do we make claims of truth—than it is about the particular content being taught and discussed.
How I Ended Up at Evergreen
I was lucky, when I took the job at Evergreen in 2002, to have a choice. I was offered two tenure-track jobs at the same time, both of them at liberal arts colleges. The choice was difficult, as the faculty at the other school welcomed me during the multi-day interview with such enthusiasm and warmth that I already felt at home. They also offered considerably better pay and benefits than did Evergreen, including far more generous sabbaticals, during which time research can occur unimpeded by other expectations, such as teaching. But I chose Evergreen, in part because I wanted the opportunity to reach all students, not just rich ones. The other school at which I was offered a job was private, and was largely collecting students from the kind of elite prep school that I myself had gone to, and that Bret had gone to.
By that point, I had already decided not to pursue a career at an R1 university, despite expectations in many corners that I would do just that. But the life of a researcher that one finds at an R1 university in the 21st century is not the only way to have a life of the mind. In fact, the life of a researcher at an R1 university seems increasingly to be at odds with a life of the mind.
Research grants, as I discussed earlier in this essay, are expected of science faculty at nearly every institution of higher ed, regardless of whether the science they are driven to do is inherently expensive. But I was a recently minted PhD scientist who did not want to join the hamster-wheel of endlessly chasing research grants.
In fact, that choice was so clear in my own head that, when I was asked in my final job interview at Evergreen, “When do you intend to apply for your first NSF grant?” I answered, “I am not interested in playing those games.”
As soon as those words left my mouth, I knew that I was sunk. What an impossibly stupid thing to say in a job interview, when I was under consideration for a tenure-track job on the science faculty at a 21st century institution of higher education.
And yet they hired me. Evergreen prided itself on prioritizing teaching over research, which meant that if you integrated your research with your teaching, it was win-win. You didn’t have to gin up ways for your research to be expensive, and pursue grants, and publish papers, to prove your worth. You could innovate both in your field, and in your pedagogy.
All of which worked beautifully, until it didn’t. Evergreen got gamed by a handful of activist faculty and staff who indoctrinated a crew of unfortunately hapless young people (some of whom have probably grown out of it by now), in which the administration was complicit, or worse.
Seeking the Extraordinary
Some extraordinary minds are well suited to standard metrics, and are discoverable with such metrics. Are you a compliant and organized enough young person to sit still and turn in neat, copy-edited work by deadline, thus earning yourself the freedom to excel in all the academic places that appealed to you? I was. I tested well and earned good grades and was both smart and presentable, and although yes, I was always itching to go outside, I also took pride in putting together careful, well-presented work that expanded my own thinking.
But I have known hundreds—perhaps thousands, but easily hundreds—of extraordinary people who were so utterly failed by school that they never got access to the freedom to explore and excel. English courses where Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn are on the reading list are reserved for the “good students.” Everyone else has to diagram sentences. Math classes where the beauty and connections in math are on full display are, similarly, reserved for the “good students.” Everyone else gets fed abstract repetition and memorization of mnemonics. In both cases, uninspired curricula and pedagogy practically guarantee failure.
We need universities that expand the human mind. We are all born inquisitive, observant, and curious. All too often, the modern university is where people learn to conform, make social connections, and game systems. But universities should and can and must be where we learn to hone our questions, expand our intellectual repertoire, and distinguish between good answers and bad. In order to solve the problems that we face in the 21st century, we are going to need such universities, very, very soon.
Heying and Weinstein. 2016. Don’t Look It Up. Proceedings of Colorado College’s First Symposium on Field Studies.
Heying 2021. The Twin Virtues of Trust and Uncertainty. First published in 2018 on Medium.
Heying 2018. Nature is risky. That’s why students need it. The New York Times, April 2018.
Stay tuned—in two weeks, I will be posting about the distinction between “elite” and “special” in this space, which I was inspired to think about by the writing of my friend, retired Navy SEAL officer Rich Diviney.
This is true at the same time that ~science-ish pronouncements are being adopted without question. #FollowTheScience may be one of the least scientific memes in circulation.
Heying 2018. Fostering free expression in higher education. Public Discourse, October 2018.
H. G. Frederickson, “Public administration and social equity,” Public Administration Review 50, no. 2 : 22(1990): 37.
Lindsay, J.A., Boghossian, P. and Pluckrose, H., 2018. Academic grievance studies and the corruption of scholarship. Areo Magazine, October 2018, 2.
Gillborn, D. 2005. Education policy as an act of white supremacy: Whiteness, critical race theory and education reform, Journal of Education Policy 20(4): 485-505.
Berenstain, N. 2016. “Epistemic Exploitation,” Ergo 3(22): 569 – 590.
I expand more on this thinking here: Heying, H., 2019. On college presidents. Academic Questions, 32(1): 19-28.
Evergreen had flaws before it famously blew its lid in 2017, to be sure. I’m not a Pollyanna about it. But it also solved some of the problems of modern universities better than I have seen anywhere else.