Slab from the tomb of Bonifacio Galluzzi, a university lecturer at Bologna, c. 1346. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Don’t Burn Down the Ivory Towers

The pursuit of knowledge and truth is more important than ever—which is why we must fight to save our universities.

The following remarks were delivered by 2023 Jeane Kirkpatrick Prize winner Joshua Katz at Encounter Books’ Twenty-fifth Anniversary Gala in Washington, D.C., last month.

When you qualify a noun with an adjective, you often change its meaning significantly. All of us believe in justice, I’m sure, but social justice is another matter.

Then there’s freedom. I’m confident that everyone here values freedom deeply. But is the same true of academic freedom, which is what the prize honors that I am so pleased to be receiving? I expect that some of you are staunch proponents while others have doubts. After all, increasingly many people on both the right and the left think—for very different reasons—that the academy should be dismantled.

It doesn’t help that the adjective academic has two meanings. (Actually, it has quite a few more than two, as a look at the Oxford English Dictionary will tell you, but there are two I care about right now.) Until recently, calling something academic conjured up for most people a tableau of great learning, perhaps, but learning that was so recherché as to be irrelevant to what is sometimes called “the real world”: think a solitary man dressed in tweed smoking a pipe in a dusty room covered with papers written in arcane scripts and, well, all twenty hardbound volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. These days, however, while many still consider something academic to be fundamentally irrelevant, the picture could hardly be more different: think a group of nonbinary figures in t-shirts with activist slogans holding signs and shrieking four-letter words in a brightly lit lecture hall.

You may have heard of Sayre’s law: “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” Wallace Sayre, a political scientist at Columbia, is one of many to have formulated the basic idea, which is regularly attributed to a co-chair of this evening’s splendid event, Henry Kissinger, who was speaking specifically of Harvard. Now, it’s true that what the two species of academic have in common is their perceived inconsequentiality: the one because it’s dull, the other because it’s crazy. But I stress perceived: in fact, neither is inconsequential, and the stakes right now are very high indeed.

You don’t need me to tell you about the malevolent impact of the second species, the crazies. When Roger Kimball published the first edition of Tenured Radicals, I was in college—at Yale, to which Roger directs much of his gleeful venom—and I still believed that no one in that big real world would care about gender performativity à la Judith Butler. It never occurred to me that ivory tower rhetoric about decolonization could help fuel horrific attacks of the kind we saw last month on Israel. How naive I was! How naive most of us were!

You may, however, need me to tell you about the first species. What’s consequential about—oh, I don’t know—a balding guy who likes to spend his time with Homer and the Hittites?

It’s a fair question. And, worryingly, most academics of the first species don’t themselves appear to be able to answer it. At least they only rarely mount defenses against attacks on their work both from outside and, increasingly and especially disturbingly, from inside the academy—attacks by uncollegial colleagues who trumpet, for example, that philology—the careful study of texts—is “white supremacist.” Under these circumstances, it is little wonder that so many professors of my acquaintance, plagued by doubt about the value of what they do and, indeed, their entire existence, have been drifting toward work that makes them feel consequential and important, namely toward that oxymoronic adjective-noun combination known as “activist scholarship and teaching.”

So here is what’s consequential and important about traditional academic practice. First, the teaching. If you’ve ever had an inspirational teacher, someone passionate about his or her subject, whatever that subject may be, then you know that good pedagogy matters. A lot. Although myself a linguist and a classicist, I taught hundreds of budding computer scientists, politicians, and art historians and acted as both a formal and an informal adviser and mentor to scores of them who have gone on to fame and fortune in numerous professions, most of them well outside academia. I used to hear from them years later, with great regularity, about their fond memories of courses on Homer and the Hittites, and I like to think that what I taught them about language—about how to read, write, and argue with both excitement and respect—has stood them in good stead.

Because let me go out on a limb here: philology is not white supremacist. Philology is the art of reading carefully, and I’ll go so far as to say that the best way to be a citizen is to read and discuss with care and humility the documents that formed and continue to inform our society, be they legal, political, historical, or literary.

And as for traditional scholarship, academia is above all supposed to be about uncovering truth, and truth transcends the moment. This means that true academics are always looking both backward and forward. They read—and teach their students to read—the past, whether that means going all the way back to the Sumerians, to Galileo, or to the members of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. And they write—and teach their students to write—for the future, since good scholarship and teaching advance knowledge and thus have a far better chance of standing the test of time than what often passes these days for academic work. It is not hyperbolic to say that every page of Renaissance Latin that the philologist and historian Jim Hankins, who is here this evening, has meticulously edited, and every page that he has written himself, contains more of value than the oeuvre of the environmental scientist who describes “zerself” as a “salmon oracle” (no, I’m not making this up) and who last year published a monograph with a major academic press that (and I quote) “explores how a queer-trans-feminist approach can ally with indigenous praxis to renew human-water-fish relations.”

I must also mention that knowledge of the kind most people deem useless can suddenly become very useful. You are likely to scoff at this assertion, but it really does happen. One example: the cancer drug Alimta came about thanks to investigations into the chemical properties of the pigments in butterfly wings. And another: 25 years ago, I wrote a doctoral dissertation on pronouns. Nearly everyone told me I was a fool to choose such a boring topic since, after all, who cares about pronouns? That was then. No one could possibly ask such a question today, exactly one week before International Pronouns Day, which I trust you will all be celebrating.

The fact is that professors need academic freedom, the freedom to explore ideas and see where they lead. Some of these ideas will lead nowhere, but that’s just fine: knowledge of what is wrong or unviable can be as valuable as knowledge of what is good and true.

And so I return now to Tenured Radicals, in which Roger quotes Harvard’s Barbara Johnson, as follows: “Professors should have less freedom of expression than writers and artists, because professors are supposed to be creating a better world.” Where do I begin to articulate what’s wrong with Johnson’s pronouncement? For one thing, while professors may indeed hope to create a better world, as may writers and artists, that is hardly the immediate goal of the academic enterprise, which is the pursuit of knowledge and truth. More important, though, is that to the extent that professors can create a better world, it’s thanks entirely to freedom of two interrelated sorts: academic freedom and broad freedom of expression. Surely to the extent that anyone can create a better world, it’s thanks to the freedom to speak one’s mind without fear.

Since I truly do believe in academic freedom, I accept that even the crazies in academic jobs deserve it, too, and have the right to study, publish, and teach pretty much anything they wish. Yes, even the classicist at Princeton who two years ago was asked to address the entire freshman class on the subject of free speech—by which, he was careful to explain to the captive audience, he didn’t mean “in the masculinized, bravado sense.” Rather, he said he “envision[s] a free speech and an intellectual discourse [at Princeton] that is flexed to one specific aim, and that aim is the promotion of social justice, and an anti-racist social justice at that.”

Dreadful stuff, but my former colleague had the right to express his opinion. That said, I also believe that colleges and universities have an obligation to hire, promote, and reward serious scholars—including that first species of academic: scholars who value truth, who possess both real learning and deep curiosity, who care about the past as well as about what is now and may be tomorrow, who publish when they have new things to say that they take the time to say well, who care about teaching and actually do teach rather than indoctrinate, and who, to put it bluntly, are not crazy and do not give signs of being likely to go off the rails.

Fortunately, some institutions are stepping up to the plate: for example, the School of Civic Life and Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Civitas Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. And the craziness also presents an opportunity for think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, to take on a greater pedagogical role and to foster more of the sort of humanistic as well as social scientific scholarship that has historically come out of universities. You’ll say that of course I would say that—but it’s worth remembering that as long ago as 1994, one of my employer’s most distinguished scholars, Jeane Kirkpatrick, was supposed to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis but withdrew in the face of fierce opposition from faculty and students. And twenty years later, in 2014, the same university decided not to go ahead with awarding an honorary degree to another sometime AEI scholar, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Brandeis, you will recall, is named after the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, who once said, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”

Indeed, at all institutions of higher education, well-meaning professors need to use their freedom to do serious academic work, defend that work, and not be cowed into activism. Of course there may be repercussions. Look at me.

For much of my time at Princeton, I loved my job: the office strewn with dictionaries, the lecture halls, the freshman seminars, the scribbling on napkins over late-night drinks at conferences around the world. I was a library rat and not a political person. I had hoped to live out my life left alone to do what I did well. But when push came to shove, when, in July 2020, my world came under attack from progressive ideologues on the faculty, the only thing I cared about more than being left alone to do philological work was defending the importance of this work—and the importance of the academic enterprise.

This set me on the path to what has to be called both destruction and liberation. Don’t forget the liberation. I am optimistic—if not for the most elite colleges and universities, then at least for others. I still believe in the American project. I still believe that freedom is one of the golden threads of American society and that it will prevail, including in the form qualified by the adjective academic.

And so when you leave tonight, I urge you not to adopt the line, increasingly popular in our circles, that we should abandon, perhaps even destroy, our long-standing educational institutions. I am as disgusted as you are by much of what goes on in them, and as angry. Probably more so. But one of the best ways ahead is not to mimic the behavior of the crazies who want to “burn it all down,” but rather to build from within.

For this to happen, though, professors are going to have to stop despairing and start reminding themselves that making substantial and lasting contributions to teaching and scholarship is vital to our civic fabric. And, more than anything else, they need to show courage—as must the rest of us: students, administrators, alumni, donors, parents, politicians, pundits.

If I could find the courage, so can anyone. I’m not going to ask you to follow me into the worlds of Homer and the Hittites, though I will be pleased if you do. What I do ask is that you pay heed to one thing I can still teach in my post-academic life: the power of standing up, even when it hurts, for what matters and what is right.

Joshua T. Katz is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former professor of classics at Princeton University. 

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