A few years ago, my oldest son took the Classical Learning Test. Ever since, my email address has somehow made it onto every small liberal arts college prospective parent/student mailing list. And I presume that this is how earlier this week, I received the exciting announcement in my inbox from the University of Austin: applications for its first class are now open! This first class is aptly named “The Brave 100” or, as the recruitment video even more ambitiously states, “100 Founders Can Change the World.”
What is the University of Austin offering students, according to its recruitment materials? First and foremost, a rebellion against the “typical.” You could live the “typical life”: go to a typical college, study the typical stuff (taught from the typical perspective by the typical faculty), endure the typical attacks on your freedom of thought and speech on campus, get the typical job, and become the “typical you” that everyone expects you to become. But, the narrator suggests defiantly, wouldn’t this be a dreadful bore? Everyone thinks you are typical, but what if you’re not? What if you are different from everyone? Don’t you need a college that would help you embrace your inner free-thinking rebel?
The antidote to the “typical,” the boring, the speech-censoring college experience is the University of Austin. Come be one of the founding students, the ones helping to build up something new, adventurous, exciting. Of course, you will get to learn some great and timeless wisdom too—no specifics given, but the buzz words are peppered in gently. Your faculty will be world leaders of various sorts—scholars, entrepreneurs, and more. They will help you become the best you—not the “typical you.”
This all sounds exciting at surface level, but if we pay close attention, we’ll notice that instead of articulating a clear and distinctive philosophy, the trailer is filled with more platitudes than Dove chocolate wrappers. You’re worth it. You’re the best. Don’t settle. Be unique. You are too special for a typical university. And yet, there is absolutely nothing new in this vision, aside from one thing: a subtle rejection of Christianity—visible only by its omission. What I mean by this is that the University of Austin took the classic Christian liberal arts college footprint, took Christ out, and substituted the quest for rebellion and self-love instead. That is what building the best you—but without any mention of character formation or interest in growing in the virtues—is all about.
This university’s entire brand from the beginning has been about bold, innovative rejection of the kind of oldy-moldy tradition that some now associate with the Ivy Leagues. Of course, one related feature of the Ivies these days is progressive ideology, which the University of Austin also opposes. The university also affirms its respect for “age-old wisdom”—a likely reference to love of the Great Books.
While the University of Austin would like to think that it’s doing something completely different from everyone else, its marketing promotional materials only further echo the best of what many small Christian colleges are already doing quite well. Want an education that is grounded in the “age-old wisdom” of Great Books? Check. Want an education that orients you to love the true, the good, and the beautiful? Check. Want an education that embraces the kinds of fields of study that have fallen out of fashion in some progressive institutions? Check. Indeed, while too many state universities have been gutting the humanities, it is the smaller private Christian institutions that have been challenging the modernizing model to provide a timeless education that continues to set up students for success—as I have written in this profile of a college with the highest number of Classics and History professors per student in America, or in this profile of the colleges that have the highest numbers of homeschoolers as proportion of student population, or the colleges that serve their students most effectively, ensuring that they complete their degrees.
All of these institutions offer precisely the type of education that the University of Austin promises to deliver, but with several key differences. First, most Christian colleges have few or no famous industry leaders on the faculty, and that is a good thing. It means that the faculty are focused on humbly serving their community—students, colleagues, and the church—without the kinds of distractions that jet-setting world-class economists or entrepreneurs teaching at a university are likely to have. Second, for any prospective student watching the recruitment video, I want to say something difficult that is a hard pill to swallow for all of us living in the shadow of the American dream: yes, you are special, but the world is not all about you. In its emphasis of the rejection of “the typical,” the University of Austin is ironically peddling THE quintessential typical secular identity message our society is telling kids today. On a related note, last but not least, the missing component of the vision is what I consider the most important aspect of thoughtful and theologically grounded college education: character formation in the virtues. An education that doesn’t build character is, ultimately, empty and dangerous—both to the individual and for society as a whole. After all, what is a businessman or surgeon or lawyer or a politician without a deep sense of ethics? Woefully typical, one might say, in all the wrong ways.
And so, I understand the excitement that the University of Austin founders feel—this desire to burn down the system that they feel is so irretrievably broken and start over fresh with their own dream. And there are probably enough students, indeed, who want what they are offering. But let us not pretend that there are no good colleges carrying on important work of this nature already—but grounding it in the kind of character formation and theologically deep education that our society now needs more than ever.