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Greek Life

Pomp and incoherence at Ralston College

This summer marked a Lazarus-like comeback for Jordan Peterson, the éminence grise of incels, a man who, last we heard, was in a medically induced coma in Russia, courtesy of a runaway benzodiazepine dependency. After a stint in a “Reanimatology Ward” in Moscow’s suburbs, where he had to relearn how to walk, dress himself, and type, Peterson returned to Florida around the start of the pandemic to continue his rehabilitation. Fast forward two years, and that harrowing chapter—or rather, book—is closed. Peterson, who rose to fame as a YouTube provocateur while teaching psychology at the University of Toronto, and whose bestseller 12 Rules for Life taught crusty adolescents the world over how to fold their laundry, has now landed a gig as chancellor of Ralston College, brainchild of Stephen Blackwood, a conservative scholar and vociferous critic of higher education.  

Per the nascent college’s website, “most colleges and universities are no longer places where freedom of inquiry, and the freedom of speech on which free inquiry depends, are protected, let alone celebrated.” Enter Ralston, which as of this fall began offering would-be free inquirers a fully funded, one-year MA in the humanities, split between Samos, Greece, and Savannah, Georgia. The latter was chosen for its Edenic beauty, the former for its Greekness. Term I of Ralston’s curriculum is an “intensive language residency,” a trial by fire for the twenty gifted students admitted to the program. Failure to get their Greek up to snuff will leave these postgrads ill-equipped to address the program’s core question (“What is the human self?”), if only because “for centuries, the ability to access the foundational texts of the Western tradition without translators, commentators, or other intermediaries has been a nearly universal prerequisite for the meaningful encounter with—and entry into—its cultural inheritance.” 

In this unsubtle subtweet we see the anti-woke brigade’s latest gambit: a triumphant return to Hellenism, as if to suggest that what is fundamentally lacking in our culture today is studious engagement with untranslated Aristotle. As many a graybeard knows, Greek and Latin were once compulsory subjects in many American classrooms, and in hearkening back to this bygone era, Blackwood and Peterson wax nostalgic for an educational model in which the white male’s centrality was codified in syllabus and student body alike.

For all their pomp and incoherence, Peterson and Blackwood aren’t wrong to fret over the state of our universities.

In Ralston’s promotional YouTube video, Peterson and Blackwood chat to the accompaniment of Bach (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565). “At its most ambitious,” Blackwood says, “Ralston College hopes to connect individuals with the fundamental ontological realities of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, to actualize their own freedoms.” Such grandiosity befits Blackwood’s intention to remediate the failures of colleges and universities nationwide. Yet from this advertisement, one would think those failures were principally logistical, not ideological. Peterson goes on to praise Blackwood’s “management ability . . . Stephen’s ability to refurbish a building, to set up classrooms, to make the classrooms work, to allow people to dine together, to facilitate that and to value it, and out of that something new will emerge.” Insofar as functioning classrooms and cafeterias constitute the bare minimum of pedagogical requisites at the K-12 level (let alone the postgraduate one), these goals read as somewhat less ambitious than a transoceanic induction into the aforementioned “fundamental ontological realities.” Still, we shouldn’t overlook the difficulties involved in launching a liberal arts college in 2022. In this economy?

For all their pomp and incoherence, Peterson and Blackwood aren’t wrong to fret over the state of our universities. Higher education continues to fail many of its customers, saddling them with lifelong debt in exchange for degrees of dubious marketability. In a country flush with underemployed PhDs and bottom-feeding adjuncts, it’s clear that the value of master’s degrees and doctorates has drastically depreciated, while inflation, tuition hikes, and real wage stagnation likewise conspire to tilt higher ed’s risk-reward ratio in the wrong direction. Yet rather than critique the meat grinder that renders humanities degrees unviable for all but a privileged (or intrepid) few, Blackwood pegs campus activism as the root of the crisis. It’s the left that’s responsible for enfeebling the humanities, and it’s the left that Blackwood hopes to put to shame —with the aid of his zombified chancellor.

Ralston College, named after William Ralston, a staunch classicist and former rector of Savannah’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, will occupy a beautiful four-story Italianate mansion on the corner of Monterey Square in Savannah’s historic district, an ideal home for an aspiring free-market seminary like this one, and not only because of its photogenic framing of American history. The former Noble Hardee Mansion sits right next to the Armstrong Kessler Mansion, which was once home to a men’s school called Armstrong Junior College, and down the street from the prestigious Oglethorpe Club, known to locals as a bastion of white insularity and quiet, dust-covered racism. The Club’s reputation is sufficiently odious as to have produced an urban legend, repeated ad nauseam by the tour guides ticking past. As the story goes, the Armstrong mansion was originally built by magnate George Ferguson Armstrong, who’d been denied entry to the Oglethorpe Club on account of his Judaism; in response, Armstrong commissioned an architectural wonder right across the street, a Renaissance Revivalist manse whose hemicycle colonnade alone would outclass the Club’s humble brickwork. Yet historical records contradict this urban legend: Armstrong was a card-carrying Oglethorpian.

“A civilization hostile to its own inheritance needs sympathetic interpreters who can correctly appraise the neglected treasures at its foundations,” declares Ralston’s website, which reads like a self-plagiarized rehash of one of Blackwood’s New Criterion op-eds. It’s a baffling suggestion—not so much that our civilization’s treasures are neglected as that the likes of Plato and Herodotus epitomize this oversight. If neglect is truly the problem, a Savannah-based college might consider setting its sights not on the Greeks but on the Creeks (as European colonizers referred to the indigenous Muscogee). James Oglethorpe himself wrote of the Muscogee that “many of their Speeches are equal to those which we admire most in the Greek and Roman Writings,” but his camaraderie with the indigenous people of the southeastern woodlands (including, most famously, Yamacraw chief Tomochichi) was an exception; ethnic cleansing would soon prove the rule. Indeed, Andrew Jackson’s forced displacement of the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeast, today referred to under the umbrella term “Trail of Tears,” all but ensured that future inhabitants of Georgia would fail to remember the vibrant agrarian societies that occupied their state’s coastal floodplains and canebrakes for centuries prior to the arrival of the Europeans. 

What does it mean to be a “sympathetic interpreter” of history?

The Muscogee have no place in the Western tradition glowingly referenced on Ralston’s website. To acknowledge this fact is not to suggest that the Western tradition is hopelessly blinkered, for no single tradition can hope to incorporate all of history’s riches. It is, however, to recognize that selection is inseparable from omission. The canon’s spotlight has a dual function: as much as it illuminates the wonders cradled within its beam, it consigns everything outside its circumference to obscurity. This is the trap Blackwood and company fall into by overemphasizing the Greeks specifically (and bearded white dudes more broadly). Where a strictly historical perspective would have to acknowledge Greece’s immense intellectual debt to both its Indo-European forebears and foreign powers like Egypt, Ralston seems intent on casting the Greeks as a race of First Men, not all that unlike the mythic Hyperboreans. So why this obsessive focus on the Greeks and not, say, the Indo-Aryans?

From a contemporary vantage point, what distinguishes the Greeks above all is their reputation as the first true moderns, from whom Westerners descend in more or less linear fashion. At the core of this narrative is ancient Athens’s gilded status as the birthplace of democracy—or so we’re taught. Yet the notion that democracy was an exclusively Hellenic invention is a fallacy. Muscogee society, for one, was democratic to the extreme, as eighteenth-century Europeans like Benjamin Hawkins observed firsthand. As the principal “Indian agent” representing the inchoate States in diplomatic talks with the Creek nations, Hawkins was regularly invited to take part in council meetings in the Muscogee rotundas, where he toked the calumet (or peace pipe) and sipped from the hyper-caffeinated “black drink” concoction that ensured sobriety among councilmen. As in the ancient Greek city-state, oration was the primary method of swaying public opinion in the rotundas, and agreements were arrived at by consensus, as Robbie Ethridge notes in her book Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World. Muscogee democracy was somewhere between direct and representative; though women were excluded (and thus exerted influence primarily through informal backchannels), all adult men were welcome to participate, with seating determined by a martial ranking system whose intricacy would’ve made even a Spartan nod in grudging approval. Granted, Muscogee democracy came long after the Greek version chronologically, but the fact that democracy could have sprung up in far-flung, mutually isolated locales is enough to cast doubt on the navel-gazers of the Western tradition.

My purpose here is neither to belittle the mighty Greeks, nor to advance a tenuous equivalence between drastically distant societies, but rather to call into question Ralston’s avowed notion of sympathy. What does it mean to be a “sympathetic interpreter” of history? If it means nothing more than letting our forebears off the hook, then sympathy alone is insufficient. Sympathy and antipathy are versos of the same coin, and overreliance on one at the expense of the other can only result in a hopelessly partial and incomplete reading of history. Only by oscillating between these twin interpretive modes can we hope to “correctly appraise” a history as marvelous and dreadful as our own.

In The New Criterion, Blackwood rails against “the dogmas of the group-think orthodoxy that ironically passes for ‘critical thinking,’” dogmas which are “tirelessly predictable,” though never quite as predictable as the invective they elicit from bristling conservatives. Dogmas like “the history of the West is one of oppression” will have no place in Ralston’s breezeways; besides, there isn’t even a term for critical race theory in Greek. And here Blackwood should be accompanied not by Bach but by the world’s tiniest violin: “But why, when it comes to higher education, do conservatives abandon their confidence in free markets and the creative destruction of competition? Why do they concede the battle and retreat to the impotent space of complaint?” 

Blackwood likens himself to an entrepreneur, since “entrepreneurs don’t merely complain or criticize: they act, and they act by introducing superior products that unseat the lazy establishment.” These would be bold pronouncements from any start-up fresh out of the incubator; coming from the president of a college that currently offers only master’s degrees and has yet to see a single student graduate, it sounds downright unhinged. Blackwood has a long road ahead of him, but he also has deep-pocketed donors. It’s thanks to them that Ralston at least seems more credible than the “University of Austin,” a parallel attempt to reclaim the liberal arts from the clutches of illiberalism—one Vanity Fair article described it as an “unaccredited anti-cancel-culture academic project.” Not an academic project with actual, matriculating students, but you know. They’re working on it. Blackwood by contrast has secured the necessary funding to groom twenty would-be devil’s advocates in the art of being way out of touch.  

Higher ed’s would-be defenders still trot out the same cardboard concept of humanism: a belief in the objective values of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

“Students aren’t the fundamental problem,” Blackwood allows; we mustn’t hold them accountable for failing to become the kind of “intelligent individuals who can recognize the beauty in a sonnet, a Gothic cathedral, or in the ideals of virtue, and of liberty and justice for all.” The problem, in Blackwood’s not-so-humble opinion, is a “dominant institutional culture that no longer believes in higher education at all.” A puzzling diagnosis, this—at least until we remember that for Blackwood, “higher ed” is synonymous with classical education. For all his bluster about building something fresh and new, Blackwood seems more focused on time traveling back to the nineteenth century.

At the top of Blackwood’s New Criterion screed, we see an image of Raphael’s The School of Athens (ca. 1509) with the caption: “Whatever happened to all these guys?” Raphael’s painting can be found on the University of Austin’s homepage as well, but that institution hasn’t galvanized a Renaissance as much as a regression to the canon wars of the nineties. Thirty years later, higher ed’s would-be defenders still trot out the same cardboard concept of humanism: a belief in the objective (i.e. fixed) values of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—pillars of civilization which must be defended against the relentless turbines of leftist deconstruction, doubt-seeding, and relativism. And yet, as is so often the case, the appeal to objectivity belies a subjective basis: a defensive reaction against the moment’s political reckonings, one all too eager to construe systemic critiques as ad hominem attacks. The reactionary engages in a scavenger hunt for microaggressions just as frantic as that animating collegiate “Victim Olympians.” Whether called out or in (or simply into question, as we all ought to be), he feels himself under siege. When the sands move beneath his feet, he gropes for his precious pillars, for what would he do without them? He’d be forced to start over, not from the center but from the margin, where relativism is no longer theory, but naked fact.

“A pairidaeza means walled garden,” intones Peterson over a tracking shot of the iconic fountain at the center of Forsyth Park in Savannah. “And the walls are culture. And the garden is nature.” Absent from this reflection is any acknowledgment of what the walls serve to keep out, of those perspectives the Eurocentric canon must peripheralize in order to maintain its cardinal status. For Peterson, chancellorship in Ralston’s walled garden is a storybook ending: a paid residency in an echo chamber considerably more spacious than his own skull. Yet a pairidaeza seems an inauspicious template for an institute of higher learning in our crisis-ridden, ecocidal era. Knowledge, after all, coincides with the Fall. It requires self-awareness and humility—even, at times, humiliation. Coddling its faculty as much as its students, Ralston peddles arrogance as bliss.