My husband and I recently left the city after a lifetime on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Following in the footsteps of Chip and Joanna Gaines, or better yet, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (that sublime precursor to the inferior The Money Pit), we had dreams and visions along with considerable trepidation. We were more than aware of the potential pitfalls of old homes, and friends warned us of both financial and marital ruin. Indeed, we could recite every line of dialogue from the scenes where the Blandings reel from structural mishaps.
But in the event, working closely with our contractor and carpenters has been one of the most surprising and rewarding revelations of our lives. Expensive, yes. But profoundly fulfilling. The crew members were skilled, imaginative, and hardworking. They were also kind, thoughtful, and funny. They took enormous pride in their work, and finished each day with the tangible results of their labors. I talked with one of the younger men (a former Marine) who is apprenticed to the master carpenter, and he spoke of the joys of his job. Every day, they literally build a home for someone. They change people’s lives for the better in immediate, obvious ways. They don’t think or write about beauty. They make it.
Yet they have a hard time finding young people who are willing to sign up for this sort of work. Programmed to attend college and find a job doing something with computers, most are unwilling to contemplate another sort of life. The Ivy League makes a lot of noise about changing the world for the better, but produces mostly hedge fund bankers and consultants. It’s way past time that we upend our priorities, rethink our assumptions, and imagine entirely new ways of educating our youth. The young man restoring an old home is or should be worth more than a McKinsey employee. The farmer producing food in a sustainable and compassionate manner is of greater value to the community than another DEI administrator for Facebook. We need to return to the notion of vocations and guilds, and move away from the obsessive focus on college.
Even as I was pondering these ideas, Pano Kanelos, former president of St. John’s College (my alma mater), announced the founding of a new educational institution, the University of Austin. Dedicated to the “fearless pursuit of truth,” the university seeks to counteract the indoctrination, groupthink, and censorship that now plague academia. Many of the advisers are prominent academics and journalists who have been unjustly “cancelled” by woke mobs and their supine institutions (full disclosure: I know some of those who are involved).
I had assumed there would be some pushback to UATX, but I was astonished by the vitriol—and how much of it came from learned academics and graduates of our country's most elite universities. Those involved with UATX were denounced as “right-wing grifters,” “white supremacists,” “transphobes,” and “bigots.” The orgiastic frenzy was breathtaking. The reaction was so extreme, and so ugly, one had to wonder what exactly everyone was afraid of. Established academia, in particular, had a field day for weeks.
The contrast between these recent ugly displays and our time with the carpenters was so stark, so arresting, that I could not stop thinking about it. The daughter of a professor, I had always venerated the life of the mind, the idea of the ivory tower, a place set above and apart—even while recognizing the day-to-day flawed reality. But I have started lately to wonder if there is something inherently pernicious in a life devoted exclusively to the mind. In Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, the protagonist Harriet Vane ponders this very question after a particularly disturbing murder is committed in one of the Oxford colleges. Absent a grounding in the physical, in the stuff of daily life, does one necessarily “lose touch” with reality? Does some sort of distortion occur that permits, indeed encourages, the incubation of perverse and destructive ideas?
After all, we have the academy to thank for a world that can no longer admit the difference between a man and a woman, and for a world no longer permitted to say the word “mother”—unless it’s helpful when defending abortion. Of course, this disconnect from reality has a great deal to do with the rejection of God; danger arose when the post-Enlightenment university began to question God’s presence, leading inevitably to the current state of affairs in which God need not apply at all. Recall that Harvard erased God from its motto years before Princeton got rid of Woodrow Wilson. An ivory tower that explicitly excludes God is a dangerous place.
Grounded neither by the daily labors of the body, nor by a relationship with the Father, today’s academy has rejected both our embodied nature and our creaturely nature. We do so at our peril.
Human beings need to read and they need to plant vegetables in the ground. They need to write and they need to clean. The life of the mind can be a precious, beautiful thing, but divorced from the physical, and isolated in an ivory tower that has cancelled God, it leads inexorably to corruption. Jesus, after all, was a carpenter before becoming a rabbi. The disciples were fishermen. Paul, the one academic among them, was happily torturing Christians until he fell off the horse.
So while UATX is a welcome alternative to the current academy—a bold, defiant project in a terrified, woke world—we also need to rethink on a larger scale, envisioning all sorts of new physically and theologically grounded ventures. And perhaps my alma mater’s motto, Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque—“I make free adults from children by means of books and a balance”—might be retooled for a new college of the future to read: “I make free adults from children by means of books and a balance and a handsaw.”
Kari Jenson Gold’s most recent piece for First Things was “Give My Regards to New York.”
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