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One year ago, Princeton University fired me. This was one of the worst things ever to happen to me, but also one of the best. It’s sad to watch a once-great institution destroy itself, but a heck of a lot more pleasant to do so from outside. Especially with company.

The very best things that have happened: While Princeton was gearing up to do its dirty work, I got married; and not long after it was all over, my wife became pregnant. Our daughter was born earlier this month. We have no idea where she will go to college—or whether she will go to college—but we hope she will become friends with the new babies of other friends who have flourished and multiplied since standing up to the mob.

Meanwhile, my wife and I find ourselves in the excellent adult company of friends—many of them newish friends—in New York, where we both grew up, and in Princeton, where we still live. My wife is tough, but I would have had a much harder time making it through hell without their smiles, banter, and regular appearances at our door with bouncy dogs and tasty pastries.

Thanks to my position at the American Enterprise Institute, we have now had the chance to experience day-to-day existence in Washington, D.C.—and what wonderful new friends we have there, too. Some, though by no means all, are friends from work. How nice it is to have work friends!

Long ago, I used to love being in the office at Princeton. I was often the first to arrive in the morning; I was not infrequently one of the last to leave at night. This wasn’t entirely healthy, something I didn’t properly understand at the time, but I hung out there because I enjoyed it. The more disenchanted I became with academia, however, the less time I spent on campus. Then, in mid-March 2020, the world shut down because of Covid. And almost four months later, I was canceled, hard, and since most of my colleagues stopped speaking to me overnight, I didn’t go into work even when it was again possible to do so. In my last twenty-six months on the faculty, I taught only one student in person and had nearly no contact of any kind with anyone from my department; in my last sixteen months, I never once entered my office.

What a joy it is, then, to be back in an office, around colleagues who are no less smart and opinionated than Princeton professors (that’s a rhetorical figure known as litotes)—while being kind besides. Still, my greatest fear about leaving the university was that I would no longer be buoyed by the energy of young people. To my delight, however, AEI is also filled with smart and opinionated twenty-somethings.

In addition, people at AEI don’t take loyalty oaths. Sure, some opinions are more widespread than others, but I have encountered no pressure to cleave to one or another dogma or engage in rhetorical manipulation in order to demonstrate that I am “one of us.” 

Since secular schools, colleges, and universities are not supposed to have an agenda, which in theory makes them different from most other institutions, you would expect any given think tank to be substantially more groupthink-y than an educational establishment. But in fact, Princeton, which is being overrun by deanlets who have no business going anywhere near a serious institution of research and pedagogy, has far more of a monoculture than AEI. Progressive activism among both professors and students is eating away at the ideal, however imperfectly practiced, of dispassionate scholarship. A frightening number of Princetonians signed an open letter to the senior administration calling for a faculty committee to “oversee” (or, to use a word they don’t like, “police”) “behaviors,” including research, that the star chamber itself decides are racist. Almost as frightening is that many who have pushed for this don’t actually appear to believe in the document on which they put their name. And connected to the matter is the “pall of orthodoxy,” which ensures that would-be dissenters—again, both professors and students, and at virtually every college and university in the country, including Princeton—know when to parrot sentiments they don’t agree with, or at least keep their mouth shut.

None of this is true at AEI, even though think tanks, unlike universities, are appropriate cultivators of sociopolitical activism. Despite the absence of formal classes, my new intellectual home feels not unlike a top university at its best.

How about the work itself? There’s no disputing that both the style and the content of what I write now is different from the old days—and I can’t sugarcoat the fact that the work doesn’t come as easily. I used to write articles with dense footnotes about Greek, Latin, and other ancient languages and literatures for volumes published in various European countries. I loved that sort of thing, and it didn’t bother me that only a few dozen specialists might care since my goal was to produce original research that would stand the test of time. Now, although I work on longer projects as well, I write mostly protreptic pieces about contemporary American culture for periodicals with a robust circulation; the news cycle is so fast that something I write today may be admired (if I am fortunate), but then forgotten by tomorrow.

Nothing is inherently wrong with either abstruse scholarship or hot takes. There are plenty of good and bad examples of each. However, the fame of many professors these days is proportional—not inversely proportional—to the incomprehensibility of their jargon-heavy prose, which they deploy as an exclusionary weapon, often in the name of so-called inclusivity. While some people who write opinion pieces for large audiences seem to have trouble stringing words together coherently, this is not the norm, for the simple reason that management wants happy readers.

And yet my writings then and now have more similarities than you might suppose. For one thing, I have not forgotten about the ancient world: An article on the Zoroastrian scriptures has just appeared, one on Plato is in press, and I intend to publish versions of the talks I’ve given in recent months about Homer (at Hillsdale) and Hesiod (at Ralston). If I may say so, this kind of work is especially significant at the moment, for only a decade ago, who would have imagined that it would be necessary to defend the study of the Classics against violent attacks from inside the field, with Princeton at the epicenter? Furthermore, no one could have predicted that one of my main preoccupations as a young scholar, the morphology of Indo-European personal pronouns, would prove useful decades later when loud segments of the population suddenly became obsessed with the definition of she, the singular use of they, and the advent of zir.

I cannot help but be reminded of Abraham Flexner’s famous essay from 1939, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Flexner, the founder of the Institute for Advanced Study and a classicist by training, wrote that “we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past.” How many of us still cherish it? I’m not sure. But I do.

A couple of handfuls of Princeton undergraduates still regularly ask me for advice. I comment on what they write, try to steer them into the right classes, and do my best to cheer them up when things don’t go quite as planned. Many of them feel let down by Princeton—by their fellow students, their professors, and the administration. Once the last ones I taught graduate, though, that connection to my old life will be gone. This makes me sad. But even sadder is that all the money that goes into making the campus one of the most privileged spots in the world cannot give these students what should be among the best years of their life. In becoming alumni, they will almost certainly discover that there is more good company outside the university than in.

And, of course, there is the company of all the saints. Who knows what lies beyond this world, but my wife and I know that our daughter will be well cared for. Her godfather will be the priest who married us: a dear friend who was a beloved student of my wife’s late grandfather, whose widow is my godmother. And our daughter will be baptized by another priest, also a dear friend of the family, who both baptized me and was the deacon at our wedding. She’s going to have a better life away from Princeton, and painful though it is to say, in getting rid of me, the university added unwittingly to her and our happiness.

Joshua T. Katz is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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Image by romli via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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