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Independent Wealth: a Prerequisite for Speaking Up?

“This point deserves all the more consideration today, at a time in recent history that has become uniquely critical of concentrated wealth, both of the inherited and earned variety.”

In my November, 2019 Quillette essay “Elite Colleges Reconsidered,” I drew attention to a number of ailments that I argued were affecting universities, particularly of the so-called elite variety. That essay, which was informed by having attended two such American universities, focused primarily on issues impacting campus culture, as well as a few prevalent mindsets that were likely affecting students’ well-being and individuality. In doing so, I largely refrained from discussing explicitly the—for a lack of a better term—political concerns (i.e. self-censorship, curriculum overhauls, the renaming of things, disinvited speakers, and the near-constant gnashing of teeth over objectively minor grievances). This was primarily because—to the extent they can be separated from one another—I believed that the aforementioned lifestyle concerns had received a paucity of attention relative to the political issues. And, secondly, I had suspected that eventually cooler heads would prevail; that the incessant state of frenzy would wear out its participants; or that, like most fads, it would run its course.

As we now see clearly, this has not happened, and this fever pitch, one whose acute intensity has demonstrated a remarkable longevity, shows little sign of abating. To be clear, though matters have become particularly impassioned and widespread in the time since, say, 2015, the trend is not new. To this point, in 1991, the columnist George Will used his October 20th Washington Post column “Catechism of Correctness” to decry a trend that was already emergent: that of disinviting speakers and seeking to punish academics for being allegedly insufficiently sympathetic to certain left-leaning causes. Will, to this effect, discusses Arizona State University’s September, 1991 decision to cancel a speaking appearance by Linda Chavez, an appointee in the administration of President Ronald Reagan whose 1991 book Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation argued that Hispanic immigrants to the United States should prioritize using the English language. As Will wrote then, in a sentence that looks as if it might have been written today, “And the letter disinviting Chavez used the word ‘cancel.’” In the remainder of the column, the author also draws attention to a number of similar events that were taking place at the time, ones very similar to those that have attracted much attention during the past few years. (For instance, he reviewed the case of Alan Gribeen, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who had to depart the school after voting against various activist-driven curriculum changes.) So much for any good-old-day-ism that might suggest that the campus madness appeared largely out of nowhere in the fall of 2015.

Even though events such as these on university campuses are not precisely new, I will pause briefly to mention two recent events that, in my view, demonstrate the extent to which higher education has been entirely overrun by the forces Will was sounding the alarm about nearly 30 years ago. The first occurred in the fall of 2019 when University of California, Davis mathematics professor Abigail Thompson received a torrent of criticism (much of it ad hominem) for daring to oppose requiring applicants for jobs in mathematics to submit statements affirming commitments to “diversity” (and not diversity of the ideological variety, of course). This episode provided an ironclad rejoinder to those at the time who still pollyannaishly proclaimed that mathematics and the hard sciences were largely immune to the impulses swallowing the humanities and social sciences. Now, as an illustration of how widely this has spread, we see the most respected of medical journals putting out statements affirming commitments to critical race theory and rejecting a “colour-blind” approach to healthcare. (Interestingly enough, Will reprised some of the same arguments he put forward in October of 1991, labeling the Abigail Thompson controversy an example of higher education’s “mandatory political participation.”) And the second incident to which I will quickly draw attention is that of Arizona State University’s (yes, Arizona State again) July, 2020 decision to revoke Sonya Forte Duhé’s already-accepted job offer to become the dean of the university’s journalism school. The proximate cause appears to have been a social media post offered by Duhé in the days following the death of George Floyd: “for the family of George Floyd, the good police officers who keep us safe, my students, faculty and staff. Praying for peace on this #BlackOutTuesday.” Apparently, “praying for peace” is grounds for having one’s job offer rescinded.

Individual events of this sort are paired with survey findings that demonstrate the extent to which higher education has wandered astray from its purposes. Whatever answer is offered for its purpose—whether that be this idea of making the young old through introducing them to literature and received wisdom or the Oakeshottian concept of the university as a “a place apart” from the humdrum of a material world obsessed with practicality—pledging full institutional submission to whichever political movements happen to be in vogue has supplanted all else. So when looking through survey results on the degree to which students self-censor; the extent to which free speech is vanishing; or the staggering ideological homogeneity found among faculty members, it becomes difficult to reach any conclusion other than that universities, at least for the time being, have chosen ideology over inquiry. It is thus not surprising to hear a growing number of commentators writing off wholesale nearly every proclamation emerging from higher education, confident that ideological slant is as part and parcel of these places as shoddy dorm room air conditioning and endlessly circulating head colds.

To be sure, there are a few potential bright spots, even at elite universities. And, based on a discussion I recorded last month with Stephen Blackwood, I am not alone in imagining that there almost has to be a receptive market for colleges explicitly committed to presenting subjects sans politics. However, apart from the incessant hand-wringing, helplessly forwarded emails of news stories decrying the new low higher education has hit, or at-this-point-naive expressions of “I’m sure the pendulum will soon swing in the other direction,” one has to consider what ought to be done in the meantime. If universities are indeed lost as havens for excellent thinking (and, thus, inquiry and research are moving away from campuses and towards other places), how can such thinking be supported, funded, and insulated from the ideological pressures swallowing campuses and also similar institutions, such as think tanks?

As the truism goes, intellectuals are expensive. And, as a corollary, it is only wealthy societies (or wealthy segments of a given society) that can afford them. In our lifetimes, universities have been the preeminent funding source for thinking. As a result, the default in our collective, modern consciousness is to associate breakthroughs and eureka moments with campus bell towers and the other various symbols of the academy. It seems undeniable at this point, however, that an increasing share of excellent thinking has been migrating out of universities and to other loci, whether these be podcasts, upstart online magazines, or the ever-ascendant Substack. This should not come overwhelmingly as a surprise; historically, universities have been just one source for supporting thinking, the creation of art, and the like. Thinking has—at least in equal parts—been subsidized at various points by religious institutions, governments, dedicated patrons, and, of course, private family wealth. And it is to this final source that I would like to dedicate my focus in the remainder of this essay.

Save a brief foray to King’s College, Cambridge from 1896 to 1897, the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana was a member of the Harvard University faculty from 1889 to 1912. By all reports, he was unhappy there, believing that the duties associated with undergraduate teaching were at odds with producing original works of philosophy. There was too much in the way of moralizing (then, too, it seems, except on behalf of other morals). Furthermore, in his view, being cooped up on a university campus had inhibited many great minds, including that of his colleague William James. It was not, though, until the death of Santayana’s mother in 1912 that he was able to depart Harvard thanks, in large part, to his inheritance. It was then that he was able, as I alluded to in a recent newspaper column, to fulfill the ideal of how a philosopher should be: untethered from institutional requirements and, thus, free to “wander alone like the rhinoceros.” Similarly, one can imagine that other writers may have found themselves in similar binds to the one Santayana found at Harvard, had they not been freed from financial considerations by family wealth or inheritance. For instance, had E. M. Forster not been on the receiving end of the trust bequeathed to him by his great-aunt upon her death in 1887, he may have had to trade authorship of, say, A Passage to India for the lecture halls of the very university Santayana was complaining of when he wrote of being unable to “say what is really true” because of having constantly to “remember that you are in Cambridge…addressing the youth entrusted to your personal charge.” (Cambridge was, of course, Forster’s alma mater.)

This point deserves all the more consideration today, at a time in recent history that has become uniquely critical of concentrated wealth, both of the inherited and earned variety. So while authors such as Ben Burgis tell us that we must “abolish inherited wealth”—and various politicians, including President Joe Biden, toy with proposals dramatically to increase estate and gift taxes (as well as the capital gains tax)—it also remains the case that, increasingly, only those in comfortable financial situations are able to speak their minds freely, particularly when it comes to weighing-in on divisive political issues. This was, in essence, the thesis of Douglas MacKinnon’s recent Hill column “Elon Musk: Not broke, never woke, and in on the joke”: that it takes considerable financial independence to be able to flout openly whichever orthodoxies a society happens to subscribe to. This is also what Mark Hecht, himself relieved of his university teaching post on account of a 2019 Vancouver Sun op-ed, sensed when writing that, “It was rare for academics not protected by tenure or unlimited wealth openly to challenge the dogma of diversity.” So, today, with higher education in the state that it is, it is not only that financial independence provides the first prerequisite for excellent thinking (i.e. plenty of time); it also provides insulation from those who tie academic posts and funding grants to fealty to certain political causes. And with ideological diversity not only being marginalized but also being openly maligned as “an absolutely ludicrous concept,” it appears that independent wealth is one of the only remaining safeguards from being forced to parrot favored orthodoxies. To fail to do so, as the case of Mark Hecht (and the cases of many others) makes clear, can result in the loss of employment, the ability to care for one’s family, and all of the various compounding snags that tend to accompany unemployment.

Closely related to this entire conversation is a question that Blackwood and I grappled with in the aforementioned discussion we had last month. This question is whether something vital is lost when thinking migrates away from universities and towards other areas, particularly areas where such thinking is done more in solitude rather than in concert with others. This, after all, is one of the best self-defenses put forward by universities in response to the charge best summarized by film character Will Hunting when he said, “You dropped 150 grand on a fuckin’ education you could’ve got for a $1.50 in late charges at the public library.” As if anticipating this line of argument, I recall being at the convocation event at Duke University when I first arrived as a freshman. We, the newly arrived students, heard from a slate of speakers, including then-university President Richard Brodhead, Vice Provost Steve Nowicki, and others. The message conveyed was clear: Duke University was not the place for the proverbial solitary genius toiling away with ideas in seclusion. Rather, it was an institution committed to communal scholarship or, as Nowicki put it, “It’s only through this community of collective interchange and shared experience—the community you’ll find here at Duke—that you’ll best be able to create and contribute your own substance.”

The debate between the solitary approach (i.e. Andrew Wiles) and those who have favored the more collaborative (i.e. Paul Erdős) is not—and, likely, need not be—settled. As we know, some thinkers such as Santayana have come down squarely on the side of being that solitary “rhinoceros.” (He would be joined by the likes of Emil Cioran, who considered a state of exile to be “the best possible status for an intellectual.”) The point, however, is that at this moment in time (and at the majority of places, apart from a few institutions truly committed to ideological diversity), this debate is a purely theoretical one. The overwhelming majority of locations for so-called collaborative thinking have entirely supplicated themselves before certain political causes, and before an activist class that tolerates shockingly little dissent.

In an ideal world, sources of funding for excellent (and unhampered) thinking would be varied and manifold. However, as universities, think tanks, and an untold number of organizations become expressly political, one has to latch onto what existing bulwarks we still have. One of these, of course, is the sort of wealth that enables true financial independence to speak one’s mind. Although prevailing mindsets today seek to associate wealth with hoarding and self-indulgence at the expense of the common good, it is important to recall that such wealth in the correct hands has historically been of significant social benefit. This is not only limited to some of the literary and aesthetic contributions mentioned earlier à la Santayana and Forster, or even with Theodore Roosevelt Sr.-style philanthropy. Financial independence has also been associated with increased levels of entrepreneurship, as well as the ability to pursue public interest careers that may have otherwise been supplanted by money-making. For instance, to the latter point, had it not been for his family members, particularly his older brother Charles Phelps Taft, William Howard Taft, who would become the 27th President of the United States, would have almost certainly had to depart public life for money-making long before. It was only because his family members considered Taft’s talents uniquely suited for a political life that they continued to encourage him not to forgo this path, while supporting him financially along the way.

To be clear, the argument I am putting forward is far from the only one that might be raised to oppose the broadly redistributionist tax policies that are generating increasing support in countries such as the United States. (Perhaps, needless to say at this point, the ongoing pandemic is being used as the excuse for pursuing these policies.) Others might rightfully assert that one’s money is theirs to do with as they wish even long after death—and even in the case of those such as Leona Helmsley who opted to leave $12 million to her pet maltese. Similarly, the case might be made against this leveling impulse in general, an impulse that seeks—in a matter reminiscent of L.P. Hartley’s Facial Justice—to make all the same and reject the very notion of rising above. For our purposes, however, I am not seeking to make an argument in the proverbial vacuum that a society ought to be judged by the caliber of the elites it produces or that universities are necessarily dispositionally hostile to independent thought. Rather, this is an argument tailored to this era, a time in which free expression is threatened by politics and also a time in which so much thinking, creation, and research is nested in universities. Should we fail to ensure excellent thinking is financially insulated from these forces, the lost strides will be enormous. Independent wealth—whether for personal use by a given thinker or to be leveraged to provide patronage—is a vital remaining bulwark against groupthink reaching every corner of our society. As we are increasingly coming to learn, it is only now when one is insulated from cancellation or termination from his post (or is financially independent) that he can finally, truly speak his mind.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. 

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