What Will U-Austin Teach? Will It Have a Core, Perhaps of Statesmanship?

When I consider what academe has become, I feel like a boy at the grave of my father. The Harvard I arrived at in 1960, with its Gen-Ed core inspired by the Red Book of 1948, with Finley and Alfred, with Riesman and Erikson, with Harry Levin, George Wald, and Charles Paul Segal, and with Paul Tillich’s two-year course “The Self-Interpretation of Man in the West,”—such a Harvard does not exist.

How heartening then to hear of the conception of U-Austin, the quickening of seed-money, and a birth coming soon. Clearly, this university will make speech free again, free of the restrictions, intimidations, and punishments, that destroy a community, but especially one devoted to truth, for “Truth is the child of friends who differ” (as Hume nearly said), but after speech is free, what will be said?1 None of the cows, horses, and donkeys of Greater Austin have ever prevented the others from mooing, whinnying, and braying, and yet such a peaceable kingdom doth not a college make. Knowing what one is against is not yet to know what one is for, and many combinations of the oppressed, after they prevail, soon drift apart, even into enmity.

What sort of speech, then, what sort of inquiry, what purpose will animate U-Austin? Good students want studies that speak to their best desires, render them educated, and spur them to achievement, and to satisfy this worthy ambition, faculties used to provide a curriculum. Earlier, as bewildered and wondrous freshmen, such students ask, what do I need first, what shall I fall in love with, so that the soul within me, longing for something great, finds it, embraces it, and attains all that Nature and Nature’s God destines for me—to this longing, the faculty used to answer with a core curriculum.2

How does U-Austin propose to satisfy such core desires?  From a piece by founder Niall Ferguson I learn that along with majors there will be a two-year core, generally described as “liberal arts,” but what will be its emphasis, its shape, its parts, their relation, their order, and how will it be taught? In lectures, sections, seminars, tutorials, how?

The combination of such a two-year core and majors is a rare niche in American academe. There is today only one college I know of in that niche, the University of Dallas. Its core has a decided emphasis on literature, importantly because of its gifted founder, Louise Cowan, and with later diminution of philosophy and theology, literature even more dominant now.

What will U-Austin emphasize in its core? I read praise of the spirit of discovery, entrepreneurship, and high achievement, and notice mention of two majors, History and Politics, the one gathering the good of the past, the other looking to make the future good. What in a core might fit them? Statesmanship? If so, please forgive me for offering a sketch of such a core with some unusual features.

[Related: “Academia Needs Builders, Not Burners: What Charlie Kirk Gets Wrong About Higher Education”]

As a beginner at Dartmouth five decades ago, I proposed an honors program, something like St. John’s; and then at the University of Dallas, I found it living as a core for all, but only shared by the students, not the teachers; thus only later at George Wythe, a great books college centered on statesmanship, did we teach it all, not just the literature and philosophy, as I had, chiefly Shakespeare and Nietzsche, but all the history of our civilization, with its great statesmen, and our American founding. Drawing on the proposal I made in its waning days to my old track teammate at Deerfield, pole-vaulter Dave Koch, let me sketch such a core, especially for its special features.

Any core worth the name will enjoin students to study the great works of our civilization, and thus share in the great conversations that have founded it, three being faith and reason, poetry and philosophy, and ancients and moderns—but a core of statesmanship should, while gazing high to philosophy, look forward to the life of action, and thus emphasize political philosophy, for its address to the great issues of justice, the good, and the virtues, and to the question of the best regime, thus to the claims of Ancient natural right, Christian natural law, and Modern natural rights, but throughout concentrating on prudence, the defining virtue of the statesman. (“Prudence” having declined into timid calculation, it were better to speak of practical wisdom, or better still, sagacity.)

Instances without maxims are deaf, and maxims without instances are blind. We have principles, rules, and laws to guide us, but liberty fills our lives with choices, including when to follow the rule, and when it is better to choose the exception.

Accordingly, such a core should be rich in literature, for in it we find the vivid incarnations of the vices to be opposed in others, and checked in ourselves, and what only models of the virtues can provide, persons to be imitated, even to be emulated, and especially those heroic judges, legislators, and statesmen who face the hard choices in public life, of peace and war, obliging one to balance competing goods and teaching us to bear the inevitable disappointments of this life, in which choosing a greater good renders one guilty of sacrificing a lesser. Not by accident are Shakespeare’s Histories tragic.  Indispensable, I think, is Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for its stress on the friction, the contingency, the multiplicity of small causes in all life, checking the lure of simplicity, be it of “the root cause” or “the deep conspiracy,” that choke discussion with rage and justify sweeping measures, even utopian annihilations.

For the making of a statesman, there is guidance in Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies, with its pithy appreciations of seventy-nine works of mostly literature; for the statesmen who also wrote there is Dan Mahoney’s recent Statesman as Thinker; and specially relevant to a university pioneering in Texas is Robert Kaplan’s Earning the Rockies linking the settlement of our West to our fated role keeping the world orderly now. Yes, we here in dusty Fredericksburg, west of “keep it weird” Austin, know that one generation settling the West launches the next to patrol the oceans of the world, in carriers named for our hometown boy Chester Nimitz.

Such a core should also be ample in history, but not much in big lectures (so passive an experience for students), instead in seminars studying the great historians, from Herodotus to Solzhenitsyn, intensively, and also in single courses on the great statesmen, Alexander, Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Charles V, Elizabeth, Lincoln, Churchill, and De Gaulle. Throughout all one’s study, one should write, write, write, journals (ungraded) and big papers (scrutinized thoroughly). As Bacon says, “Reading maketh a full man, conversation a ready man, and writing an exact man.” But since statesmanship is action as well as study, we may add “and play maketh the statesman.” Witness playwright John Paul II, actor Ronald Reagan, and comic Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

[Related: “Bucking the Trend and Starting from Scratch: The University of Austin”]

Yes, such a core in statesmanship will be challenging as never before, and memorable forever, if in each of the four terms students “play” one of the “serious history games” best exemplified by Patrick Coby’s Constitutional Convention of 1787 in which students get to be “little Mr. Madison,” hold forth for six hours as Hamilton, and strive against slavery as Gouveneur Morris, while your teacher presides as Washington, in the drama that might this time yield a different outcome (as in the “alternative history” that Niall Ferguson and others appreciate). Coby’s guide to the teacher says, “You must warn your students not to neglect all their other classes,” and students tell me, “It’s permanent inoculation against sophomore wisdom ‘not cool to participate.’” That includes speaking in public, which used to be taught in academe and is ever a practice of statesmanship in a Republic such as ours—so we can keep it.3

How much should the teachers participate in this core? As the students will be sharing the whole of it, so should their teachers, though perhaps not in two years. Lincoln said his education consisted in Euclid, Bible, and Shakespeare. The scope of study that was good for that statesman will be good for future statesmen, taught by teachers who know it too.

To crown such a curriculum, a “Capstone” course, on The History of the Present Time (say from 1968 on), and proceeding by considering rival accounts of the major events that have led to the present state of our civilization, should be shared by all students before they go forth to do something good for themselves and for our civilization.

Finally, wishing that this bold venture prosper, may I suggest that such a college might be named for a statesman, maybe Cicero, Tocqueville, or perhaps Churchill, or best, I think, for Lincoln, but if “U-Austin” would give some attention to Austin’s statesmanship in the founding of Texas, and for “foreign study,” some bright June day attend the Fandangle in Albany, West Texas.

Churchill tells us that “Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy decisions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.” Something like the same is required of founders—of states, but also universities—by deciding on the curriculum.


1 See the summer 2022 issue of Academic Questions for my account of what should be said at colleges, including an invigoration for any college still with a curriculum.

2 For one teacher’s address to such freshmen, listen to Jordan Peterson’s invitation to Ralston College at their website.

3 Coby’s Constitutional Convention game and his Reformation Parliament of Henry VIII, in which you might suffer beheading, can be purchased from the University of North Carolina Press. Visit also reactingconsortium.org.


Image: Adobe Stock

Michael Platt

Dr. Michael Platt studied at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, and taught at Dartmouth, the University of Dallas, Heidelberg, and elsewhere. He is the author of "Mighty Opposites: Machiavelli and Shakespeare Match Wits" and "Seven Wonders of Shakespeare." For more information, visit Friends of the Republic: friendsoftherepublic.com.

5 thoughts on “What Will U-Austin Teach? Will It Have a Core, Perhaps of Statesmanship?

  1. As an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin (’84), as is my wife (’83), this project captured my attention in a couple of dimensions that I describe in the below Chronicle of Higher Education opinion. Regards.

    https://archive.ph/5NBBn

    1. Sadly, your thesis overlooks a critical fact: UT Austin is not interested in facilitating this kind of activity, and indeed actively opposes it.

      You mention the Liberty Institute, but seem to be unaware with what actually happened with it. Once the program — which would have been a privately endowed, autonomous center modeled on the Hoover Institute at Stanford, focused on free expression, free market, limited government scholarship — the wokesters at UT went ape. How dare UT even think about offering such an “ideological” program that was “unwoke”! And how dare they set it up such that it would not be subject to UT’s new DEI hiring rules supervised by the UT’s DEI commissars?

      At the slightest whisper of resistance, UT President Hartzell promptly folded like a taco, lobotomized the program, and sidelined the academics behind it. And, as usual, Gov. Abbott went completely AWOL, despite being an initial supporter of the effort.

      Rich Lowery — the plaintiff in the test case against TAMU — tells the sad story here:

      https://www.aier.org/article/how-ut-austin-administrators-destroyed-an-intellectual-diversity-initiative/

      For UATX to succeed, it will have to do it on its own, or perhaps partner with a private school like Concordia. But the pressure will be on those institutions not to give UATX any assistance.

  2. The Plan II honors program (of which I am an alumnus) at UT Austin used to provide exactly this kind of old school liberal arts education. Small and extremely selective (at that time), the program pretty much dictated your first two years of study — your only options were what foreign language you studied to fluency, which Plan II freshman seminar (8-10 students) you took, and whether you took the Plan II pre-med bio course or the Plan II non pre-med one [both were extremely tough].

    Classes (especially seminars and literature courses) were very small and typically limited to Plan II students, and professors competed to teach them. And yes, they were very challenging: expectations were high and the profs pushed you hard.

    If you completed the first two years with the required GPA (I believe it was 3.25 minimum), then you were largely free to design your own upperclass curriculum. (I leveraged my Plan II status into special permission to take graduate level courses as a senior.) And then you had to write and orally defend your undergraduate thesis. All in all, a great program that gave the classic liberal arts education, at state school prices and with all the resources and culture of a large research university.

    Alas, while Plan II still exists today, UT has lobotomized it on the altar of DEI, and having a “diverse” class is more important than the meritocracy it used to be. Sad.

  3. 4 + 5/7 = 9/11

    The Harvard freshman of 1960 became the junior faculty of the 1970s and then the “tenured radicals” of the 1980s & 1990s.

    It’s not just the curriculum but who is teaching it, and that’s the question I would ask about Harvard circa 1960 — who were the TAs???

  4. “…heroic judges, legislators, and statesmen who face the hard choices in public life, of peace and war…”

    lol

    I persevered up to that point.

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