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Intro. [Recording date: March 8, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is March 8, 2022. And, I want to let listeners know about two reading opportunities in advance of upcoming episodes in the next month or so. I'm going to be talking about greed in Tolstoy and Adam Smith using the Tolstoy's story, "Master and Man." So, please consider reading that story in advance. And, Dwayne Betts is going to be returning to EconTalk to discuss Primo Levi and Ralph Ellison and their books, If This Is a Man by Levi, and Levi's book, The Truce, alongside Ellison's book, Invisible Man.
You might want to do some of that reading in advance. We'll put links to those books on the page for today's episode.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing today's guest with the Blackwire 5220.
And, now, that guest, Pano Kanelos, the founding president of the UATX, a university to be established in Austin, Texas. Pano, welcome EconTalk.
Pano Kanelos: A great pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Russ Roberts: You became a university president in 2017 at an unusual college, St. John's [in Annapolis, Maryland--Econlib Ed.]. Tell our listeners what's distinctive about St. John's and what it's like being a college president--something I've also become.
Pano Kanelos: Sure. Well, St. John's College is rather distinctive place. Even in the kind of--United States has sort of an infinite variety of types of college universities: secular, faith-based, small, large, technically oriented, liberal arts-focused. And, in that landscape, St. John's stands out. St. John's is the third oldest college in the United States. It was founded in 1696. So, actually before there was a United States. It was Harvard, William and Mary, and then St. John's. And, it has maintained its legacy of being a premier liberal arts institution since that time.
In the 1930s--1937--St. John's made its move towards a very distinctive curriculum, which is called the New Program. It's still called the New Program all these years later. And, the New Program was an attempt to harness, say, the energy of the Great Books movement that was nascent at the time. Mortimer Adler and others were promoting the Great Books as a kind of antidote to the, what they saw as the anodyne, soulless universities that had given up on the focus of thinking about the great human questions and focusing more on narrow disciplinary research.
So, the curriculum of St. John's is essentially a single curriculum for all students, all undergraduates. The undergraduates are there for four years, and they essentially read their way through about 200 Great Books, mostly from the Western tradition, beginning in the ancient world and making their way to the modern world. Although St. John's modern world stops around 1950. It doesn't get much past that.
It's a really comprehensive curriculum. I mean, oftentimes, when you mention liberal arts, people think you're talking about the humanities exclusively. The liberal arts do encompass humanities, social sciences, natural sciences--essentially all forms of knowledge. And so, the St. John's curriculum is structured like that. You will do seminars and tutorials in mathematics and languages. You do two years of Greek, two years of French. In music, in philosophy, in physics, in the natural sciences like biology.
But, all these subjects are tackled through original texts--through Great Books. For example, the very first mathematics tutorial freshmen take, they read Euclid. That's how you start. You start studying geometry by actually going back and reading Euclid. And, beginning with the fundamental and first question that Euclid asked, which is: What is a point? That's [?]a philosophical question, like: What is a point, what is that thing that we call a point? And beginning from there outwards.
The instruction is almost universally conversational, Socratic, around a table. There are some hands-on labs, but those also generate conversation. And, it's a music performance, choral performance, and that. But, it's a place that's really stayed true to its original vision: that you gather together a group of intellectually ambitious students and faculty. And, you read books together and talk about them.
Russ Roberts: And, we've had Zena Hitz on the program who is a tutor at St. John's. You don't have professors there. I think you have tutors--people who lead those conversations.
Shalem College, where I'm the president, has similar aspirations. We do not do education exactly the way that St. John's does. But, we do believe deeply in the reading of great texts when possible around a small table with a small group of students. And, that's very special. You could argue there are many things in life that you'd like to know about that are best delivered as a lecture.
But, I would focus on the question and ask you: What happens to a person who goes through that for four years of that particular kind of small group conversation, grappling with those great texts? What's it do to your brain?
Pano Kanelos: That's a great question. When you're in a position of always having to discuss the text that you're reading, as opposed to passively accept something called a lecture, right? So, you have a kind of constant sense of involvement, an agency. Over time, that develops an intensely critical faculty, your rational [?assidutive? as in 'assiduity'?] powers--the muscle is really, really strengthened.
And, I would often say that after four years of reading these books--and they're difficult books. You're reading the papers of Einstein, Lobachevsky. These students are reading musical theory, rather than just how to sing notes. They're studying ancient languages. And doing all this, I think, after a while, produces a graduate who can--this may sound a little trite, but I like the phrase--sort of solve the Rubik's cube of life. Right? So, what do you end up becoming? A problem-solver. Somebody who is grappling with very difficult questions and trying to find your way forward towards answers that are better than the ones that you started with.
And, graduates of St. John's, I think, are outfitted to do that well beyond their college experience. They go in many, many fields, but whether they go into finance, or the academy, or sciences, or politics, what they're primarily seen as are people who can identify and solve for thorny issues and problems. And, so, I think that's what it produces--is kind of the critical muscle that's essential to a flourishing life.
Russ Roberts: Leon Kass sometimes summarizes--the dean of faculty here, and I know a longtime friend of yours and mine--it produces thoughtful people. And, that sounds kind of blasé in a certain level, and deeply profound on another. I often say that if you come to Shalem College, you learn how to think, read, write, and listen. And, that last one is not obvious to most people. But, when you sit around a table with 20 people in a contentious conversation about Plato or any aspect of what is a life well-lived, or what does a text really mean?--or, what's the implication for us today or our country?--could get, it gets lively. And, you have to learn how to be respectful of others, if it's taught well.
But, you do confront the problem that you don't have a barcode on your forehead when you leave St. John's or Shalem College that says 'I am now fit to be a dentist,' or fill in the blank: a software engineer, an accountant. You have not learned a formal set of pre-professional skills, which increasingly is what college is about, right?
There's an enormous number of students who major in business, engineering, STEM generally--Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Those are all wonderful. I have no problem with them.
But, when you get liberal arts education, which is strongly oriented toward the humanities, you don't have an easy label to put on yourself. Now, what we find here at Shalem is that our students are in great demand, despite the fact that they don't have the label.
But, it's reasonable that a young person in advance of attending such a place would be anxious about that. So, it tends to attract, I think, potentially students who aren't worried about whether they're going to be able to do anything when they get out. Only to discover that they can do something. At least that's our experience here. I'm curious what you notice there.
Pano Kanelos: So, many things to talk about. So, let me unpack a little bit.
So, first of all, having the barcode on your forehead to scan your, sort of, qualifications for what comes next: I'm not sure that most conventional academic programs actually provide that either. The things we call majors, the things we call degrees, I don't know that most of them line up perfectly with professional life that follows that. I mean, in some technical fields--
Russ Roberts: Not at all. I agree with you. But, at least, the resumé has a thing at the top that looks like it's related to a thing in the real world. That's all I really meant. Sorry.
Pano Kanelos: And, I think that's right. No. And, I think that's right.
I would say, I think the perception of the value of that is changing even on the end of those who are hiring young people. The idea that degrees, narrowly construed or some power[?having?] qualifications--I think the age of the college degree is coming, which is a different discussion.
But, I do think, as you say, with Shalem College, the graduates of St. John's are highly sought after.
And, I think it's because those who are familiar with the college understand that it is an intensely rigorous education. And so, whatever you're doing for four years, it's really challenging and hard; and students who graduate having--it's an achievement to graduate in a program like that. And so, I think that's the primary equality that many graduate schools or employers are looking for: graduates who are capable of pushing through a very rigorous academic program, whatever that program, whatever the content of that program might be.
I'd like to return for a second, though, to your--you mentioned being able to listen as a primary quality that's produced by Shalem. And, I think by St. John's, as well. I think, John's, we had only two rules for the classroom. One was that every opinion must be heard--so you have to listen no matter what. And, the second was that every opinion must be backed up by evidence. So, you can speak. You can be heard, but you also have to provide evidence. And, then, that gives somebody something to respond to.
And, so, there is a kind of intense quality of listening that you find in a St. John's seminar. But, even more than that--you mentioned how things can get contentious and loud. The thing that was most shocking to me when I first joined that community and I started to--I would tutor, myself, even though I was the president. So, I was involved in seminars and [?]. The thing that most shocked me was the silence in the classroom.
At St. John's, there can be extended periods of silence in the middle of a discussion. Because, somebody will make a point. And, the students, the tutors, are often processing what's said and trying to be thoughtful before they respond. And, sometimes, that silence extends, you know, 20, 30 seconds, maybe a minute. And, for somebody like me--and I'm just a loud Greek guy--it was excruciating until I became accustomed to it.
Because you would want to jump in but something's wrong. I'm in a classroom. I have students and yet nobody's saying anything. That seemed to me to be a problem. And, what I realized later on was: It was a feature. It was a feature.
Russ Roberts: It's one of the great, I think, innovations of modern sports announcing. It took a long time for people to appreciate it. But, a lot of sports announcing, especially over the radio, is filling the space and the time, and making sure that there's no 'dead air,' as it's called. Vin Scully, the announcer for the Dodgers--I think he's recognized as the person who really started to do this, I think when, after of Sandy Koufax's, maybe one of his perfect games, had one perfect game, I think. Or after the Gibson home run in the World Series, which was just so dramatic.
He just doesn't say anything. He doesn't fill the time.
And, so, as the participant, you're filling the time with your own thoughts. You're hearing the roar of the crowd--if you're on the radio, or you're watching TV, or watching the moment. And, I think a great announcer--just like a great tutor, maybe even a great podcast host--knows that sometimes silence is golden. It's the right thing to allow to fill the time.
Pano Kanelos: And, I think that may be what Leon, Mr. Kass, meant by education: It produces thoughtful people. Because, thought has to happen in time. And, when we're always jumping in and we're always responding and the kind of the noise, the static noise of the world that we live in is kind of overwhelming us, you have to be able to pull back from that and give yourself the opportunity to develop thought. And, so, yeah, I think silence is an indicator--not always--but an indicator that thought may be happening. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. We're in a--we're recording this in the, I was going to say in the middle of the Russian/Ukraine war. It would be amazing if it was the middle. It may be near the end. It may be very much near the beginning. But, I talked to a friend right before you, we got on the line together, you and I. Everyone has jumped in, instantly, and they seem to have forgotten that real life is not Twitter. It's a mistake on Twitter to respond too quickly. It's really a mistake to respond to an invasion too quickly from the outside.
A lot of people are not giving a lot of thought to what their suggestions or actions might lead to.
It's a fascinating moment, but I do think our culture--I'm not making a deep point here about the world's response to this horrible invasion. I'm just really making a point about our eagerness often to jump in with a comment or an action and thought, is that thinking first seems like a really good idea.
Russ Roberts: I want to ask you about the curriculum. And, we have similar a issue here at Shalem. Our students read Homer. They read Plato and Aristotle. They read the Chumash, the Jewish Bible, the Talmud, commentary on the Bible in Jewish law, as part of their heritage. It's not a religious institution. It's part of their heritage as citizens of the Jewish state of Israel. And, a lot of people would say, 'Well, those books were, they were good a long time ago.' Shakespeare--I can't even really understand them. I mean, come on. What do you say to people when they--I mean, can't we find something more modern and better? Why are we reading these old books? I mean, Euclid? Come on.'
Pano Kanelos: Well, the first thing that I would challenge is the idea that modern equals better. All right. That's a particular kind of notion.
I mean, it's really strange. If you think about the fact that we call the period that we live in the 'Modern Period,' on the one hand, what we mean is, you know, this is the period of--we need lots of things, right? But, it's the period of now, the period that we live in. But, by calling it modern, it's also a value-judgment, that somehow this nowness, this present moment is qualitatively better than what's come before. Kind of fetishize the present and the modern period, and assume that everything that's come before is somehow compromised in one way or another.
But, you know, I think the world that we live in today--the wars that we continue to have, the strife that we have--clearly indicates that we have not achieved any degree of human perfection, and maybe not significant degrees of human progress. So, I think we have to think about that.
So, I think, you know, why turn to old books? Why turn to things that pre-date us? Part of the reason is they are hard. And, just the exercise of trying to work through something that's not easy.
It's like foreign travel. You travel to places that are different from the one you came from because it's stimulating and challenging, or it should be. And in that experience, you both experience what the location has to offer. But, it also gives you an opportunity for growth or transformation.
This is what happens in Shakespeare, in the comedies. There is a kind of dynamic of beginning somewhere. So, the comedies begin somewhere familiar, usually a court or a city or a town, or a manor house of some sort. There's a problem that needs to be solved.
And, the main characters travel. They go out into what Northrop Frye called the Green World often--some unfamiliar space, somewhere where their identities are challenged, or their ideas are sort of refreshed. And then they return back to the original location, transformed as human beings.
I think that's what books provide for us, as well as travel--that a book is a journey into a Green World, a place that is not our place, or identities aren't exactly aligned with our identities.
And, they force us to reflect upon our own life, our own situations, the questions we ask. And that's immensely valuable. So, reading old books can provide that experience.
I would also say, in terms of understanding who we are in the moment in which we live, most of these books we qualify as great, and I don't necessarily think they are The Great Books. I mean, I think there are great books. And, none of that--you can't capture the totality of all Great Books in any curriculum.
But, let's say books that we qualify as great are books that have generally had significant impact on the culture in which we live, the world in which we live. So, they've been absorbed into the bloodstream.
So, understanding, you know, the way, for example, Shakespeare thought about kingship is to also understand the way the British and other Europeans think about kingship over time. And, how political regimes evolved into what we have today. That's part of this story. So, understanding these older texts to understand the story that predates us but it's also our story.
Russ Roberts: If I could just weigh in on this because those are the two answers--I give variants of that. Those are beautiful.
I like to think about Faulkner in his Nobel Prize address, where he talks about great art being about the human heart in conflict with itself. In many ways, that's the essence of life: the human heart in conflict with itself. There are things you want, that you think maybe[?] are good for you, the things you'd like to want that you don't want that you might grow to like if you worked at it. You have urges to do things that you recognize as wrong or that come with a cost or a price. And, how do you deal with that?
And, great literature, for example, like the Iliad or the Odyssey, deals with those kind of dilemmas.
And, to continue the sports reference: We like to talk about could Babe Ruth--how would he do against a pitcher who can throw 100 miles? What would it be like? And, what's great about literature is that--Babe Ruth's still playing. Homer was really good at the human heart in conflict with itself. And, it's true--it's a little bit archaic, might be the language in the case of Shakespeare, or it's a poem in the case of Homer--which makes it a little less accessible than it might be if it were written as a children's story. But, of course, it also makes it better. Often. The eloquence of it moves you and forces you to internalize it in a way you wouldn't if someone just told you what it meant. And, that's the part of the challenge that you were talking about. I think it allows you to own it.
And, to use the line that Agnes Callard used on EconTalk: 'Learn how to talk to dead people.' And, so you're talking with the people around you in the room, but also in conversation with the author. And, that's a transcendent human experience.
So, I think it's a value in and of itself. I think it's one of the most extraordinary things that we can experience as a human being that lifts us above the material and the physical. But, I do think it's useful. I think it's powerful.
And, the way I would think of it--you talk about it as sort of problem-solving. That goes too far for me. I think most of the interesting challenges in life, you don't solve. You just deal with them, grapple with them, do the best you can. And, you get answers, not--you don't answer the problem. You get better answers than you might otherwise find, or that are more comforting, or that are more human.
But I think--when I think about what a great education is, it's transforming your brain to apply what you know to things you haven't seen before. And, it's clear to me, to do that, you need facts and information: facts and information by themselves, which are mainly what are communicated in a lecture format, a great lecture can do more than that. A great lecture can open your brain. But, the classroom seminar style grappling that we're talking about, almost by definition forces you to internalize it in a way and have it be useful to you, synthesize it with other things you've read and learned, and allows you to have an understanding--not just a factual knowledge--an understanding. Which is such a deeper idea. It means that you can use the knowledge and apply it to things, see its relevance to other things that you wouldn't otherwise notice. And, I think that's what's at the heart of this kind of education when it's delivered well.
Pano Kanelos: I couldn't agree more. You put it much better than I could do so myself. I would say--I mean, the heart of what you're saying, which I agree with, is that the purpose of education is not the acquisition of knowledge. It's the acquisition of wisdom.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well said.
Pano Kanelos: Right? And, so, what do you do? Yes, we learn things. We can apprehend facts. There's content. But so, what? It's sort of all swirling around there. What do we do with this? What choices do we make? What further questions do we ask?
And, I do think, to return to the challenges, the challenging texts present, the kind of attention that--we talked before about listening. You have to listen to the texts, too, on their own terms, right? You can't run through these texts. You can't shout at them. They have something to say to you. And oftentimes, you have to take it carefully and slowly.
And, I'll give you a real quick example just from last night. So, I have a son in seventh grade, 12 years old, and they're doing Macbeth in their literature class. So, they're performing short scenes in little groups. And, he drew the short straw. So, he's Macbeth in his scene. And, so, we were going over his lines. And, early in the play when he meets the weird sisters--witches--and as he kind of comes across them, he says, 'Stay.' Right? And, then, continues with another line. And, my son said, 'Why does he say "Stay?"' I said, 'What do you think he means?' And, he said, 'Well, he means Stop.' And, I said, 'Well, what's the difference between stop and stay? What does stay imply that stop might not?'
And, he was thinking. And, he said something along the lines of, 'Well, it sounds more like he wants them to spend time with him. Like, he wants them to remain because he has something to say or do to them, as opposed to just stop them on some forward progress.' And, I thought: That's exactly right. And, just that brief interpretive conversation that we had about literature, I think, gave us a moment to think.
And then, of course, that opens up the question, is: Why would he be so eager to have them around? They're witches. They have this and that. And, so, you start thinking about the psychology of Macbeth, [?]the moment and that. It's listening to the text. It's taking your time with it, so that it presents to you questions that you have to grapple with, stumble forward with, etc.
Russ Roberts: Listeners may not know, Pano, that you're a Shakespeare scholar. So, the only thing this reminds me of is Bill James--my last sports reference probably for this conversation. But, Bill James, the person who really invented the application of statistical techniques to baseball, revealed on this program that he was a Little League coach. And, I found that very amusing. I find this equally. He said he got yelled at a lot by his parents. And I'm thinking, 'Do they know who they're talking to?'
So, you know, if the teacher--I can imagine the teacher telling you, 'Son, no, no. It just means stop.' And your son is saying, 'Well, my dad says--' and he's just--'Well, actually....' Anyway.
Russ Roberts: Now, there are many ways to learn. The classroom is one. Life is another. I have found my first year on the job here as president of a college to be shockingly educational, a little bit traumatically so but mostly for the good. How did being a president of a college change you? Or teach you?
Pano Kanelos: Teach, I think, is a better formulation. The way that Eva Brann, who is the most senior tutor at St. John's, described the work of the president to me when I first got it--she took me under her wing and wanted to make sure that I understood the culture of St. John's, its history. And, there's nobody who better embodies it than her. And, she said, 'Look,'-- because I had been a dean before this. So, I was a dean of an Honors College, a Great Books Honors College at Valparaiso University. And she said, 'Look: The job of the dean is to preserve the essence of the college. The job of the president is to preserve the existence of the college.' So, the essence and existence, right? So, suddenly, I was on that side of an equation. And, I'd always lived on the other side. Right? And, I had been a professor, teacher, dean, academic and that[?] scholar. I thought, 'Oh, my goodness, this is weighty. This is weighty, to be responsible for the existence of an institution.' It's intimidating.
And, not that all the work falls on the shoulders of the president, but ultimately, you are claiming a kind of ultimate responsibility for the challenges that you face, the decisions that are made.
And, what it taught me was that you always--every decision has to be informed by first principles. Everything has to kind of circle back to: What is the purpose of this institution? Why is it here? And, anything that conflicts with that needs to be treated with caution.
And, this could be something major, like when you're talking about curricular changes or admissions policies with faculty, and like you've circled back to the first principles.
It could be something financial. For example, St. John's has a very consistent commitment to not hiring adjunct faculty. Right? That if you're a tutor at St. John's, you're full-time. But, sometimes they have tutors who are there for a period of time and not on the tenure track. They're full-time, and they're paid the same as tutors. They're brought into the community and that.
When you're a president trying to meet a budget, adjunct faculty is a shortcut. That's what a lot of presidents do. You kind of hire in these--you bring the hired guns, and you pay them less than you pay the faculty. And it's a way to square the circle. And, when we were--as all colleges do--struggling with financial matters at St. John's, the temptation that any college president would have would be to go down that route to some extent.
But, the first principles of the place don't allow it. It's not the kind of place--so you have to find another way to get to where you need to go.
So, I think that's what I learned, is that every institution is--the existence of every institution is predicated upon maintaining the essence of the institution.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think a lot about Nassim Nicholas Taleb, frequent EconTalk guest. And, one thing I learned from him--which is easy to learn as a maximum, but very hard to learn as a strategy for life--is to avoid downside risk. Don't focus on the average, because it doesn't apply to you. Every time, you get an actual draw from the urn, and if the draw is death, bankruptcy, etc., you don't get to keep playing and earn the average. And, that's a very simple insight, very hard to remember in life, often. And, fairly early in my tenure here, I realized that that was my job. Exactly what you said. Got to keep the place--keep the lights on.
And, that seems--and of course--yeah, sure, sure,sure, sure. Of course, you have to keep the light--you have to keep the place going. But, it changes the way you think about it.
A lot of people pressured me early on to talk about what our measure of success would be here at Shalem. And, I came up with a very unsatisfying measure. My measure of success is: Are we building a place we want to build? Which is a different way of saying what you just said: Does it capture our first principles?
And, when you focus on that, it changes how you make decisions, and it's very powerful.
And yet, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. And, I assume that's Shakespeare. Is it Shakespeare? Do you know?
Pano Kanelos: Yeah, it is.
Russ Roberts: Where's it from? Do you know?
Pano Kanelos: The Second [Richard II--Econlib Ed.].
Russ Roberts: Okay. Richard II. Not in my wheelhouse.
Pano Kanelos: It's okay. I couldn't tell you anything about sports, so don't worry about it.
Russ Roberts: Uhhh, okay.
Russ Roberts: Let's segue to the state of education more generally. The humanities, in particular, are in great decline over the last, I would say 50 years in America. And, they are under attack at the same time. Which is quite a feat, actually. That, they are, I think, increasingly irrelevant, and yet the focus of much conversation and venom. What's wrong? What's gone wrong there? Do you have a thought on that?
Pano Kanelos: I think there are several different ways to approach this question. Two come quickly to mind. On the one hand is--we've touched upon this earlier--the notion that the purpose of higher education is to prepare one for professional life. And that, the more narrowly that a degree or an experience at a college university tracks on to some sort of professional opportunity afterwards, the more valuable that is. So, the most common major in the United States is Business. Well, I think it's not too hard to make the cognitive leap, that if you study Business, you get to do business.
But, the leap between History, or Philosophy, or English, or the Arts, Music, etc., and what comes after--that's hard.
And, in a society where the price of higher education both for students and families, and the cost of educating young people, is increasing exponentially it feels like, there's a kind of risk calculation that's often made by students--you know, whether or not they can afford to not have as direct as possible a through-line from what they study in college to what comes after.
So, even if they've loved literature, they kind of--they hesitate. That's--I think that's part of the decline from the student side, let's say.
I think in terms of the disciplinary side, I think--look, the last great flowering of institution-building, in the United States at least, was the end of the 19th century. And right--so, at the university level you had Chicago and Stanford and Hopkins. And, what was really happening in that moment was there was kind of the imposition of a new model, a new way of thinking about what a university is. A sort of research model, Humboldt University, the kind of German imported model. And, that changed the tenor of university life, but also the way that things like the humanities fit into university life.
If the endpoint of a university is to produce knowledge through something called research--and that is, let's say, kind of umbrella expectation for all professors, scholars, and even students who are affiliated with that institution--that changes the telos of the humanities, the idea that you do research in the humanities and you produce something that's narrowly scholarly--is, all that comes from being in the shadow of the hard sciences, where that makes sense.
And, think, over time, the accumulation of this kind of attitude--that the job of professors is not to interrogate text in the way that we were talking about earlier and ask big questions in life, or to sort of inculcate in students a kind of passion for the subject matter, or kind of experience as broadly as possible their subject--but rather their purpose is to supersede the scholars who have come before by producing scholarship that advances something called 'knowledge.'
That whole twist and turn, I think, over time, has not served the Humanities, and kind of left it a cold and arid place.
Russ Roberts: I think that's a great way to think about it. I think about the politicization of the Humanities, which is not unrelated to it. But, it's really a different point. And, we'll talk about that, too, in a minute.
Russ Roberts: But, I want to come back to this idea of research. The irony--and I'm in Israel right down doing this crazy weird thing called 'Being a college president,' which I never aspired, to be honest, between you and me. Don't tell anybody, Pano, but I never really respected the activity so much. But, it's growing on me. And really, I'm having a good time.
But, for years, I taught at mainstream American research universities--University of Rochester, UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], Stanford, Washington University in St. Louis, and George Mason. And, the irony is, is that in most of those places--not all, but in most of them--the best researchers did the least teaching. And, sometimes, none. None. And, what that meant was that this original ideal that you would be taught by a master--not just someone who is familiar with the text, say, in the way we've been talking about, read it many times--but, someone who has contributed to the fundamental base of knowledge and the discipline under discussion. And therefore you would learn from a master.
The problem, of course, is that a lot of times those people can't teach well. Such is life. And, they're not interested in teaching. They don't have to, because they're so valuable in terms of the research money that they bring in. The university uses them for other purposes.
And so, the idea is, they're in the same building as your actual teachers but they're not teaching you. And, when they do, they don't necessarily do it very well, because there are no consequences of doing it poorly. They're not going to get fired for being bad teachers.
What a strange thing.
Pano Kanelos: It's really--when you sort of step back from what the university system has evolved into, you realize how odd it is. I mean, think about it. Look, scholarship is a valuable thing. I think having people write books and having scientists do research and scientists think about social topics and issues. And, I think there's a lot of value to that. But, the idea that somehow universities have a place where that activity happens at a very sort of high, often abstract, level--and then, we process 18-year-olds for four years through this institution. It's doing that in a bid to somehow prepare them for the rest of their life. How does somebody, you know, thinking deeply about an article about Beowulf intersect with a 19-year-old who is moving through the system and thinking about that first job and starting a family and that? There seems to be such a gap between that higher level, let's say, intellectual activity that's important.
And, the kind of experiential activity that we want to produce for students. And sort of finding a way to narrow that gap or bridge that gap, I think, is a challenge that is increasingly important for schools to take on.
Russ Roberts: Well, there's one more inconsistency we haven't mentioned. It's a tragic/comic. I'm giggling. But, it's tragic/comic. Which is: the people doing the research often don't know very much of--what they know a lot about is the academic research that they're trying to add to. They don't necessarily know so much about the actual real world, and how that research might be used, and how their students might go on to be in that world.
So, we have these pre-professional degrees, sitting inside these silos, where what's happening in the classroom is almost by definition, alienated really, vis-à-vis the actual experience that's going to come. This is in its worst--in its in its worst guise as a--in school of education, I think, but it happens in business schools. Law School, obviously, is another place where this happens.
There's an urge on the part of the faculty to be like the other faculty: Doing great thinking and doing abstract thinking that you're talking about. But, for the students, that doesn't serve them necessarily well in the practical side, the day-to-day side. So, in theory, they're taking a pre-professional degree, but they're not getting a pre-professional training.
So, it's a bizarro thing.
Pano Kanelos: And, maybe it's fine. I guess it would be fine if we were clear about what we're trying to achieve. So, maybe it is a good thing to take a group of young people who are becoming adults, and separate them from the world and push aside kind of quotidian cares, and the idea of what professions, and that and have them focus on Beowulf, and syntactical questions in Beowulf. Maybe that's a good thing in terms of their intellectual development, in terms of maybe moral development and character development. But, we need to be clear about what's happening, if that's what we're doing.
And, I think part of the problem is we [?] very awkwardly tried to split the difference, and say that somehow that's part of the activity that we're committed to yet we're going to also make sure that you can do computer coding when you leave. And, I think there needs to be some clarity there.
Liberal education has traditionally leaned in, I think, two different directions. And, what I mean by liberal education--liberal arts education I think is still the beating heart of the American system, higher education, however you construe institutions.
On the one hand, the purpose would seem to be to produce philosophers--broadly construed--people who did what I just said: sort of withdrew from the world, thought big thoughts about big things, and achieved a step or two towards wisdom, etc. And, that was kind of the end. On the other hand were the orators, right? The people who were educated to engage in civil life--people of action, and the world was preparing for them to engage in [?].
And, there's always been tension between these two trends in higher education. And, I think some institutions lean one way, some lean the other. Some are in a muddled, middle ground. I think to some clarity about what the purpose of the education being offered is, at each institution, is really critical to providing the kind of education that the students come there to receive.
Russ Roberts: So, that's a good segue to your newest project, which is--you are the President-in-Waiting. I don't know what your exact title is. You can tell us. But you're the Founder and President-in-Waiting of a new idea for a college in Austin, Texas. Tell us about that.
A lot of people see it as a response--it's generated an immense amount of conversation and interest in all kinds of places. A lot of people say this in response to the--a different kind of crisis on the American campus we haven't talked about yet which is the so-called 'woke movement'--the sudden dislike for freedom of speech in the one place where freedom of speech used to be sacrosanct. Which actually makes me cry. It makes me extremely sad and uncomfortable.
Tell us about that project and what's going on? Where is it at now? What was its original idea? Where is it going?
Pano Kanelos: So, yeah, we are building towards a university in Austin. We have a kind of merry band of brothers and sisters, who are working on this project together, started last year and have gained significant traction, and hope to be admitting students sooner rather than later, maybe within a couple of years.
But the--look, some people do characterize this project--because we've stood up and boldly said, 'The primary function of the university is the fearless pursuit of truth. Not the acquisition of truth, but the pursuit of truth,' people see that as in conflict with what's happening in many institutions now, to some degree or another, maybe in all institutions, that some characterize as wokeness and all that. And, they say, 'You're building the anti-woke university.'
First of all, you don't build an institution to be against anything. That makes no sense to me. Okay? You build an institution for something, for a vision. You always had to have a north star. Right? You have to understand what it is that you're trying to achieve. We talked a little bit about this earlier when you were saying what the purpose of Shalem was: You're building towards something.
I think what I would characterize as kind of the illiberal trends on campus--the restrictions on speech, the breakdown of civil discourse--I think these are not the problem, or problems. They're symptoms of a greater problem. And, the greater problem is the disintegration of a systemic disintegration of higher education as a whole.
The principles of higher education that we now see being compromised, are compromised because of other things happening in higher education. I would say that the financial model of higher education is failing. And, this creates a kind of--the whole structure wobbly and weakening. There's some institutions that are invulnerable, but those are few. Most are always feeling, as we talked about earlier, that we need to keep the lights on. And so, that leads to, in many cases, a compromise in principles.
And then, I think the other primary issue that higher education in the United States is facing today is something we also touched on. There hasn't really been a rethinking of the model of universities since that late 19th century-century moment when that research model was imposed upon the U.S. system. And, the most prestigious universities were the research universities.
Even universities that are characterized as liberal arts universities, are in many ways just variations of that theme. Their professors are still doing research and belong to guilds, and all that.
So, we really haven't thought carefully about the structure--the curricular structure--of higher education in over a century. And, I think that the strain of that, of a system that's kind of not in tune with the moment that we live in, is another reason that you see these eruptions of illiberalism on campus.
I'd give an example. The topic we were just talking about, trying to find a way to create an institution that fuses the impulse of the philosophers and the orators, right? How do you bring together the thinkers and the doers? How do you create in young people, thoughtful people of action? I don't know any university that's sort of conceptualizing that, that's thinking--that's framing things. So, that's what we're trying to do. We're literally trying to think about that variation: How do you create the next generation of leaders, of innovators and builders who are grounded in a wisdom-oriented liberal arts education but also prepared to be active in the world--that acquire knowledge and skills that give them, put some wind in their sails as they graduate, give them direction. Prepare them to face challenges. How do you put those things together? How do you synthesize that?
And, so, I think that's the primary curricular issue that we're facing today. And, most institutions are sclerotic. They can't change.
For example, I said earlier, I think the age of the college major is ending. Of course it is. I don't know the exact statistics. I'll just use some broad numbers. But, something like 50% or 60% of the jobs that graduates today will be working on in 20 years don't exist right now. They don't exist. We don't know what they're going to be doing.
So, how do we have majors and pre-professional programs that are preparing them for flourishing for the rest of their life? That's a challenge. And, you think about these kind of fractures now, between what a university is intended to do and what its graduates need to flourish in society. And, I think all of this is a kind of bundle of issues. And then, the illiberalism is a kind of eruption that comes from the fractures from within the institutions systemically.
Russ Roberts: I'm not sure I agree with that. I think it's really interesting. I don't usually think of it that way. I think of it more of as the import of other problems elsewhere in America, for example, into the halls of all its institutions, of which universities are just one of them. And so, it's not surprising that that, too, has become a performance area where--for these traits--where the leaders of the institutions, akin to what Yuval Levin said here, talking about people see their platform as a performance opportunity rather than a responsibility.
And, I think those two things together, are, for me, what's creating a lot of the problems that the--no one has the incentive, particularly, to stand up and say, 'Stay,' or 'Stop'--one of them. Maybe both. 'Stay' in the old sense of the word, I think. Which is--another challenge for Shakespeare, by the way, is that 'stay' doesn't mean 'stay' exactly in Shakespeare's time. I suspect.
Wonderful book by George Steiner, wonderful set of observations by George Steiner about how translation is inherent in all languages, even within the language, because the language has evolved. And so--in Shakespeare, it's obvious. He also uses Noel Coward in the 1920s as an example of how his language is not so accessible to us, in a sense fundamentals the way we're translating it also. But, that's within a language.
So, that's the way I see it. I don't quite see it as a symptom of decay or instability.
So, I think there will be something of a reckoning, but I'm not sure it's going to be necessarily along the lines that you are suggesting, but I might be wrong. It's just interesting to think about. You can respond to that if you want.
Pano Kanelos: Yeah, well, look, I think I agree with you. But the question is, if what's happening at universities is being imported from the outside, why are universities vulnerable to this? In other words, the places that had been committed to principles of free speech and academic freedom and civil discourse, and that are now vulnerable--where they should be resistant to it.
And, so, that's where I'm saying the problem is: When you're financially unstable, and, or you don't have a very robust sense of your purpose, these things come in through the cracks.
And, it's that instability that has allowed the very institutions that should be modeling other ways of conversing, other ways of thinking about the world to be infiltrated.
And of course, the irony, of course, is most of this stuff that we're talking about here politically was germinated in universities to begin with, and then enter the culture, and then circled back around. I think that's part of it as well.
And I think, back to the notion that universities kind of got off the rails when they started focusing on scholarly one-upsmanship: The path towards academic success was to be transgressive. To say the thing that nobody had said before. To push the boundaries. And that, particularly in France, but also in the Anglosphere[?], that was the opening for a lot of the theorists in the mid-century--mid-20th century, the 1960s--to be not only accepted into the academy, but to be lionized by the academy.
So, all these things interconnect. But, the great question is: Why are universities not more resistant? Why are universities not--the institutions aren't showing us a better way?
Russ Roberts: That's an excellent point. I would just add one thing, which is that, as an economist, I tend to think about skin in the game, and incentives; and who's got the incentives is not unrelated to the ball[?] of endpoint[?] about your incentives to use your platform as your place to perform rather than a place to be responsible. But, I also think it has a lot to do with what we expect of our children, as they mature, leave high school, and go to this weird period called college.
At least--I went to college in the 1970s. None of us thought of college as a place to get a job, or a career. None of my friends thought that. But, we also didn't think of it as a place we were going to grow and be transformed. It was just--it was four years of something interesting. It's a waystation. And, we don't teach--I mean, I'm exaggerating, but--a lot probably.
But I think--I've told this story before. A colleague of mine in an institution I will not name, but I've already listed the possible options--was [?]telling me[?] he was on the Committee for Education. And, he had to do such-and-such for it on such-and-such a day.
And I said, 'What do you mean, the Committee for Education?' 'Well, it's the part of university that focuses on the learning.' I said, 'Yeah, that used to be more than just a committee. It kind of used to be the whole thing.' But, 2022, or at the time, whatever it was, that wasn't the case anymore.
And that, I think, is also part of it, and how that came to be. And it's very, very--and it's very, very far from the mission that you were involved with at St. John's, or I'm involved with Shalem. It's a different kind of experience that we're trying to prepare and have the students experience. A different kind of training, a different kind of expectations of what the result of it will be.
You said it beautifully. Philosophers and orators, thinkers and doers, thoughtful people of action. That's what we're trying to do here at Shalem. It's obviously an ideal. That's not what 18-year-olds in America go to college for. Or at least no one tells them that. It happens, because it's the nature of human beings and the nature of life, but no one goes in with that expectation. It's weird.
Pano Kanelos: I think students go in with the expectation that college will be a value-add for them. That, at the end of it, they'll have earned something, gained something that will propel them forward.
In some ways--it's not a perfect analogy--but in some ways, I think of going to college, particularly elite universities, as kind of going to the Court of Louis the 14th. These students are kind of courtiers, right? They sort of show up in these opulent places. They spend time and they learn manners, and they kind of learn how to perform properly. And, it's all in the service of trying to gain access to power and wealth. And, success is learning the rules. Success is learning how to navigate. Success is learning what to say and what not to say. Success is learning how to find your way in the back door.
So, in many ways, our elite universities operate like a modern version of a court.
And so, when you exit there, how have you been transformed? Maybe not fundamentally, internally, profoundly. But, you've been transformed to somebody who is prepared for the next stage in being a courtier, which is that first job at Goldman Sachs, or whatever it is.
Russ Roberts: That's one of the most cynical things that I've ever heard on this program, which is saying something. It reminds me of this--it's a trope in movies. One of my favorite movies of all time is Scent of a Woman. And, it's set in an elite private school, and there's a student there who, quote, "doesn't belong." He belongs, but he's not of the world of the other students. He's poor. He's on scholarship, and he's desperately eager to get access to the language, the mores, the clothes. And, that's school as finishing school, as the court, as you talk, as you say.
I don't think it's like that at every university. It certainly wasn't that way for my children, who went to Yeshiva University, Stern College, and the University of Maryland. But, those are not the High Courts of Western royalty, fortunately.
Russ Roberts: So, what's going to be distinctive about what you do in Austin? We didn't mention it, but St. John's has two campuses. One in Annapolis and one in Santa Fe. Are you going to be St. John's in the Midwest with a different name?
Pano Kanelos: No--
Russ Roberts: Are you going to have a core curriculum? Are you going to have Great Books? What's going to be different?
Pano Kanelos: No. I mean, some of the DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid--metaphorically used here--Econlib Ed.] from St. John's is being incorporated into the new institution.
Again, we're beginning with that starting point of how do we create thoughtful doers? The thought exercise that I ask my team when we think about the graduates you want to produce, which is: when you start thinking about that, you backwards engineer the curriculum that you want to develop.
I say: Assume that every student who leaves there is going to hold significant power of some sort over the course of life. Just make that assumption. Not that that's the end, but it's something. What do you want to do to prepare them for that? If we're building the next generation of leaders, of innovators, and builders and that, how do we want to prepare them to do that? Both in terms of how do you want to make them successful in their endeavors? But, what people do we want to prepare who will be influential over time?
So, thinking about those things together.
And, so, right now, our curriculum--this is either a really elegant solution, or it's really clumsy. I don't know which it is yet. And, Leon Kass is helping me figure that out.
We've literally divided the four years of the undergrad experience into so that the first two years is primarily a, we call, the intellectual foundations program--a kind of common intellectual journey, a core that students will experience together in cohorts, reading Great Books and humanities, social sciences, natural sciences. Not exclusively seminar-based. We do think there's room to learn history through lectures, and other, sort of--those things can be incorporated.
But, it has, kind of, the spirit, let's say, of a--not the Great Books program, but is narrowly construed as a place like St. John's construes that. And there will also be some opportunity for some, what we call practica around those. So, if you want to start learning how to code, or you want to be working on Arabic or things while you're doing this, there'll be opportunities. So, you do that for two years.
And, then, at the end of two years, you spend a part of your last semester developing what we call your Polaris Project. Polaris Project--Polaris is the North Star. What do you want to aim for? What is it that you're most passionate about?
We want students to pick something massive, something seemingly unachievable. And, that's what they're going to focus on for the next two years during their time at the university. So, it could be something like, you know, you're going to compose a symphony in honor of lost languages. Or, you're going to create, you're going to engineer a new automated system to deliver viral antidotes in countries that are compromised. Or whatever it is: Something really big.
And, then, you have to kind of plan out: So, 'Here's what I want to achieve. How do I approach that question? How do I approach that problem?' And, you have the next two years at the university, navigating the resources, the university, to move in that direction.
And, we don't anticipate that students are going to complete their projects, but we're most interested in seeing how far they get or which changes along the way, or what they learn along the way.
The kid who started off writing a symphony may take a computer coding class and end up, you know, writing a digital program to compose music or something like that. And, that's where they end up going. But, you want to give them directionality. You want to give them ambition. We want them to think about the purpose of their education. So you're not learning just to learn. You're learning to achieve something that has importance to you and to others.
So, the second two years--the third and fourth year of the undergraduate experience--we're not going to have traditional departments. We're dividing university now into five, what we call centers of inquiry that are broadly thematic. So, there's a center for Politics, Economics, and Applied History. A center for Education and Public Service. A center for Math, Engineering, and Technology. Etc.
And, each of those centers are much larger than a department would be. The faculty there from across disciplines. The faculty are not necessarily scholars but also working on their own Polaris projects--which could be writing a book, but could be doing lots of other things.
And, so, students will pick one of those five centers to be a junior fellow in, in accord with the project they're working on. They can take classes anywhere they want, but they'll be a junior fellow in one of the centers. The centers will have their own core curriculum that the students will progress through or maybe a few different pathways.
As you can see, it's a radically different model than you'd find at most four-year universities today. But it is, as I said, it's either really elegant or really clumsy and awful. We are--we're still developing the curriculum. So, this is our kind of--this is right now, I would say the architecture we've come up with. We'll see where it goes.
Russ Roberts: There's a blue-sky aspect to it, obviously. I think it's going to sell like hotcakes. That means well, sell well. I don't think it'll be clumsy. I like to think that--most of my listeners, about two-thirds or maybe a little more than two-thirds are English-speaking. And, I like to think that all want to come to Shalem if they spoke Hebrew. But, you're going to be teaching in English. So, I think it's going to be a very, very attractive option. For two reasons.
One, you will have, I won't call it anti-, but the non-woke at least to start with. It'll be hard to maybe preserve your distinctiveness. I think every institution struggles with that. But the idea that you're doing something different, it's a little scary. It'll be a little risky. But, that's kind of good because you'll attract people who find that appealing rather than frightening.
And, so, I think you'll do quite well.
What's your--do you have a thought on what your relationship with your faculty will be? Will you have tenure? A lot of people have expressed eagerness to teach at this new place.
Pano Kanelos: Yeah. Yeah. We received something like 4000 inquiries from faculty at other institutions in the first couple of weeks. Which was affirming.
The question of tenure is an important one. I think in general, higher education is moving away from tenure. That doesn't necessarily dictate the choices that we make. I think we have to think about what aspects of tenure have made universities better places, and which aspects of tenure have been pernicious, let's say.
One of the problems with tenure is that the system, as it's currently construed in most places, is built so that senior faculty hire junior faculty--hire their peers--and then assess them over time, and then determine whether or not they get to join the club at the end. And, so, what that does over time is we see it ratcheting in one direction, in terms of politics or ideology. And, I think most faculty, the super-majority of faculty that I know, are well-intentioned people and don't have agendas. They're not trying to do anything.
But, there's a natural gravitation towards those that you're most comfortable with. And, so, what happens over time, you see faculty leaning in one way towards one end of the political spectrum. And I think that destabilizes the institution.
And so, that's problematic. And, why does it destabilize it? Well, the purpose of higher education is, in some ways, not just knowledge, but the ability to self-reflect so that we understand ourselves as knowers. So, that we know how we're learning to know--
Russ Roberts: What we don't know--
Pano Kanelos: What we don't know. Exactly. And, what questions we should be asking.
You know, if we're not ourselves challenged by other opinions, by heterodox ideas, we can't see ourselves in three dimensions. We can't accurately reflect upon our own biases, upon our own shortcomings, our own blind spots.
And, so, it seems to me to majorly compromise the whole project of higher education, to not have a broad or the broadest set of perspectives available so that we can interact with each other and learn from one another about ourselves. I think that's important.
So, tenure--back to tenure--the way tenure is currently construed, the hiring process has really accelerated what I think of as political asymmetry. And, look, I will say, categorically, the problem for me isn't that that asymmetry in almost every institution leans Left. It's that it's asymmetrical.
Russ Roberts: And, it leans--
Pano Kanelos: So, if the institution were to, if it were to go to the opposite direction, that's not the solution. That is not the solution.
I understand why some institutions do react and create, let's say, a kind of Right-leaning institution. I understand that impulse. But, I don't think it solves the problem.
So, designing a tenure system that allows for a kind of permeability so that people of all different stripes--intellectual stripes, belief systems, political orientations--are accepted as full members of the community and judged according to the merits of what they're doing, not what they think in that kind of political sense. To me, finding a way to solve for that in a tenure system is the most important piece of it.
I don't mind so much the idea that faculty are protected for life--that they have this thing called academic freedom. So, that if their opinions are heterodox, there isn't retaliation against them. I think that's important.
The problem is that academic freedom is compromised if the system that you design to preserve academic freedom, you know, it serves as a gatekeeper to limit the academic freedom of many of the people who want to enter the system.
Russ Roberts: I'm very sympathetic to that.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with--I'll give you the challenge that I mentioned earlier, that people have given me. Do you have a measure of success? If this project goes well, it gets off the ground, you get accredited, you admit students, you take their tuition, you graduate them in some version of what you've imagined will be the experience that they'll go through as students. How will you think about, or have you thought about what success will look like?
Pano Kanelos: I think a lot about this. Because, you know, if the purpose of the institution first and foremost is to be grounded in the first principles of open inquiry and civil discourse--and that you're not only to preserve this institution over time, but somehow these principles are transformative for the students that go through the system--how do you measure that? How do you assess that over time? How do you know?
And, so, we're building into the university as we're developing it, a kind of internal assessment system, a qualitative assessment system.
We're thinking about, when you bring students to the beginning, how do you capture them in that moment to understand, how they understand the world themselves? Ideas? others? And, then, how do you, at the back end of their experience, when they graduate, or maybe even after that, assess what kind of journey they've taken?
And, so, we're thinking a lot about that. And, we want to do this actively. And, we don't actually want to take students in until we understand how we're going to assess success over time.
But for me, success is knowing that when students leave, the kind of transformative education that we're hoping to provide for them has been effective to some measure.
Russ Roberts: I think about--for our students, we don't do this now. But, I'm thinking about ways to implement it. I really love the idea of journaling--students reflecting in a formal way about some aspect of life when they enter. And, similarly when they leave. And, to be shocked, let them be shocked by how different they are four years later.
Having said that, I think that's a good idea. How you implement that is obviously not straightforward.
But, for me, ultimately, one of my colleagues has--Sholem has a 40-year experience, only the first four take place on campus. And, now, it's three and a half or we've become a three and a half year program. But, on the first three and a half years take place here in the building, and then on the campus and in the classroom. And, then, the rest is really the proof of whether we've done our job. We understand that who we take in affects who comes out. So, we're not the only influence. It's the clay.
To me, the students are the clay, but they are the potter also. They're the ceramicists. They get to mold themselves. We don't mold them. We give them the opportunity to mold themselves. And, I'm pretty confident that if they have that freedom, they'll do great things when they leave. So, I don't pretend to know what those might be out in the world.
Pano Kanelos: I think that's wonderful. I love the idea of clay and molding. And, what do we do--what does an artist do with the raw materials at hand? They take what's been given and shape it in a way that adds meaning.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. My guest today is Pano Kanelos. Pano, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Pano Kanelos: Thank you so much, Russ. This is a great pleasure. Thank you.