History Repeats Itself, But The Modern “Dissenting Academies” Are Found Online
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When Stanford University’s woke law students heckled and stopped a speech by Judge Kyle Duncan, of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals U.S., I was reminded that leftist control of universities has taken us back in time. Stanford’s future lawyers were enraged that Duncan refused, in an opinion, to call a “trans woman” prison inmate by the “correct” pronouns.

These days, that’s a heresy, a violation of one of the Woke Commandments: “Thou shalt refer to a “transgender” by “their” preferred pronouns. And so it appears we’ve returned to the 18th century, to the days when the “leading universities”—Oxford and Cambridge in England, for purposes here—were religious finishing schools. Cutting-edge research took place in “Dissenting Academies” back then. Yet those schools were made of bricks and mortar. Now, they’re online. 

Oxford and Cambridge are the only two universities in England founded before the 19th century. Even the United States has more:

Yet 18th- and 19th-century England boasted dozens of de facto universities called, again, dissenting academies. Their academic standards were generally higher than those of Oxford and Cambridge. By the 18th century, they, not Oxbridge—the portmanteau of the two famous schools—were the centers of science and critical thought [Dissenting academies and the education of the laity, 1750-1850, by Matthew Mercer, History of Education, 2001]. We are reverting to a similar situation.  

The dramatic changes that we’ve seen in recent decades—from “trans” rights to the debasement of the rational culture of universities—shocks us because the radical shift seems nonsensical. “Nothing like this has ever happened before! The world has gone mad!”

Consider the pass at which we have arrived:

Students should attend a university to learn how to think fearlessly and seek the truth, but now they cannot matriculate unless they swear to uphold “equality, diversity and inclusion,” and can be expelled for failing to do so [Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy, by Durham University, April 2018]. This is certainly the case at Durham University, where I was an undergraduate. The rules require one to swear to uphold these values, and serious failure to do so can result in expulsion.

To get a job at many universities, one’s application must include a statement to explain how he has promoted “equality, diversity and inclusion.”

This is from a how-to manual on preparing a diversity statement:

Search committees at colleges and universities increasingly require candidates applying for faculty or leadership positions to submit diversity statements. And in the post-Covid online world, where interviews are truncated at best, we are increasingly reliant on applicants’ written materials.

Universities across the US are now considering making diversity statements required for all faculty. Many institutions ask faculty to post diversity statements online for students to read before or during their course to demonstrate the institution’s and the individual’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Some universities even offer incentives such as merit raises for those willing to do so.

[Diversity statements: what to avoid and what to include, by Pardis Mahdavi & Scott Brooks, Times Higher Education, March 17, 2021]

But the move left and these changes are explained quite simply. History moves in relatively predictable cycles. I contend that it would be strange if our universities didn’t demand that students assent to Woke religious dogmas to matriculate and didn’t insist that its professors, as though they were priests, prove that they zealously promote these ideas.

As I have discussed in my book The Past Is a Future Country: The Coming Conservative Demographic Revolution, universities go through a “priestly cycle.” In England, geniuses with outlier high intelligence and autistic traits that render them utterly focused on the truth founded the great universities. They became prestigious, which attracted those of normal-range high intelligence—“Midwits”—who were motivated by status and tended to be socially conformist. They understood the social benefits of conforming to the dominant or soon-to-be dominant ideology, forced themselves to believe it, and then competitively signaled adherence to it. Gradually, they took over the universities, which placed adherence to the received religion above truth. The universities became decreasingly academic. The geniuses moved elsewhere; the universities declined. Eventually they reformed, began nurturing new geniuses, and the process repeated itself.

This described universities in England between the Middle Ages and the late 19th century. Scholastics who strongly focused on logic and truth founded Oxford and Cambridge. They were called to understand God’s creation, so to lie would be blasphemous. By the mid-17th century, the Church of England controlled both. They were allowed to monopolize degree-granting as long as they upheld the state ideology.

Wrote historian William Whyte:

Just as the two universities wanted to control the supply of teachers and students, so the English Church and state wanted to control the universities. Universities could be—indeed, were—the source of dangerous heresies, where people learnt to think the wrong things. 

[The Medieval University Monopoly, History Today, March 7, 2018]

One had to assent to Anglican theology to matriculate at Oxford or graduate from Cambridge, and one had to be ordained in the Church of England to be a fellow [Churchill’s Headmaster, by Edward Dutton, 2018, Ch. 2]. That is why the universities declined in academics, and became perceived as “finishing schools for the sons of the governing classes” that failed to teach the latest ideas [Cambridge in the Age of the Enlightenment, by John Gascoigne, 1989].

With fellows appointed on religious grounds, teaching quality was so bad that students “went to private tutors and crammed themselves” [Memorandum addressed to the Marquis of Hartington, by William Wren, 1885]. Most students didn’t graduate. Those aiming to be Anglican clergy mostly did [The University of Oxford: A History, by L.W.B. Brockliss, 2016].

Result: Innovative research increasingly took place outside the universities by gentleman scholars, including:

The most intelligent students increasingly went abroad to universities in Scotland or the Netherlands, where real thinking was allowed, and the latest science was pursued. A number of 18th- and 19th-century British Prime Ministers were educated at Scottish, Dutch or German universities.   

For Dissenters such as Unitarians and Methodists who could not afford a university abroad, some 100 dissenting academies proliferated across England between 1750 and 1850. They could not grant degrees, a right limited to Oxbridge, but they could provide higher education. They ranged enormously in size and standard, from one tutor with access to a library to multiple tutors in different subjects.

Some were simply dissenting versions of Oxford or Cambridge, focused on training ministers and on doctrinal conformity. But others, especially Warrington Academy and Hackney New College, were important centers of learning. With an excellent reputation for teaching science and for preparing young men for business and legal careers, Warrington, which became Manchester Academy, was probably the most prestigious. As historian Mercer put it, “to the Calvinists the earth and the rest of the cosmos was God’s creation and therefore the study of it was in itself an act of reverence.” 

One of Warrington’s tutors, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), an eminent chemist, discovered oxygen. Some of the academies were considered so superb that even Anglicans, such as Thomas Malthus (“the Malthusian Cycle”), attended them. As Mercer noted, a host of 19th-century judges, members of Parliament, and national newspaper editors were educated at these schools. By the mid-19th century, Oxbridge was under serious pressure. Responding to a public mood of religious tolerance, the government permitted the secular University College London to grant degrees. The ancient universities were compelled to reform or die. They chose the former, gradually dropping all religious requirements. The dissenting academies closed down or, in some cases, became Oxford or Cambridge colleges: Mansfield College and the former Manchester Academy, Harris Manchester College (Oxford), or Homerton College (Cambridge).

We should not be surprised, therefore, by similar developments today. With universities becoming Woke madrassas—as the Duncan outrage at Stanford shows—we see more and more independent scholars, especially in “controversial” areas. We might see scholars flee to non-Western universities. I am affiliated with one in Poland and also the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Especially with the rise of the Internet, intelligent young people seek an education in unrecognized online “universities” with non-Woke syllabuses, such as Germany’s Gegen Uni, where I run a course on evolutionary psychology. Other courses there, mainly in German, include political theory and geopolitics. Literary scholar Neema Parvini runs a number of courses via his “Academic Agency,” a reference to his YouTube channel “Academic Agent.” His courses include “Foundations of Economics” and “Politics, Economics and Research.” In November 2021, a number of “cancelled” academics, including philosopher Peter Boghassian, set up the supposedly anti-Woke University of Austin. It seeks accreditation and includes scholars, such as Jonathan Haidt, who have not been cancelled, so it’s not quite the same as a true dissenting academy.  Critics will, of course, deride these as “fake universities” or as “grifting.” One can imagine 18th-century Oxford University tutors speaking of dissenting academies in similar terms.

Likewise, we should not be surprised by the rise of academically oriented non-Woke YouTube channels that offer a de facto “education,” such as History Debunked, which focuses on correcting Woke History. We are simply seeing a hi-tech version of the dissenting academies.

There is nothing new under the university sun. 

Edward Dutton (email him | Tweet him) is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Asbiro University, Łódź, Poland.  You can see him on his Jolly Heretic video channels on YouTube and Bitchute. His books are available on his home page here.

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