“This view that there is no truth, but only power has emanated through and infected…our whole cultural and institutional life,” says Dr. Stephen Blackwood, President of Ralston College.
“We are facing civic alienation, inner-city violence, the devastation of our inherited intellectual and spiritual culture.” These are evidence of the sickness ailing Western civilization, in Blackwood’s view.
“The only antidote to the widespread nihilism is to recover, to re-apprehend the realities that nihilism denies—truth, beauty, goodness, forgiveness.”
Blackwood has recently launched Ralston College, a new institution of higher education committed to free speech and open discourse.
Jan Jekielek: Dr. Stephen Blackwood, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Dr. Stephen Blackwood: Thanks so much for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Stephen, you are the president of Ralston College, an absolutely fascinating new institution that’s forming right before my eyes, at least. I’ve been seeing it develop over years. We’re going to talk a bit about this. Before we jump into Ralston, however, I want to understand how you see this current cultural moment that we’re in here in America and beyond that as well.
Dr. Blackwood: Let’s approach that in two ways anyway. The first is to say, of course, as Steven Pinker has very eloquently shown in one of his recent books, things are in many respects going very well.
If you look at mortality rates, generally speaking, if you look at peacefulness around the world, if you look at lifespan, if you look at various forms of technologies, we’re doing extremely well as a human society from any number of different metrics. I think it’s important not to catastrophize in light of the glories of modern science and the many things that we all have the immense gift of living with at this time in history, that most of our forebears did not.
On the other hand, it is clearly the case that we’re living through an extraordinary civilizational crisis. We’re facing civic alienation, inner-city violence, and the devastation of our inherited intellectual and spiritual culture. We’re looking at a pretty widespread failure of our educational system at every level.
Perhaps the best way getting at this is through what has become the shorthand of the meaning crisis. What does it mean to be a human being, and are human beings able to live lives of depth and beauty and meaning at the individual and communal level? If you zoom out to a distant level and you look at the big picture, and then you zoom back in and you look at the micro, from both of those levels of analyses, we’re facing some very, very serious problems.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s what some people describe as woke ideology that says that it has answers to some of these questions, and is prevalent in the academy and institutions of higher learning, and even below. You’ve come out as a bit of a critic of this. Does this actually offer any solutions to these types of crises that you’re describing right now?
Dr. Blackwood: I would first say that we need to make absolutely clear that we corporately, me, certainly as a president, and myself, certainly as an individual, absolutely are the allies of anyone and everyone who is concerned with questions of justice, of the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, and the people at the bottom.
What are we as a human culture if we’re not concerned about those people? We just need to absolutely put down as a shared principle or value—justice, caring for the least of these as the Bible has it.
The second thing is that there is absolutely also no question that there is an unhinged side of some of the more extreme forms of ideological activism. It suffocates fundamental human liberties, denigrates human dignity, and oppresses human beings at the level at which we most importantly need to live—which is our own thinking, our conversations with others, our ability to understand and process and engage with the world and other human beings.
This culture of shame and censorship is a very profound threat to the very most basic elements of living a free and full human life.
Mr. Jekielek: Stephen, could you break down for me what woke ideology actually is or however you choose to describe it and call it? What is this ideology that is so profoundly threatening Western civilization right now?
Dr. Blackwood: What we really need to get at is not the label, but the idea. Insofar as what the term “woke” delineates, it’s an increasingly high-handed and oppressive desire to remake the world in a coercive manner according to very reductive perceptions of history and very reductive perceptions of the present, without a willingness to discuss or debate or go back and forth about how we might do so and what are the principles.
When people start saying things like “We’re done talking,” I’m afraid you’ve gone off the deep end into crazy, because talking and understanding things together is the only means we have to meaningfully make incremental changes to the world we live in.
This idea that “the United States is somehow systemically beyond repair”—when we start talking about things like the First Amendment and the constitutional protections on freedom of speech, for example, that is about as close to the bedrock as you can possibly come for the protection of minorities.
So the idea that somehow the Constitution itself is irredeemably flawed, that’s a position that in my view is simply incoherent. Not only incoherent, but extremely dangerous because it actually mistakes, as a problem, one of the most fundamental pillars of both a free society at large and of our ability to tackle the very problems of injustice or oppression that are currently at stake.
I think one of the great crises our civilization is currently facing is the increasingly widespread idea that somehow freedom of thought or speech is a bad thing. If we just want to make this very concrete.
Imagine you’re about to cross the street, but you’ve got your headphones on and you’re a bit distracted. There’s a huge truck coming that you don’t see. You’re about to step in front of it and someone says, “Jan, Jan,” and they get your attention. They say “Jan,” and they stop you before you walk into traffic. They are helping you see something about the world that you did not see.
Is that a bad thing? They’ve saved your life by helping share their insight into the world that you did not have. I know that’s a simple example but I really think that illustrates the fundamental principle of why freedom of speech matters. Speech is the fundamental means we have to share what we think we understand about the world with each other.
So the suppression of free speech results in the alienation of us from our most critical capacity to engage the world, both individually and together.
The second thing that I would say about this is that behind a great deal of the currently widespread, very dominating ideological perspectives is the idea that there’s no truth but only power. Widely speaking, it closes the whole horizon of what a human being can become. Once you close that down, and you say, “No, there’s just the battle of the will to power one against everyone, and everyone against each other,” life gets pretty damn grim. It’s essentially nihilism.
There is no independent realm of truth, beauty, goodness, or anything that we as human beings have access to innately—that by our own nature we are built as it were to be able to understand, comprehend, and grapple with the complexity, the depth, the difficulty, the hardness, and indeed, the beauty of the world, and you might say, reality more broadly construed.
This idea that there is no truth but power—the nihilism behind it emanates into all of the institutions and the forms of life and culture through which we understand ourselves.
I think one of the great examples is architecture. If what you are faced with is just a big concrete wall, that’s what you are. There is no such thing as beauty. There is no horizon through which you can understand yourself through proportion and symmetry, through the balance of forms, through the way in which these relate to each other.
Somehow, if you’re looking at a great building, it could be a cathedral or neoclassical building, as you come to see those forms, you come to see yourself in those forms. Somehow, you can live in the harmony that those are visually describing to you.
The same thing is true of a piece of music. My late friend, Roger Scruton, in a conversation we had said that the greatest piece of music or work of art for him was [Johann Sebastian] Bach’s “Mass in B minor.”
What is happening in that piece of music from the statement of the first theme until you listen to it at the end as it resurfaces and recapitulates, as it’s unfolding and taking on the enormous complexity and difficulty, the suffering, the pain, is that work of art is encountering those things, is taking them into itself, so when that theme appears at the end, it’s not the same as the beginning.
It’s expanded and taken on the sadness. The sadness has even become beautiful. That’s what art does.
When you deploy the idea that there is no truth but only power through all of our cultural and civic and political institutions and through family life, what you end up with is a human being in a cage. You’re looking at a dark horizon. You’re blinded.
I want to come back to architecture, because if all you have are ugly buildings everywhere, at some level, that ugliness is what you are. Why should the town hall be beautiful, even if you never go in it? It’s because when you walk by it, somehow, it’s yours. Somehow, it’s what your life is.
Why does it matter that students be given beautiful poems to memorize? You don’t know when that poem is going to be important to them in their lives. When they are dying, faced with someone dying, suffering, or in a stressful or difficult or anxious environment, what line of poetry may come to help them understand and figure that out?
You can look at this in terms of family life, the fundamental necessity that human beings have relatively stable and loving environments, because that is the bedrock that allows them then to build lives themselves that are stable, harmonious, and functional.
What I’m trying to get to here, Jan, is that in the most fundamental way, this view that there is no truth but only power has emanated through and infected and really poisoned in extraordinarily debilitating ways our whole cultural and institutional life.
What we’re seeing in our culture you can look at through our inner cities, and look at through the rancor of our political life. You can look at it through the meaning crisis we’ve just described, look at it through the opioid and suicide—that’s where those ideas lead—to a closing down of the horizon of what a human being thinks he or she can become.
Mr. Jekielek: You just reminded me of a quote that you have on your website that I noticed and I took down. It’s by Iris Murdoch. “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.”
Dr. Blackwood: If I can be a little playful with this, the whole idea of being woke, if we want to give that a positive connotation, you might say it’s about waking up one of the most beautiful and perennial metaphors of what education is, or what coming to consciousness or to see things more fully is, that it’s at the heart of human life.
We can go back to Plato’s “Republic” and this beautiful image that Plato gives us, “Allegory of the cave.” It’s one of the examples that Plato gives in the Republic. He says that you can describe the movement of human life or of the ascent towards knowledge as a movement from darkness to light.
The example he gives us is, “Imagine there are people who are imprisoned in a cave and there’s a puppeteer behind them. There’s light projected and they’re seeing the reflections or shadows of it on the wall, and they think that’s the real thing.” What he says is that the movement of discovery, of human thinking, of human life, and reflection richly conceived is to move from the shadow to the real thing.
This is a beautiful metaphor and we all in some intuitive sense know that it’s true. We all know that we’ve had facile, incorrect, or downright wrong ideas. We were insufficiently aware of the complexity of something, or we had those moments when you say, “I just didn’t see that before.”
Sometimes that happens quickly and sometimes that happens more often and more slowly. In some sense, this is the journey that all human beings are always on. We’re all just trying to make sense of things and to help each other make sense of things, and to move from the shadows to the real, from the ephemeral, the fleeting, to the true, to the abiding, to the bedrock.
Mr. Jekielek: Why Ralston [College]? Why is this important?
Dr. Blackwood: There are many ways of approaching a discussion of the landscape of higher education. One can cut the deck of problems in any number of different ways. One can talk about the student loan crisis, the nearly $2 trillion in student loans currently backed by federal government loans, by the way, many of which were for degrees that were not finished, for degrees that weren’t worth the paper they were working on, for degrees that people should never have undertaken in the first place.
So it’s not as though that’s backed by serious assets. It’s $2 trillion in often wasted money which are furthermore burdens that are now being carried, in many cases, by people who have the least resources to carry them. It’s a very, very big problem.
There is, of course, cost, the runaway costs. There’s the bureaucratization of the university, the huge growth in administration, which is a kind of albatross that no serious institution could ever carry and function healthily.
There is, of course the vocationalization of the university, the idea that the university should be principally a place where people go to get jobs.
I am very keen on people having jobs. In fact, I’m so keen on it, I think that the university should not be a necessary part of the pathway. For most of history, we’ve not been part of the pathway. In fact, universities were never designed to be places of job training. It turns out, they’re actually quite bad at it.
If you look at the numbers, compare a university with a true technical college or a true vocational college where you go to become a welder, or somewhere you go just to learn how to do graphic design on a computer, or something like that—they’re extremely bad at it. So you got the vocational problem.
Then, of course, you have, perhaps most predominantly right now, the matter of widespread ideological corruption, where you have, especially in the humanities, a kind of suffocating groupthink that is largely derived from ideas and theories over the past 50 to 150 years, some of which articulated important things, but which have been taken into an absolutized and reductive manner that is incompatible with free human inquiry.
It essentially seeks to force upon the world at large these facile, dangerous, and frankly, wrong interpretive frames on all of the rest of our institutions.
I’m not a catastrophist. I’m not trying to absolutize this. I think there are all kinds of wonderful things happening in various institutions. I am not by any means saying that we should tear it all down. I think that would be pure nihilism to say that.
At the same time, we have to frankly admit that there are very widespread structural systemic problems extending throughout most departments at most institutions, and that there is no longer, at most universities, a genuine culture of free inquiry. There is an increasingly dark atmosphere of fear, shame, and censorship. Our culture cannot survive if our universities fail at their most fundamental task.
The most powerful remedy is the one that works in every other field, and that is to create superior alternatives, and that is what Ralston College intends to do. We are not fundamentally critics, we’re not fundamentally against anything.
We are simply looking to be what the university and what all universities are meant to be: places of free inquiry, places where young people and people of all ages can come to discover the riches of art and intellect from past cultures and civilizations, places in which they can wrestle with the most difficult and fundamental human questions, places where, above all, they can acquire the tools and the forms of self-reflection that will enable them to lead meaningful, full, and free lives.
Mr. Jekielek: In a few words, what would you say are the core principles of this new institution?
Dr. Blackwood: The amazing thing is that they’re actually not different than what the core principles are supposed to be at the vast number of other institutions, what higher education is supposed to be living by, that is to say an absolute commitment to freedom of thought, an absolute commitment to the free speech that allows us to convey and share our thoughts with each other.
Of course, at any institution of human beings, you need to cultivate a culture in which people engage with each other courteously, with respect, and in a manner that is befitting of free and intelligent human beings. I should think that should go without saying.
But what we are seeing very widely in universities is that the universities are no longer the place that most people turn [to] when they’re looking for answers to the defining and perennial questions of human life.
The bedrock of humanistic inquiry is really the question of how can we live a meaningful life? What does it mean to be a human being? What is justice? What is truth? What is beauty? What is redemption, forgiveness, and virtue?
These are the questions that are, in some sense, at the very bedrock of the life that every human being, as a self-reflective agent, needs to ask. Who amongst us is not engaged in a relationship in which we wonder, what is the best way to live, or how can we best love other people, or fulfill our responsibilities, or live with dignity, or do things that matter? How do we deal with loss, or suffering, or sickness?
These are questions that all human beings at all times and places have to ask, and the humanities are essentially this amazing beacon that we can turn to, to help illuminate our own lives. We’re facing a historic mismatch, whereby the universities which are supposed to be the keepers of the sacred flame, the keepers of this beacon—again, I’m not a catastrophist—are by and large, no longer the place that most people turn to for answers to those questions.
Mr. Jekielek: What will one find at Ralston College then?
Dr. Blackwood: What one will find above all is a place in which to ask the defining questions of human life without censorship or shame in a community that values freedom of thought and friendship. What Ralston College exists for is to help young people, and not even just young people, but anyone, anywhere who wishes to participate in our courses, our short courses online, our non-degree in-person events for weekends and seminars, here and there.
The defining and fundamental purpose is to enable people to live reflective, free, and meaningful lives. The fact is we need intellectual tools to do that. Why read Shakespeare? Why read Plato? Why listen to Bach? We do this because these works of art and intellect open up the horizon of our own self-understanding.
Mr. Jekielek: I was looking at your Ralston website recently, being amazed, for example, at the Masters of Arts program that you’re going to be offering, something that I would love to jump into for an intensive year. I noticed that Jordan Peterson is one of the visiting professors at the college.
I can’t help but thinking again, in light of what you were talking about, Jordan Peterson has been writing extensively about helping people actualize themselves in some of the ways that you’re just describing. We’ve recently seen him attacked in a very prolific way in a cartoon for his ideas portrayed as those of the Red Skull, with Captain America fighting against this ideology. What do you make of this?
Dr. Blackwood: This is an absolutely slanderous account or portrayal that is incompatible with even the most cursory reading of anything this man has ever written, with any of the lectures he has ever given, or with the things that those who engage with him in a serious way say or do. What I first want to say is that I think this is a sign of how utterly perverse and dishonest many, or at least some, at the highest levels of our institutions and media have become.
The second thing I would say is, at least what I’ve seen, there’s one moment in there in which it goes something like, he teaches people that inside, they’re great. I actually just couldn’t believe it when I saw that. The idea that you would sneer at someone who’s trying to give people a deep belief in themselves—that’s somehow something to laugh at?
When you have the millions of depressed, disenfranchised, vulnerable, and dispossessed people in our world today, I would consider my life a success. If on my tombstone, it was written that he made a few people think that they mattered, Jordan Peterson has done that for millions of people. The idea that we would somehow sneer and slander that which is surely one of the highest and most beautiful things that one human being can do for another—this is evil, frankly.
The third thing I would say about those who give these unhinged, they’re not even critiques, they’re just blatant slanders, blatant radical misrepresentations—what I would challenge them to do is go through a comment thread on one of Peterson’s videos. For example, go through the comment thread of the video that his daughter Mikhaila made after he was coming out of this very difficult year, one of the first things that was posted.
You would think that if the ideas that he shared with people had proven to be destructive or unhelpful, this would be the moment people would say, “This man is a fraud, these ideas have led me down the wrong path.” But in fact, what you get are thousands and thousands of comments of immense gratitude, love, and care for this man to whom many people feel indebted for having either saved their lives or helped pull them back from the brink of the cliffs they were facing.
By and large, what this man does is give people tools with which to live more self-reflective, more responsible, more thoughtful, and more meaningful lives. I simply can’t imagine any worldview, any philosophical position, any political position, any idea of what the human being is that any of us would seriously embrace, if it doesn’t believe in that.
Mr. Jekielek: Stephen, when we were speaking offline and we were exchanging some emails, I noticed that in the footer of your email, you were encouraging people to take a look at your book about the Roman statesman, Boethius. I have to confess, who I didn’t really even know about until I read your email. As I tried to understand who he was, I realized how could I possibly have not known who this man was and what a profound impact he’s had on the world.
The fascinating thing here is that it actually speaks to exactly, in my opinion, this whole cultural moment that we’re in today as well. I’m wondering if you could just briefly give us the story? I think you told me that you spent 20 years of your life looking at the questions of his work and his profound meditations.
Dr. Blackwood: Boethius was a late Roman politician, philosopher, poet, musician, statesman. He was a man of astounding talent and was born right around 475 [AD], around what we regard as the fall of the Roman Empire. So he was just at the twilight at the end of what had been a pretty continuous development of Greek to Roman culture from 1,000 to 1,500 years.
Of course, he didn’t know this was really the end of the Roman Empire. He was born into a patrician family, educated to a very high level, was fluent in ancient Greek, but what he saw was that the intellectual superstructure of the Roman Empire was being lost.
The Romans had always been highly dependent on the ideas and ideals of the ancient Greeks. They had always had access to that actually, because Greek was pretty widely spoken throughout most of the Roman Empire, but above all, was the language in which many of the aristocrats or leaders of Rome spoke and were educated in. You didn’t have to translate everything, because you could just go and read it in Greek.
But ancient Greece was being lost and Boethius saw this. He saw the cultural crisis that was going to create, if they didn’t have access to the ideas and ideals on which that culture and political entity, fundamentally, was grounded. He set upon the task of translating many of these works from Greek into Latin. Boethius goes on to reach the very heights of power and wealth in ancient Rome.
He was the magister officiorum. He was a consul, his sons were made consuls. I want to paint a picture of a man who had it all—from wealth, prestige, fame, education, family, and security, and then disaster strikes. Boethius was accused of treason by the King, Theodoric, and he was thrown in prison. After a year, he was brutally tortured and executed. And that, in some sense, is the end of Boethius—except it’s not the end.
While he was in prison, he wrote a book called, “The Consolation of Philosophy.” It’s one of the most beautifully textured, moving works of literature that I’ve ever encountered in which a woman named “Philosophy,” a personification of wisdom itself, comes to console a man, a prisoner, who has been bereft of everything that he had. He is, you might say, in the situation that Boethius himself is in, and this book is this beautiful restoration of his own self-possession through song and poetry, through argument and rhetoric.
It reminds him; it recollects him. It reminds him that he has a self that is independent of these terrible circumstances. It brings him back inside himself, so he can regain his self-possession. That’s the purpose of the book. It’s a work of consolation. It’s called “The Consolation of Philosophy.”
I want to relay that it really works. I once was with a friend of mine who had received a terrible cancer diagnosis, a diagnosis from which she later died. I didn’t know what to do. We were together having a coffee in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and we were just down the street from the Harvard bookstore called The Coop.
I didn’t know what to do, but I thought, “Maybe this work by Boethius, ‘The Consolation of Philosophy,’ will mean something to her,” and so I bought a copy of the book and just gave it to her.
She wrote to me two weeks later saying that words had never meant as much to her as they did in reading this book. So the point is it works. It actually has the power to help people understand themselves amidst great suffering and pain to regain or reclaim their selfhood.
But what happens is that Boethius, as I mentioned, was brutally tortured and executed. We actually don’t even know how the book made it out. There’s very little record of the work for a couple of hundred years. A couple of hundred years—just think about that, on the scale in which we’re talking. And yet, after that, it becomes one of the most copied works, one of the most widely read works of Western culture for 1,000 years.
We measure people on the bestseller list in The New York Times by weeks usually, and it’s a lot to be there for 15 weeks or 20 weeks. I’m talking about one thousand years. It plays a significant role along with these other works that he had written that were translations of Greek into Latin, of the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient world transmitting that. It’s like seeds that were cast forth into future centuries so they could grow again and flourish.
What you see, of course, in the history of Europe, is the Carolingian. By the way, Boethius is translated by King Alfred. It’s one of the first works of the classical world translated into English. The first use of the word “freedom” is in Alfred’s translation of Boethius. The point is that these works are like seeds that were passed along, transmitted, and enabled to grow again in future centuries. You also have the Carolingian renaissance that leads the flowering of the Middle Ages.
Think about the Gothic cathedrals, and Dante, and these amazing cultural flowering that took place. That leads to a renaissance, and then to early modern and modern Europe, all the way up to the present day. The point is that Boethius—he’s not alone, there are other figures—plays a pivotal role in transmitting the ideas and ideals that lead to the whole unfolding and flowering of Western civilization.
One of the reasons I find this story so moving is because Boethius thought that he was helping restore the foundations of ancient Rome. He didn’t know that Rome was already essentially over—soon to be over. So what he thought he was doing was not what he was doing, but what he did was absolutely of fundamental importance to opening up the possibilities for a rich human culture, for those who came after him.
It’s a beautiful but also difficult reminder that the future is not up to us. We don’t know what’s going to happen, what will become of our efforts or our work. It’s only up to us to do the work that we are called to do. The big picture is not in our hands. But if we do the things that we can do, we can hope that they will preserve, maintain, and open up yet unknown possibilities for those who come after us. Indeed, we can hope that we don’t need to wait even that long.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredible how many ways this story impacts our whole discussion up to now. I find that incredibly fascinating. I also find some meaning in that. Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Dr. Blackwood: There is no metric by which a human culture can be judged, other than whether human beings are able to live meaningful lives within it. By that standard, in very significant ways, we are failing.
But I don’t think that we should end on a negative note because what I see in the many, many young people, and the not so young that we hear from all throughout this country and indeed from around the world, is that beautifully awakening hunger for a more adequate alternative.
The great work of our time is not to deconstruct, but to build; not to tear down or to alienate, but to recover forms of living fully and freely together. What that depends on, above all, is educating young people, not indoctrinating but helping them open themselves up in the world, such that they can build and rebuild that which we have allowed to fall into disrepair.
As dark as things sometimes seem, there are all kinds of reasons we could chronicle for a reason to be depressed, sad, or alarmed about the state of our culture. We actually have quite a vivid sense that we should not give up hope. To give up hope is already to surrender to the claims of the very nihilism we need to transcend.
The only antidote to the widespread nihilism is to recover, to re-apprehend the realities that nihilism denies—truth, beauty, goodness, forgiveness. I think the stakes are very high. But there is, as there always is, great reason for hope.
Mr. Jekielek: Stephen Blackwood, such a pleasure to have you on.
Dr. Blackwood: Thank you.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.