Inside the new ‘meritocratic’ university where Jordan Peterson lectures
By looking to ancient history to save tomorrow, Ralston College has bold ambitions – and could start a movement
BySherelle Jacobs14 November 2022 • 7:25pm
Prof Jordan Peterson, author, academic and scourge of the liberal-Left, is standing on the steps of the 2,000-year-old Library of Celsus, in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (now in modern-day Turkey) mid-lecture: “And you might say, ‘Well, we don’t need a superordinate ethic to unite us’. And I would say, ‘OK, then we’re not united. And so what are we if we’re not united? That’s the Hobbesian nightmare, right?’ ” He goes on: “That’s the death of God. That’s the rise of nihilism. That’s the emergence of a corrosive and destabilising and deep cynicism. And it’s the death of joy and enthusiasm.”
Listening to him are students and teachers from Ralston College, the newly launched university of which Peterson is chancellor. Dedicated to challenging orthodox thinking and prizing free speech, it is based between a campus in Savannah, Georgia, in the US, and the Greek island of Samos. I am here, too, as the first invited member of the media to be allowed to see what the college is all about, and attend an exclusive lecture about Peterson’s much-anticipated new book We Who Wrestle With God.
Ever since its formation was announced, there has been intense global curiosity about how Ralston would work, what would be on the curriculum and who would want to attend. Peterson, 60, is possibly the world’s most notorious academic. A once-obscure Canadian psychologist, since 2016 he has achieved fame through stoking controversy; he has claimed white privilege doesn’t exist and that feminists have “an unconscious wish for brutal male domination”. He has also attracted millions of fans across the world, particularly young males, since publishing, in 2018, 12 Rules for Life, a Nietzschean self-care book for millennials, with nuggets of advice that include one to “stand up straight”.
Moreover, when many universities are struggling to make ends meet, who on earth would open a new one? I have come to find out.
But as tonight’s lecture, part of a field trip for students, makes obvious, the university itself, at least for Peterson, could be part of a greater intellectual project. Not content with musing on how individuals can live their best lives, he seems concerned with how a rootless, secular and divided Western civilisation might find itself again. These days the academic is as fixated with Heraclitus’s concept of logos – a unifying cosmic order, or “hierarchy of values” amid a world of chaos and flux – as he is with the heroic individualism of Nietzsche. This is where Ralston, which takes 24 students for eight months, with no paid fees (typical of many American graduate programmes), might fit in. Could it be the launch not only of a specific student body, but also of a movement?
Back at the college’s Greek campus in Samos, rustic beachside accommodation, whitewashed walls and olive trees, I meet some of its founding intake, which includes a former actress frustrated with the industry’s “taboos about what you can and cannot think”, and an artist disillusioned with the “tedious intellectual diet of postmodernists like Derrida”.
Still buzzing from the trip to Ephesus, Elijah Weaver, a 27-year-old company director from Oklahoma, contrasts “liberating” Ralston with his time as an undergraduate at Yale. “If I were in a class where we were discussing race,” says Weaver, “reading primarily black authors like Ralph Ellison, Howard Thurman, Toni Morrison – three of my favourite authors, that’s why I did the class – there was an atmosphere that I had less ability to speak on the contents of what they were saying than one of my classmates who might be black.”
Ralston couldn’t be more different. As our location suggests, underpinning the pedagogy is the notion that the West will rediscover its purpose by reconnecting with its past.
Peterson tells me the aim is a “strict meritocracy, objectively defined in relation to the goals of the programme and a refusal to engage in any propagandistic education”.
He explains: “We are trying to set our standards higher than even the institutions that set their standards historically high. Some of it’s going to be academic attainment but it’s going to be more character developed because that is the purpose of a humanities education.
“We’re trying to help people develop a deep ethical orientation – an ethos. That’s what the humanities education should do. It’s not a descriptive study of the past; it’s instead the effort to embody the great spirit of the past.”
Students at Ralston are immersed in ancient history, philosophy and intensive study of Greek, led by Joseph Conlon, a classics professor.
“We can only communicate with the past if we learn their language,” says Prof Conlon. “By knowing the language well, we can enter into communion with thinkers of the past as their peers, whether it’s Plato or Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius, with a sense of rivalry, gratitude and continuity.”
Prof Conlon believes fluency in Greek will help Ralston students become more independent thinkers: “It can lead to a profound psychological transformation. There’s intellectual freedom in being granted unmediated access to the sources, without having to rely on experts, translators or interpreters.”
If it seems clearer what Peterson and his colleagues are trying to achieve at Ralston, what do students expect?
Some tell me they hope a classical education can help with life plans like writing novels or even Netflix screenplays. Erik Langert, a software strategist at data analysts Palantir Technologies, wants to become a more ethically informed deep-learning programmer.
Ralston is a serious business then: there are one-on-one sessions with Peterson to discuss progress.
But not all conversations are academic. At dinner, I watch Peterson offer dating advice. Perhaps not surprisingly, it includes a brutal indirect warning not to dawdle too long; the most “miserable” women he has come across are those over 30 who realise they have left it too late for children, he points out in a well-meaning way.
It strikes me Ralston’s students are not the predicted stereotypical libertarians and anti-woke warriors, but the awkward offspring of baby boomers, as disillusioned with hyper-individualistic Thatcherism and unsatisfied with Trumpian populism as they are suffocated by the dogmas of the liberal Left.
This will not be a surprise to Peterson. “The question is,” he says, “what metaphysics justifies the presumption of the inalienable value of each individual.”
He adds: “Expressed religiously? The claim that every person is made in the image of God. It means specifying a divine locus of value and treating ourselves and others as if we are of intrinsic worth.”
The college’s philosophy is a work in progress – something the founders hope will emerge organically from the students, but a Ralstonion logos is emerging, including a determination to escape the apocalyptic view that the West has reached a dead end.
As Prof Conlon says: “There are people who think we are nearing the end of civilisation. We can only reach that point if we cease to see ourselves as a link in a long chain that stretches deep into the past and that will continue far beyond us into the future.”
The role of Ralston, then, could be to reinforce the relationships between past, present and future. Fittingly, only time will tell if it is to become as important a part of the educational landscape as its Ivy League competitors.