Noah’s Ark College

A $340 million (or even just $40 million) plan for a new “America at its best” liberal arts college.
A Currier & Ives lithograph of Noah’s Ark from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Adele S. Colgate, 1962.

Warren Treadgold, and Rick Hess and Brendan Bell, have floated the idea of a new conservative research university. Treadgold made the case in a book, The University We Need; Hess and Bell did in an article for National Affairs headlined “An Ivory Tower of Our Own.” They write:

American society, politics, and culture would be healthier if colleges and universities instead enabled a robust dialogue that reflected competing views and values. Lamentably, that is decidedly not the case today — though it may be true that most universities have long fallen short on this score.

…What is needed is an ivory tower of our own.

Hess and Bell estimate it would cost $3.4 billion.

With a wave of Covid-related bankruptcies about to hit small private colleges, I have a related idea. It’s cheaper. Small colleges, like Southern Vermont College, sell for as little as $5 million.

Let’s say we add $35 million in working capital to launch a prestigious brand-new liberal arts college—hire faculty, fix up the campus. And we add $300 million more to endow the new college, mostly to support 250 full-ride academic scholarships a year.

So for $340 million (or even just $40 million), we create something amazing—not a “conservative university” per se, but an “America at its best” liberal arts college. “Truly free inquiry” and “diversity of thought” would be the animating ideas, driving pedagogy, curriculum, hiring, and admissions. The effort would build on the tremendous work of Heterodox Academy, a group of professors and graduate students who believe that viewpoint diversity and open inquiry are critical to research and learning.

The Noah’s Ark College Model

All professors and students are hired or admitted in pairs.

Not just that—they apply in pairs.

A conservative economics professor would find someone he personally likes and disagrees with on most things—a friendly big-government type. A liberal student from the Upper West Side of New York City would apply with a Deep South conservative. Professors could do the pairing themselves. Student applicants would have access to speed dating to find opposites they liked; these would become their freshman year roommates.

Not just that—the professors physically teach in pairs whenever possible—in courses ranging from history and literature to economics and psychology. In that way, classroom discussion constantly models respectful disagreement, and the course readings pit the best competing ideas against one another.

Professors “leave” Noah’s Ark College as a pair when one of them leaves for a new job. The “other one” is free to re-apply from scratch, with some powerful institutional mechanism against the natural inclination to hang on to incumbent professors who might then seek a colleague who is either more in agreement or simply a weaker foe (the Hannity/Colmes effect). Professors have the intellectual freedom protections of tenure, but not the “stay here forever” protection if one of the pair departs.

For every class that is co-taught by two professors, a student takes another course online for free (or near free) from the likes of EdX, with Noah’s Ark giving the exams in person for credit. In this way, the additional cost of having 2 professors in each classroom is offset by an equal number of classes that have no (paid) professors.

The college is for students and professors who delight in respectful intellectual challenge. The application process seeks evidence of this. Social media feeds are scrutinized, and perhaps even browser histories are submitted; are you someone who delights in understanding multiple sides of an argument? Traditional letters of recommendation are eschewed; instead, the admissions officer calls up your close friends to gauge if you have a genuine love of competing ideas. We might even have students apply during their junior year of high school, thereby helping students engage in this unusual admissions process without the stress of concurrently applying to 20 other colleges.

Notably, the college does not seek to transform anyone into a person who loves this sort of intellectual give and take.

Moreover, there is some pedagogical gain to learning in pairs: the Talmud sanctions precisely this approach, which was validated in a JAMA study of medical students, where pairs got the diagnosis correct 68% of the time, compared to a control group of 50%; this finding has been confirmed in other studies.

Importing International Perspective

The Noah’s Ark appeal is explaining two perspectives and letting students savor and struggle with them. But that artifice—that there are two sides—is limiting. The solution? Large numbers of international students—sometimes offering a “third perspective” on a particular topic—would add delight to the intellectual pursuit of Noah’s Ark College.

That would be the primary purpose of the $300 million endowment: to enroll a third of the college’s students as full scholarship academic all-stars from the developing world. They’d also be admitted in pairs. In my experience, such students start outside the American tribes of Red and Blue. They are unpredictable in where they line up, issue by issue, and change their minds more frequently than American students when new arguments or evidence are introduced. Such unpredictability creates a larger pool of “undecided” or “unanchored” students as any particular point of debate arises, thereby improving the reasoning and persuasion skills of all.

Moreover, these students would massively raise the bar on rigor—in my experience, these students rise early and outwork everyone.

And a final bonus is Noah’s College then becomes the most racially diverse in the U.S.—actually in the world. That seems like it would be good for the school’s brand, making it more appealing to prospective American students and professors.

Moreover, the inclusion of these students would turn traditional study abroad programs for Noah’s Ark juniors on its head: instead of a fun semester abroad drinking pints in London, Noah’s Ark American students could study in the developing world, not as educational tourists, but living with their friends’ families and becoming immersed in the culture.

* * *

Visitors are more welcome to attend classes than at any other colleges in America, and always find the lessons refreshing and the people warm and open—that’s a key part of the college’s ethos.

The vision is students attend a college where their friends visit, attend some classes, and the visitors can’t believe how much more intellectually fun it is compared to their own college. The Knight Foundation reports 61% of college students “agree that the climate on their campus prevents some students from expressing their views,” and that this number is fast increasing. The self-screened absence of students who are easily triggered or of bullies looking to restrict debate would be fresh air for all involved.

Diversity of ideas, race, and ethnicity are all present in greater degrees than at places like Georgetown, Williams, and Swarthmore—where great education opportunities persist but a flood has washed away intellectual diversity. We fix that two professors and two students at a time.

Who might endow Noah’s Ark College? I can imagine 3 types of philanthropists. One is a conservative who gets “half a college” instead of Hess and Bell’s dream of a whole conservative university. Or it could be an old school Nat Hentoff liberal who values free inquiry as the best path to liberalism and progress. But ideally it would be a pair of philanthropists: wealthy old friends who have jabbed at each other on the issues of the day for many years, and want to share that wonderful tradition.

The Noah’s Ark College brand is University of Chicago meets intellectual-civility-on-steroids meets United Colors of Benetton. If it works—and by that I mean students love the intellectual experience so much they can’t help tell all their friends at colleges around the country, what the MBAs call high Net Promoter Score—it could have a catalytic effect on American higher education.

Mike Goldstein is founder of the Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education and of Match Education, both based in Boston.

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