Academia, it’s time for a schism

Oliver Traldi proposes that academia can solve its current polarisation by focussing on the epistemic justification of knowledge. I argue the schisms of Protestantism indicate this is likely to fail.

37 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

38 Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?

(John 18:37–38)

In 2016, Jonathan Haidt noted a new trend among universities. Their telos—their goal or fundamental value—had traditionally always been “truth”. According to Haidt, there had over the preceding 30 years emerged a new telos: social justice. But no man can serve two masters, and as such, Haidt argued that if universities deviated from their traditional telos, not only would truth suffer, but eventually—as academia’s knowledge of truly efficacious solutions to social-justice problems diminished—social justice would suffer too. Oliver Traldi recently published an excellent essay at Heterodox Academy buttressing Haidt: the telos of a university cannot merely be truth but rather knowledge—i.e. justified true belief. If the university is justifying its claims with reasons of social justice, then it is not justifying them with epistemically valid reasons, and as such it does not have knowledge. Vigorous and robust academic freedom is required to ensure that academia’s reasons for stating what it states are good reasons; otherwise, it merely has haphazard beliefs that will be true by coincidence at best.

Painting of Jan Hus in Council of Constance by Václav Brožík (1883). (Source: Wikimedia)

But we may wish to ask here: is it true that “social justice” is really an epistemically invalid reason to believe a claim? Indeed, how might we even reconcile differences in what we take to be epistemic authorities? If I may be permitted one snarky remark for this essay, it is that the secular, liberal ivory tower often forgets it is not the first ivory tower. There are, in fact, already parallel institutions of higher learning that starkly disagree with the secular university’s permitted sources of epistemic authority—namely, the seminaries and university of Christian churches.

It is flatly insufficient to claim these institutions do not believe they are seeking knowledge; it is flatly insufficient, too, to say that they are purely seeking especially religious knowledge. Both Catholic and Protestant universities generally have the full complement of non-religious faculties (see, for instance, the list of faculties at the Catholic University of America and at Baylor University respectively), and even seminaries often extend into usually secular disciplines (Fuller Theological Seminary, for instance, offers programs in psychology and cultural studies). These institutions believe they are seeking knowledge in the broad sense—justified, true beliefs about the world.

No, the division between these and secular institutions lies in what would justify the true beliefs for each—and therein, too, lies the crux of what would justify the limits of “academic freedom”. A brief overview, then, of the sources of epistemic authority for the major denominations of English-speaking Christianity:

  • Roman Catholicism accepts two sources of ultimate epistemic authority: the Christian Scriptures and the Tradition of the Catholic Church. This is not to say that science cannot provide epistemic justification for claims, merely that science operates at the level of “secondary causality” (i.e. causality as normally understood), and secondary causality depends on “primary causality” (i.e. God’s continually willing the universe into being) [1]. Science can therefore claim as it wishes—but only to the extent that it does not contradict the revelations of God.
  • Many Protestant denominations affirm sola scriptura, or “only scripture”—i.e. the only ultimate epistemic justification is scripture. For some Protestant denominations who read the entire Bible as entirely literal (as opposed to part-literal, part-poetic, etc.) and who believe this reading disavows the model of primary and secondary causality outlined above, sola scriptura yields doctrines like “young-Earth creationism” or the literal historicity of Adam and Eve.
  • Anglicanism, the deliberately milquetoast addition to the Christian flock, decided to “middle-road” the above two by saying that epistemic authority derives from scripture, tradition, and reason, and that all three must be present for a claim to be ultimately justified. It therefore generally affirms the findings of science and (unlike Catholicism) is generally happy to make inferences from science back to scripture and tradition, not merely the other way around.
  • Methodism, like Anglicanism, affirms scripture, tradition, and reason as sources of authority but adds the experience of the faithful (the famous “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).

These differences in permissible ultimate epistemic authority also help us to understand how both religious and secular universities believe they are pursuing “academic freedom”, despite the insistence of the latter that the former are engaging in censorship. The telos of academic freedom in any institution, religious or otherwise, is to allow academics to pursue knowledge (see, for instance, Article 39 of the Catholic Church’s Sapienta Christiana for an affirmation thereof). But this necessarily entails that academics cannot pursue blatant falsehood—in particular, “falsehood” according to the epistemic authorities that the university has adopted.

In a secular institution, therefore, academic freedom would allow a geologist to broadly pursue their lines of research without hindrance, but it is seemingly no contravention of academic freedom if a university removed the geologist’s teaching authority for having taught flat-Earthism. Such a doctrine clearly contravenes truth and therefore cannot constitute knowledge. Accordingly, Catholic universities would not revoke an academic’s teaching authority for researching or teaching evolution (this is, after all, merely secondary causality). But, given the epistemic authorities affirmed by the Catholic church, Catholic universities would in full accordance with academic freedom revoke teaching authority for an academic who teaches that the inherent purpose of sexuality is not the creation of new life: knowledge cannot not be contrary to truth. A Biblical-literalist college would likewise in full accordance with academic freedom dismiss a professor who did not affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve: if a literal reading of Scripture is the only ultimate epistemic justification, then the professor could not have been disseminating knowledge.

The above is not intended to convince readers of the legitimacy of the epistemic authorities appealed to above (I do not imagine readers of this blog generally find revealed religion to be particularly compelling). It is merely to note that there is nothing inherent in the concept of academic freedom per se that enables one to condemn the above as violations of academic freedom, since under the epistemic authorities to which those denominations have appealed, the censorship does not inhibit the pursuit of knowledge. And if Traldi’s telos­-as-knowledge model cannot show that dismissing a professor for failing to affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve is a violation of academic freedom, it is unclear how he thinks it will resolve the debate between traditionalist and social-justice directions on secular-university campuses, since the steel-man of the social-justice side is that they wish to affirm social-justice considerations as a valid epistemic justification.

To this, I therefore say: academia, it is a contradiction in terms to have a rational debate about the legitimate sources of epistemic authority. You’ve had a good run, but the cleft is now too deep. Follow your predecessors in the Christian academy. It is time for a schism. Time and again, when Christianity has found itself with incommensurate sources of epistemic authority, we have threatened and executed schisms. Against the authority of Tradition, Lutheranism executed a schism. Against the treatment of Scripture as non-literal, Christian fundamentalism executed a schism. Against the increasingly liberal exegetical strategies of the Episcopal Church, dioceses and congregations continue to execute schisms. And now, 500 years after the Reformation, there are at least as many sources of epistemic authority as there are denominations, each with their own seminaries, each with their journals, each with their own unique truth that it’s their telos to pursue. In Christian academia, there is no real need for debates over telos—if the teloi differ, at worst one can always schism again.

This is, of course, a joke. The fragmentation of Christianity is lamentable. It is hard to think of a period in its history where Christianity is less unified than it is now; it is unclear what unites a liberal Methodist, a conservative Catholic, and a prosperity-gospel Pentecostal today other than paraphernalia, and perhaps some creeds on whose interpretation all three differ. The three could certainly have a conversation about the teloi of their movements, and about what would justify justified true belief, but they would find simply that they flatly disagree. The difference between Christianity and academia is not that it is actually more unified in its telos, but rather that it has not yet fully realised that it is splintered.

So, to Traldi, I propose an alternative solution: there should be no discussions of the university’s telos, and certainly not of the sources of epistemic authority. Learn from Christianity’s mistakes. Everyone should just shut up. If there is no actual common foundation of epistemic authority, then the most likely possible result of investigating the foundation of epistemic authority is schism. If the belief in the literal defeat of sin and death and the literal incarnation of God as man was not enough to bind Christianity fast through its investigations of epistemic foundation, it is not clear to me why the complete absence of any unifying characteristic would bind secular academia through its.

To return briefly to Haidt, his book The Righteous Mind ends with a curious remedy to political polarisation: more bipartisan BBQs [2]. If Congressmen’s spouses are friends, and their children play on the same basketball teams, and they joke about the horrible weather in DC together in their carpools, then perhaps the debates on the floor of Congress would not be so acrimonious. It is likely not possible for Congressmen to build bipartisan friendships on the basis of a genuine shared moral foundation. There is none. But that is no problem: humans are naturally sociable creatures, and friendships can be built on gossamer threads. Academia, traditionally understood, should be irrelevant, dusty, and full of cobwebs. In such an academy—shared telos or no—there should be plenty of gossamer.

[1] A very brief more lucid explanation by actual Catholics can be found here:

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), p.363.

What equality of opportunity are you owed?

Society does not owe me a fair opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt. And society does not owe any of us a fair opportunity to become a lawyer, doctor, or academic.

I will never be the next Brad Pitt. Even if I had the talent for acting (I do not), at 23 I would likely be starting too late. In any event, becoming an actor requires a huge degree of luck and perseverance, and I am unwilling to endure the years of working three side-gigs to make ends meet until I am noticed and land my first big show. Being an actor is a luxury job, a “status” job, a lifestyle job, just like being an artist or a supermodel or a politician. We all understand that you need to be a very specific kind of person to even compete to be the next Brad Pitt, and even then it remains a pipe dream. As we all know, “sensible people” do jobs like teaching or accounting or plumbing—jobs that most people can do with sufficient tenacity. So if we acknowledge that individuals are not owed an opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt, why do we think individuals are owed opportunities to become lawyers, or academics, or doctors, or any other high-status career?

Brad Pitt, 25 April 2020 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A traditional argument for equality of opportunity might go as follows. Citizens should not, by circumstances of their birth, be forced into poverty or social degradation. Society should therefore care deeply about improving the opportunities that those at the bottom of the social ladder have to climb it.[1] At a minimum, this means that every industrious citizen should have access to the education and resources to become (for instance) a teacher or an accountant or a plumber.

A broader conception[2] of opportunity might surpass mere material adequacy and argue that individuals should have a fair opportunity to access a life and career that is valuable to them. This argument is an important corrective: if an individual would be much happier as an accountant than as a plumber, then we should not be comfortable with that individual’s being denied access to the required education to tabulate expenses on the basis that they could reach material adequacy by installing sinks. But this broader conception runs quickly against constraints—unless I am willing to take on substantial risk and effort, I will never be the next Brad Pitt, even if that would grant me inordinately more meaning than any other career.

To spell this out explicitly: we do not consistently value equality of opportunity, and with good reason. What we appear to value is equality of opportunity for a life that is good enough. When someone has access to a career that is good enough and then instead chooses a life of precarity and risk to attempt a high-status, well-paid career like Hollywood acting, we note that they consciously made the decision to accept that risk and hardship and adjust our sympathy accordingly.

It is worth noting, then, how far above “good enough” the conditions of those in elite careers are. The life of a senior lawyer will often consist of intellectually stimulating work remunerated in the six figures and is a career that everyone acknowledges as prestigious and desirable (hence the popularity of shows like Suits and How To Get Away With Murder). Academics spend most of their career reading and thinking about interesting problems, again at salaries in the six figures and again with a high social status (who wouldn’t want to be Stellan Skarsgård from Good Will Hunting?). It is not at all surprising that there is intense competition for these roles—as with acting in Hollywood, once you’re “in”, it’s one of the best careers. Further, applicants to these careers would all have been able to access less competitive opportunities that offer stable and relatively interesting work from early in one’s career. Prospective lawyers could easily have become comfortably paid bureaucrats in the public service or the corporate world, prospective academics could easily have become high-school teachers, and prospective doctors could easily have become nurses.

As such, the complaints about poor conditions at the start of one’s career begin to ring slightly hollow. The conditions are so poor precisely because the end-conditions are so good for those who make it through (the starting salary is roughly AU$100,000 for academics[3] and doctors[4]), and the applicants choose to endure those risks and the hardships of the training because the end result is so good. If I were to read the complaint uncharitably, the complains seems to be “it’s unfair that I should have to endure hardship to obtain a job well above the average salary where I do work inordinately more interesting and high-status than I would be able to do anywhere else”.

It’s possible that you think my argument up till now is heartless and ignores people’s suffering on the basis that they opted into it. That is a fair criticism. But it is nonetheless clear that the equivalation between lack of fair opportunity for elite and low-skill occupations is not legitimate. Take this gem:

The fact that many of those [academic casual staff] are underpaid for the work they do only reinforces the extent to which our universities are now dependent on the same kind of exploitative labour practices that blight our economy more broadly, but especially in the hospitality industry.

Colin Long, the 2018 Victorian secretary of the (Australian) National Tertiary Education Union

Casualisation of supermarket or hospitality employment is wholly different to the casualisation of academic (or legal, or medical) work. We are concerned when hospitality or retail workers are placed in insecure employment because there may well not have been alternative options: we as a society may well be denying citizens the opportunity for a life that is good enough. But academics (or lawyers, or doctors) always had a safe and comfortable opportunity available. They simply chose not to exercise it in favour of a riskier but more promising option.

None of this is to say the system is fine as it is: I lament the overpaid executives in universities and law firms and hospitals; I wish that less of our taxpayer money funded bureaucratic bloat in these institutions. But, critically, even if we dislike aspects of the current system, that does not mean society owes anyone a comfortable road to an elite career[5], at least not in the way that we owe all citizens a good high school education or a comfortable road to material sufficiency. So, when the arguments for increasing the ease of obtaining these jobs involves an increase to taxpayer expenditure (e.g. increased funding for universities), we should be rightly sceptical. Society does not owe me a fair opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt. And society does not owe any of us a fair opportunity to become a lawyer, doctor, or academic.

To end, an appropriate Existential Comic:

Source: Existential Comics

This is a substantially edited version of the original piece, which was published under the title “People seem very confused about the merits of equality of opportunity”.

[1] I want to point out that I am only considering arguments here for equality of opportunity, not arguments for ensuring the fundamental dignity of every human life. This is not really intended as a policy post in any event, but as an aside, I’m really comfortable with unemployment insurance, public (i.e. single-payer) free healthcare, state-run disability insurance, and so on. But these are not broadly relevant to equality of opportunity so much as to ensuring the dignity of all human beings, and that’s a separate concern.

[2] Say, Sen’s capabilities approach.

[3] Link provided for the University of Melbourne. See p.41 for salary table and p.58 for the description of “Level B”.

[4] See Part 4, clause 16(h). When I say “starting”, I mean “beginning as a specialist”.

[5] There are obviously instrumental reasons to support offering access to high-status careers for certain individuals. We might, for instance, want to ensure affirmative action for women in a political party to signal that women (as a class) are politically equal to men. Or, alternately, we wish to ensure a minimum number of women on a corporate board to decrease the likelihood that the company would overlook concerns relevant to women (e.g. maternity leave policies). I accept that there are good reasons to believe any of these instrumental reasons. Critically, however, the instrumental concerns can be met with instrumental solutions: we need not necessarily care that Jane is denied the corporate board position if it is given instead to Jenny, since either will mean more female representation on the board. It does not appear that the lack of fair opportunity per se should be what bothers us.

You don’t want humanities departments—you want Volkshochschulen

Humanities departments in universities are neither the only nor the best way of providing a humanities education. They are extremely expensive, the specific content is in most cases too technical, and they are hard to access unless you’re an 18–22-year-old with no dependents or other commitments. Volkshochschulen offer a flexible, scalable, and efficient alternative.

The Australian government recently announced some changes to university funding arrangements [1], most notably among which is that humanities degrees will now cost AU$14,500 while “job-ready” degrees like teaching and mathematics will cost AU$3,700.

Table 1: Student and government contributions for university courses in 2021

Band Discipline Cost to student Cost to government
1 Teaching, English [including literature], mathematics, and postgraduate clinical psychology AU$3,700 AU$13,500
Nursing and languages AU$16,500
Agriculture AU$27,000
2 Health, architecture, information technology, and creative arts AU$7,700 AU$13,500
Engineering, environmental studies and science AU$16,500
3 Medical, dental and veterinary science AU$11,300 AU$27,000
4 Management and commerce, arts, humanities (excluding languages), behavioural science (i.e. undergraduate psychology), law, economics and communications AU$14,500 AU$1,100
Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment [2]

The stated aim is to guide students away from graduate-saturated professions like law to more “job-ready” areas where employment prospects are better. I’ll leave it to others to argue the merits or flaws of that aim. In this post, I want to address one specific argument against the government’s reforms: that a decrease in funding for university humanities departments and degrees devalues the humanities and necessarily diminishes the available humanities education. I will argue that universities are an extremely inefficient way of achieving accessible and high-quality humanities education and that Australia should instead consider adopting an Volkshochschulen adult education system, as used in Germany and other northern European countries, that includes humanities courses.

I’ll begin with two questions:

  1. Why should someone study the humanities at all?
  2. Why should someone study the humanities at university specifically?

The answers to Question 1 are (I hope) at least relatively clear: it enhances students’ capacity to think about abstract problems, it exposes students to a variety of perspectives (e.g. from other cultures, from other time periods, etc.) to which they would otherwise likely not have been exposed, it enables students to better understand their own culture and country and their place in it, it gives students frames to think about morality, and so on. All of these are absolutely important for citizens of a liberal democracy and I do not seek to denigrate any of them. More Australians should study the humanities. [3]

But the answers to Question 2 are not so obvious. A year-long reading group on classics of Western philosophy or an evening class on Aboriginal art would achieve the above goals as well as would a formal academic education. What university specifically adds is quite niche: it enables students to write extended technical essays on these topics, it situates students in the specific academic fashions regarding these topics (these change more often than the lay person would think, even for very old areas like Ancient Greek philosophy), and it establishes students on a pathway to becoming humanities academics. These ends aren’t unimportant, but they’re certainly not relevant to most people for obvious reasons.

Further, while university does not offer many unique benefits above and beyond extra-academic methods of studying the humanities, it does offer many unique costs. In the first instance, I’ll just note that universities are extremely expensive for both students and for the taxpayer. Under pre-reform student fees, a philosophy student would cost the government AU$6,116 per student per year, a sociology student would cost the government AU$10,821, and a foreign-language student would cost the government $13,308 per year. An ever-greater proportion of costs for these fields have been borne by students under successive government reform packages (see, for instance, new arrangements starting in 2007 [4]), so these numbers would be even higher under, say, inflation-adjusted 2005 figures (and they would be even higher again under proposals [5] of free tertiary education, in which the government would assume the full cost). This is similar to the amount the government spends per primary school student (AU$12,604 in 2015 [6]), and they are monitored continuously for 6.5 hours of the day!

Table 2: Student and government contributions for university courses in 2020



Cost to student

Cost to government


History, archaeology, indigenous studies, criminology, English, linguistics, philosophy, religious studies



Behavioural science (i.e. undergraduate psychology), sociology, anthropology, gender studies, social work


Clinical psychology, foreign languages, visual and performing arts





Mathematics, statistics, computing, building and architecture, community health, other health (e.g. massage)



Allied health (e.g. pharmacy, optical science, etc.)


Science, engineering, or surveying





Law, accounting, administration, economics, commerce



Dentistry, medicine, or veterinary science


Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment [7]

I’m certainly not the first person [8] to make this point, but this is an insane amount to be spending on a humanities education if we mostly care about making sure that Australians are well-educated in the humanities. Further, a lot of this money does not go to teaching the humanities at all! Much of it funds the substantial bureaucracy of universities (ask yourself, why do not-for-profit public universities need marketing departments?), and a large amount (i.e. in the billions) cross-subsidises academic research [9]. Tutors have to be paid to mark essays and exams—even if (as I argue above) these essays and exams are sufficiently technical and academic in nature that they would not likely contribute to the holistic aims of a humanities education. All of this adds up to a hefty sum.

Source: SMBC Comics [10]

There’s another unique point about a humanities education at universities: it’s very hard to do alongside full-time work or training. Some more vocationally oriented courses (for instance, law masters’ degrees) offer weekend intensives or evening classes, but lectures and tutorials for more traditional humanities courses fall almost exclusively in business hours. Needless to say, this makes it difficult for an electrician or a nurse to study the humanities at university, even though we certainly want to offer them the opportunity of a high-quality humanities education (a major point of a humanities education is that it is not meant to be limited to the aristocratic classes!).

This isn’t to say nobody should study the humanities at university—aspiring academics certainly should, as well as any who want to “get into the weeds” of academic humanities research. But most people don’t need or want to write a dissertation on Norse influences on Shakespearean neologisms—they just want the capacity to discuss and think more deeply than is generally possible in the prosaic world. For these people, I propose that we seriously consider the northern European model of Volkshochschulen.

Literally translated as “people’s universities”, Volkshochschulen are amped-up adult education institutes [11]: in addition to the standard adult-education offerings of school-leaving certificates and integration courses for recent immigrants, Volkshochschulen offer a variety of courses in social and political topics, art, foreign languages, and health. Set up in the early 20th century to enable all classes of society to enjoy the benefits of a humanities education, Volkshochschulen in German enjoy heavy subsidies such that term-long courses can be taken for roughly €20. So, instead of nurses’ or electricians’ having to go down to part-time hours or take extended leave if they want to study literature, they could take a term-long evening class on Austen for the price of an expensive dinner. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Volkshochschulen observe a much broader age range of students than do humanities courses in Australian universities. There is genuine life-long engagement with deeper questions.

Source: Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband [12]

Even at German levels of government subsidy, Volkshochschule courses would be much cheaper to run than courses at a university. You could conceivably hire a literature PhD graduate at AU$100k p/a to teach five different literature evening courses and this would still only amount to the same government subsidy as ten sociology students at university. This is an oversimplification—there are overheads, of course—but it is not a ridiculous one. Even accounting for some overheads, there is every reason to assume that a wide variety of courses could offered at minimal cost to the taxpayer in a way that basically all taxpayers could actually enjoy. Due to these low costs and the fact that courses do not need to count towards a degree or some pre-specified learning objectives, Volkshochschulen can be scaled as required for community needs and desires, as has happened in Germany. It would be difficult to justify establishing a Department of English Literature at the La Trobe University campus in Mildura, but there’s no reason to assume an ad-hoc Volkshochschule couldn’t run courses in literature out of the town hall.

This argument of “hurting humanities department is a rejection of the humanities” therefore needs to die. Humanities departments in universities are neither the only nor the best way of providing a humanities education. They are extremely expensive, the specific content is in most cases too technical, and they are hard to access unless you’re an 18–22-year-old with no dependents or other commitments. Volkshochschulen offer a flexible, scalable, and efficient alternative.

[1] Conor Duffy, “University fees to be overhauled, some course costs to double as domestic student places boosted”, ABC News, 19 June 2020, link

[2] Department of Education, Skills and Employment, “2021 allocation of units of study to funding clusters and student contribution bands according to field of education codes”, 26 June 2020, link

[3] There is another, more instrumental, argument that is often deployed for studying the humanities: namely, that it improves one’s ability to communicate. I am profoundly sceptical of this argument. In the first instance, the feedback given on essays is often minimal at best and largely relates to argumentation, not expression. Further, and purely as anecdotal evidence, I formerly worked as the editor of a policy publication and managed a team of sub-editors, who were mostly students—often top-performing ones. Almost invariably, law and humanities students were the worst editors by a substantial margin. It may well be true that many good writers enter the humanities, but I would refute any claim that study of the humanities causes an increase in writing quality.

[4] Department of Education, Skills and Employment, “Indexed rates for 2007”, 11 December 2013, link

[5] Fergus Hunter, “Free university and TAFE under ‘transformational’ Greens education plan”, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December 2018, link

[6] James Mahmud Rice, Daniel Edwards and Julie McMillan, Education Expenditure in Australia, Australian Council for Educational Research, 2019, link

[7] Department of Education, Skills and Employment, “2020 allocation of units of study to funding clusters and student contribution bands according to field of education codes.”, 18 June 2020, link

[8] See, for instance, Tanner Greer, “Modern Universities Are An Exercise in Insanity”, The Scholar’s Stage, 14 January 2018, link

[9] Andrew Norton, “The cash nexus: how teaching funds research in Australian universities”, Grattan Institute, November 2015, link

[10] SMBC Comics, “College-Level Mathematics”, link

[11] “Volkshochschulen: Zahlen, Daten und Fakten über Deutschlands größten Weiterbildungsanbieter”, Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband, link

[12] “Volkshochschulen: Zahlen, Daten und Fakten über Deutschlands größten Weiterbildungsanbieter”, Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband, link