Knowledge. Wisdom. Clarity. That’s Prager University, apparently. For those of you not in the loop, Prager University (or PragerU for short) is a media organisation founded by American conservative Dennis Prager. It is not a university. It is not accredited by any recognised body. Its mission, according to its website, is to create content ‘that advances Judeo-Christian values.’
PragerU does this through bite-sized videos, which have amassed billions of views. As the platform has grown the dubious content of its videos has been picked apart by all manner of critics. That’s not my intent here. It’s well covered ground, and actually distracts from larger issues surrounding PragerU. As ‘education’ fragments into rival political camps, the likelihood of good faith debate actually gets worse.
By the way, before we go on, I want you to know that I am a professor. I’m not really, but I’d like you to think of me as one. Because I am one. I mean, I’m not, but I am. Please defer to the things I say as if they were written by a professor. What follows are not the opinions of a nobody, but of an expert. Me. Dr Frederick O’Brien.
Call me old fashioned, but I think academia should be a space where eager minds can pursue truth and knowledge in good faith. This usually means being exposed to new ideas, engaging in debate, conducting independent research, and so on. It’s a messy business, but hugely beneficial to all involved when done right.
PragerU claims to be a reaction to institutional liberal bias in academia. This is a criticism often levelled at higher education in the U.S., and it would be disingenuous of me to say it’s baseless. Safe spaces, banned talks, and ‘my way or the highway’ approaches to teaching don’t sit right with me. University is a place to challenge and be challenged, a place where different views should be able to spar without someone being hounded off campus or sacked. If you have the courage of your convictions, fight your corner. You might learn something.
The problem with something like PragerU is it’s complicit in the same behaviour it derides. The answer to institutional bias is not more institutional bias. God forbid students be encouraged to think for themselves. Maybe in the years to come we can have KochU, and ShapiroU, and ObamaU. Everyone can cosy up in their academic safe space and learn hackneyed talking points.
I have zero issue with political YouTube channels. It’s the false pretense of academic spirit that’s so distasteful. I’m wary of any ‘education’ that organises the world into neat partisan boxes. I don’t want to learn an exclusively Marxist view of the world, or an exclusively Judeo-Christian view, or any other for that matter. The beauty of strong academia is you’re given the resources and support you need to make your own mind up.
There are issues in academia that deserve to be scrutinised, but it’s hard to take platforms like PragerU seriously when their response is to build their own little hyper-partisan worlds. Education is not a political tool. If there is a bias somewhere, shine light on the bias, don’t double down on your own in the hope that it will balance things out. It just makes things worse.
Inasmuch as anyone seems to genuinely care about education for education’s sake any more, it seems to me that there should be a coalition of political views united by their desire for academia to be as strong and vibrant as it can be. Everything else is posturing.
This requires intellectual honesty from everyone. If you genuinely believe in the open marketplace of ideas you have to accept the possibility that your ideas won’t fare terribly well. A literal reading of the Bible probably won’t be a roaring success in the archeology department; arguing for pronoun use to be legislated won’t make you many friends in the free speech advocacy crowd.
And hey, you might read this and think I’m an idiot. That’s fine. Tell me why. I might learn something. What would you achieve by running off to complain with people who already agree with you? Debate can be unpleasant, but I’ll take it over the alternatives every time. Cookie cutter pictures of the world competing for captive audiences seems a deeply depressing future for ‘education.’
Frederick is a writer from London with a background in sustainable development. His research has featured in The Independent, the Evening Standard, and the New York Post, among others. He conforms to most British stereotypes.