Almost exactly 2,450 years ago, in 430 b.c., a plague devastated the democratic city-state of Athens, killing perhaps as many as 100,000 people, or 25 percent of its population. Even without the epidemic, which apparently came from abroad and the likes of which no one had ever experienced, it was a bad time: Athens was in the second year of what was to be a protracted and ultimately doomed series of wars with its rival, Sparta. In his famous description of these wars, the historian Thucydides recorded that he himself survived the plague; the great Athenian statesman and general Pericles was one among many who did not.
The situation went from bad to worse. Shortly after succumbing to Sparta, Athens lost another great citizen, the philosopher Socrates, who was forced to drink hemlock after a trial in which his peers found him guilty of impiety and corrupting the Athenian youth. But about a dozen years later, Socrates’s student Plato founded a school in a grove outside the city: the Academy, which fostered debates over issues of moral and epistemological importance that very much still occupy us today. One of the most impressive features of the Academy was that it actively encouraged reasoned disagreement. After all, Plato’s most famous student was Aristotle.
Right now is, I suggest, a better time than most to take seriously the idea of heterodoxy that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle promoted in both theory and practice. Until a few months ago, those of us in or hoping to enter what is often called “the academy” regularly wrung our hands about one or another crisis within it — the illiberal stifling of dissent, the rampant growth of middle management, the toxic combination of identity politics, virtue signaling, and “cancel culture.” Now, of course, the whole globe is in crisis: Coronavirus has struck us at precisely the moment when our agreement over what constitutes the social contract is at its weakest.
In an unmoored world, students need mooring. So, frankly, do their teachers. This brings me to the John and Daria Barry Scholarship, which will a few months from now send its first full cohort of recent baccalaureates to the oldest and arguably greatest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford, for two years of graduate study. This is not an award tied in any way to the pandemic — the recipients learned of their selection last December — but it is one whose recipients, individually and as a group, possess qualities that will lead all of us, including members of the academy, into a safe and just new normal: respect for truth, difficult or complicated as it may be, and that rare combination of scholarly rigor and joy in discovery that makes every professor’s heart sing. I know this because I am the chairman of the Barry Academic Committee.
“Describe in no more than 1,000 words an occasion when your opinion or position was unpopular of differed from the mainstream. How did you articulate your ideas and beliefs? What did you learn from this experience of disagreement?” This was one of the prompts we presented to prospective Barry Scholars. You will not find anything like it in applications for other U.K.-based fellowships, which tend to result in generic essays about leadership rather than philosophical and practical reflections on truth, virtue, sincerity, and courage — including the courage to question campus and other orthodoxies. Another thing most fellowships do not do is request samples of applicants’ best work. We do, and the senior theses, op-eds, films, and poems we receive are a wholly unpredictable pleasure to read and watch and savor: earnest and witty, risky and brilliant.
What else is different about the Barry Scholarship? For one thing, there is the process by which the young scholars are selected. We do not have students convince their professors and employers to submit canned letters of recommendation reporting that so-and-so is “the best in a generation,” only to see the same phrase trotted out for someone else twelve months later. Rather, we accept applications only from those who have been nominated by a biennially rotating group of distinguished faculty members charged with selecting the one or two most promising students they know, at any educational institution and in any academic discipline, who would benefit from a sojourn in Oxford. Put simply, the Barry Scholarship is a prize more than a scholarship.
Furthermore, the winners actually represent the United States. Two of the ten Barry Scholars in the inaugural cohort attended Claremont McKenna College; the others received degrees from Arizona State, Berkeley, Duke, George Fox, Penn, Princeton, St Andrews (Scotland), and Williams. By contrast, of the 32 most recent Americans to be named winners of what has widely been considered the most prestigious postgraduate prize at Oxford, the Rhodes Scholarship, no fewer than fifteen come from just four institutions: five from Harvard, four from Yale, four from MIT, and two from Princeton. Only three attended college west of the Mississippi River and only two graduated from an institution without a Ph.D. program. My own educational path gives me no credibility to gripe about elitism, but there is clearly something wrong here.
At Oxford, the Barry Scholars, who have been accepted into graduate programs in such fields as Music, Philosophy, Political Theory, Theology, Sociology, and Islamic Studies, will join a new academy, the Canterbury Institute, a registered U.K. charity whose motto is “Rediscovering the academic vocation through humility towards the truth.” The four American graduate students who formed a small seed group this past year have been doing just that, starting to build a community that respects the past and attends to the future. The Institute encourages its members, many of whom are senior Oxford faculty, to read and debate timeless texts together, to enjoy one another’s company, and to ease away from the soul-destroying dependence on impersonal devices.
It would be absurd to say that there was any one cause of the Renaissance, but the restructuring of society after another plague, the Black Death, was certainly a motivating factor. When Raphael painted The School of Athens, he was simultaneously depicting both his reborn world and Plato’s original Academy. What we urgently need now is another rebirth.