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Trojan Horse Universities: How tech billionaires and alt-right figures legitimise intolerance in Classics. 

Updated: Jun 20

A satirical university crest for "Trojan-Horse University" with the motto "fortuna favet fatuis" meaning "fortune favours the stupid"

On April 1st, Antigone Journal sparked outrage on social media for an April Fools joke that was tasteless at best and downright hateful at worst. The official account for the journal on X (formerly Twitter) shared a satirical list of employment vacancies that included Diversities and Inclusions Officers who would “attract more submissions from alarmingly underrepresented demographic groups in our current crop of writers, such as the shrill, hectoring, sanctimonious, and narcissistic.”

In its utter contempt for pushback against gatekeeping of the Classics, the post was revelatory. Despite the journal’s stated commitment to “encourage curiosity, foster discussion and find our collective way through the labyrinth of ideas,” the post exhibited a defiance and disdain toward the very criticism and conversation the journal claims to champion. 

In this, Antigone is not alone. The post is an example of a broader trend of organizations and institutions disguising neoconservative and reactionary politics in the language of apoliticism, concern for the continued vitality of the Classics, and a desire for conversation across the aisle. While the political right has long claimed the Classics to justify everything from nationalism to colonialism and male supremacy, social media has presented a new frontier for battles over the use (and abuse) of the Classics. In other words, Antigone’s post was not an isolated mistake—it was a deliberate deployment of social media and its culture of virality to proliferate their exclusionary definition of “legitimate” discourse in the Classics.

Nowhere is this tactic more evident than in the droves of emerging, unaccredited colleges devoted to education in the liberal arts and the Classics. While these institutions are distinct in their approaches, they describe their mission in uncannily similar terms and, like Antigone, they use social media and other digital platforms as primary tools for furthering their conservative political agenda. 

Screen capture of part of the Ralston College Homepage. Black text on white background: "A revival and reinvention of the traditional university. A fellowship for anyone, anywhere who seeks the truth with courage."
From the Ralston College homepage.

Ralston College, for instance, made a name for itself by appointing the pop psychologist and internet firebrand Jordan Peterson as its inaugural chancellor. Ralston’s singular degree path, a Humanities M.A., places heavy emphasis on the Classics, tracing the origins of modern culture to Greco-Roman antiquity and requiring instruction in classical languages. The college’s polished website portrays a moderate and rational approach to humanistic education, as words like “virtue,” “beauty” and “fellowship” appear on the homepage in bold serif font. The effect is to present an institution committed to liberal education (the school’s homepage reads, “To Think is To Be Free”) and apolitical instruction (the “About” pages notes: “Ralston College is an independent institution devoted to freedom of thought and speech. It has no political or religious affiliations, and does not accept government funds.”) 

Yet the first and most notable move the college made was to appoint a right-wing internet provocateur as its figurehead. Ralston College President Stephen Blackwood describes the college’s mission in fiercely oppositional and highly political terms. In an article for The Federalist, Blackwood refers to modern universities as “leftist indoctrination centers.” Yet another article in The Foundation for Economic Education decries “[t]he neo-Marxist worldview that has overtaken our institutions of higher education—according to which there is no truth but only power.” In the same piece, Blackwood names tech moguls such as Elon Musk and Steve Jobs as sources of inspiration for Ralston’s founding.

Other, similar institutions marry the mission of recovering Classical virtues and waging a culture war on the political left with that of accumulating capital, particularly as tech billionaires such as Elon Musk, Peter Theil, and Joe Lonsdale allocate portions of their fortunes toward start-up liberal arts colleges such as the University of Austin (UATX) or Musk’s yet-unnamed academic venture. UATX President Pano Kanelos described the college’s mission as one to “[reconceive] the relationship between a liberal education and the demands of our dynamic and fluid professional world.” Foundational courses include Chaos and Civilization (“​​What roles do the heroes of Homer, Plato, the Greek tragedies, and the Bible play in the beginning of civilization?”), Christianity and Islam, Europe and the East, and Modernity and the West, alongside Intellectual Foundations of Economics and The Uses and Abuses of Technology.

Like Ralston, UATX appointed a controversial public figure with a staggering internet following to its board of governance: Bari Weiss. While Weiss, like Peterson, is one of many serving in a leadership capacity at UATX, her adversarial reputation and expansive online influence led to a public equivalency drawn between her public persona and the institution itself. UATX seemed to leverage this, as the college’s founding was announced via Weiss’ Substack in November of 2021. Both Ralston and UATX are savvy at leveraging the discordant nature of influencer culture, despite their claims to universal values and rational dialogue.

Screen capture of the UATX homepage. Blue text on white background: "DARE TO THINK."
From the UATX homepage.

And like Ralston, UATX markets itself with stylish graphics and inspiring and ostensibly apolitical slogans such as “Dare to Think (an adage derived from the Horatian rallying cry of the Enlightenment, Sapere aude) and “the fearless pursuit of truth”—yet UATX’s slick marketing quickly yields to a fundamentally oppositional framing of their mission. Take, for instance, the college’s recent Youtube video advertising fall enrollment. The video, titled “College Should Be a Conversation, Not a Battleground,” begins with clips from news media depicting clashes between pro-Palestine student protestors and police. The images are overlaid with tense music, as the video plays subsequent audio clips of a news anchor stating that “the university is being taken over by a radical and extreme ideology” and unnamed protestors chanting “There is only one solution: Antifa the revolution.” UATX Provost Jacob Howland then appears on screen, promising a more reasonable and balanced education. The video ends with a black screen emblazoned with the slogan: “They Burn. We Build.” The irony of this marketing is twofold: first, the clips chosen for this campaign depict the students engaging in the kind of free speech that the college has claimed to uphold. One would think that a college inviting students to “dare to think” would champion the efforts of students who peacefully stand against institutional actions they deem morally reprehensible — yet UATX presents this as part of the “problem” on college campuses. Second, even as the college positions itself as a hub of truth-seeking and unbiased discourse, the narrative at the core of its marketing is us-versus-them: they (Student protestors? Progressives? Antifa?) burn; UATX builds. 

Thales College, located in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, adds religious fundamentalism to this toxic mixture of Classics and capital. While the college denies any specific religious affiliation, emphasizing classically liberal education with a professional focus, it purports to teach the “Judeo-Christian tradition” and affirms: “As Americans, we belong to Western Civilization, and thus its tradition is our special inheritance. Furthermore, the Christian faith holds a central place in the Western tradition along with elements from the Ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Roman civilizations.” Founded by multimillionaire Bob Luddy, the college’s stated mission is to help students “develop the wisdom – intellectual ability, meaningful knowledge, moral character, and professional excellence – needed to thrive in life and work.” An outgrowth of the K-12th school of the same name, Thales offers degrees in Liberal Arts, Entrepreneurial Business, Mechanical Engineering, and Classical Education

The school’s most high-profile hire to date is Anthony Esolen, a devout Catholic scholar whose translations of Dante and Lucretius have been published by Johns Hopkins Press and Modern Library. Esolen uses his Twitter platform (his following tops 12,000 — though that number is negligible in comparison to the likes of Peterson and Weiss) to spread hate about queer folx and vent about the ills of modern society. Meanwhile, Josh Herring, Professor of Classical Education, tweets and podcasts under the name The Optimistic Curmudgeon, an account that he uses to frequently share ideas from Christian Nationalist thinkers, including Doug Wilson. Wilson is a pastor and the founder of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, a movement of K-12 schools devoted to wedding education in the Classics with Christian dogma. Wilson has been known for proliferating the benevolent slave owner myth, as well as excusing pedophilia and referring to progressive women as c***s on his blog. Herring has also recently welcomed onto his podcast Scott Yenor, a Boise State professor who anonymously ran an alt-right extremist website (Yenor published his account in an article titled “The Anatomy of a Cancellation” for First Things, a platform that has also spotlighted UTAX and Ralston). Though the college claims to be a haven of free thought and secular (though theistic) liberalism, its professors use their online presence to spread hate and right-wing extremism in the name of both Classical virtues and Christian orthodoxy.      

This interconnected web of right-wing institutions (all of which rely heavily on digital channels for their dissident messaging) constitutes what Tasso Hartzog, one of my colleagues in the UNC Department of Comparative Literature, has dubbed “technoclassicism.” Hartzog defines technoclassicism as “the drawing of an equivalency between ancient philosophy, Christian faith, and the rapid accumulation of capital through digital technology.” While conservative efforts to lay claim to the Classics and steer educational institutions rightward span centuries, the digital age has afforded new tools and platforms for the religio-political right to pursue these ends. Particularly following Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and the ensuing flourishing of alt-right voices on the platform, social media and right-leaning tech giants have become unsuspecting allies in the right’s quest for control of the Classics, both in and out of the classroom.  

Not only are their seemingly divergent missions intimately intertwined in technoclassicism, but these institutions are also routinely visited by the same cast of characters, primarily through social media engagement on Twitter, Youtube, or podcast ventures (a favorite medium of the right). Jeremy Tate, the CEO of the Classical Learning Test and a devout Catholic whose stated goal is to reclaim education from progressives, took to Twitter to rank UATX the #6 college at which to study the Classics. Also on Twitter, he heralded Ralston’s founding as part of “an incredible renaissance in classical learning.” Conservative YouTube personalities such as Jonathan Pageau and Spencer Klavan (Young Heretics) have endorsed or given lectures at Ralston. Likewise, Joshua Katz, a disgraced former Princeton Classics professor who was terminated after a predatory relationship with a student came to light, serves on the Board of Trustees at UATX, has written a fawning article about Ralston, and presented guest lectures there. He was also platformed by Antigone shortly after his firing (the journal conveniently neglected to mention this fact, listing him as the Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and Professor Classics at Princeton University). Antigone has also published reflections from Ralston students that read more like student testimonials on an admissions website than public scholarship. (One left his profession as a software engineer to pursue an M.A. at the college after following Jordan Peterson and Spencer Klavan’s social media, and the other translated Euripides’ Bacchae for a performance I attended and reviewed). Just last week, Ralston College’s podcast released a dialogue between its President Stephen Blackwood and Antigone Editor David Butterfield about “education without indoctrination.” 

While Antigone, Ralston College, UATX, and Thales use polished, seemingly innocuous language and claim the noble mission of saving liberal arts education or leveraging technology to make the Classics more accessible, these institutions are fundamentally reactionary, fueled by resentment toward what they perceive as a diversifying, self-critical, and progressive higher education landscape.

As Steven Pinker stated of UATX (where he briefly served on the Advisory Board): “It seemed to be organised not around a coherent vision for higher education, in which you could rethink every detail, but rather as a kind of a politically incorrect university with a faculty of the cancelled [...] Just rounding up people who’ve been persecuted, however unjust it has been to them, that does not yield a coherent curriculum.” The same could be said of the other institutions examined in this piece. Increasingly, the language of “free speech,” “truth” and “education without indoctrination” functions within these spaces as code for amplifying thinkers and ideas that have been pushed out of other establishments, rather than fostering truly impartial or apolitical dialogue. And, most frequently, these ideas and thinkers have been pushed out because they proliferate regressive, bigoted, or oppressive viewpoints. This cluster of institutions thus serves as an echo chamber of culture-war grievances—much like Twitter.

As the alt-right continues to weaponize the Classics to proliferate misogyny, racism, and ethno-nationalism on social media (as Tallulah Trezevant masterfully details), these institutions legitimize the dangerous marriage between alt-right politics, religious fundamentalism, and the Classics. Under their elevated rhetoric lies a seething resentment toward progressives and, indeed, progress itself. 

On the one hand, in decrying progressivism in higher ed, these institutions are raging against a bogeyman of their own making. Overwhelmingly, colleges in the U.S. remain functionally conservative, despite the lip service they may give to progressive ideals. Nowhere is this conservatism more evident than in the militarized response from college administrations to students’ pro-Palestinian activism this spring (a violent institutional suppression I watched firsthand at my home institution of UNC Chapel Hill). It is also evident in recent systemic shifts, whether Ron DeSantis’ full-fledged political restructuring of higher education in Florida, Republican bills banning DEI, or the Supreme Court striking down affirmative action. The discipline of Classics specifically is overwhelmingly white and mired in issues of racial, socioeconomic, and gender discrimination (whether in individual instances of discriminatory actions or in systemic barriers to diversity such as prohibitively meager graduate stipends or admissions policies requiring Greek and Latin, as most low-income applicants lack access to instruction in ancient languages). 

At the same time, the landscape is shifting, even if progress is slow. While the Network for Working Class Classicists’ 2024 report on Class in Classics offered a sobering picture of stark inequalities, the study—the first of its kind — was a pivotal step toward candid self-examination in the discipline. In the U.S. Classics community, the racist attack on Dan-el Padilla Peralta at SCS 2019 was met with outrage and spurred a reckoning in the discipline. Platforms such as the now-defunct Eidolon and the growing Working Classicists network on which this article is published have provided spaces for progressive and diverse voices to share their perspectives on the classics. Additionally, the pioneering work of scholars such as Chris Waldo and Sarah Derbew continues to push the discipline forward and decentralize the western-centric focus on Greece and Rome.  

That is to say, there is hope for progress in Classics departments and higher education more broadly; yet the hurdles to this progress exist not only in stuffy, traditionalist programs that resist change, but also in this new crop of dolled-up, internet-savvy institutions and platforms covertly pushing the discipline rightward.

Classics enthusiasts in and outside of academia — at least those who are not chronically online—are largely unaware of these institutions, and most who are aware of them underestimate their influence in the digital space. But their dangerous admixture of religious dogma, rabid capitalism, and alt-right policies cloaked in the language of free thought poses an imminent threat to the continued vitality of the discipline.

Buried under serif fonts, liberal arts buzzwords, high production-value podcasts, and social media savvy are toxic and regressive ideologies — identifying them for what they are is a critical step toward ensuring that the richness of antiquity is not reduced to a tool in the arsenal of the religious and political right.

Portions of this article appeared in different form in an article for The Savannahian. Special thanks to Tasso Hartzog for his insightful contributions to this piece and the ideas expressed therein. 

About the Author

Emily Waller Singeisen is a current PhD student and teaching fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where her research interests include the classics and their reception, visual culture, and feminist and queer theory. As a graduate student and an educator, she is committed to a liberatory politics that extends beyond the ivory tower.

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