On Wednesday, March 20, the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge sent the following tweet:
Jordan Peterson requested a visiting fellowship at the Faculty of Divinity, and an initial offer has been rescinded after a further review.
— Faculty of Divinity (@CamDivinity) March 20, 2019
The circumstances around this event bear careful examination. For they reveal not only a betrayal of the university’s fundamental purpose, but also the loss of something far more wide-reaching, something without which no higher civilization can survive: a shared understanding of ourselves.
First, a little background.
Jordan Peterson is an academic and clinical psychologist who has taught at two of North America’s most prestigious research universities (Harvard University and the University of Toronto), and whose academic work is prominent, widely-cited, and non-controversial in his field (see a list of his research publications here). His courageous and articulate defense of free speech, of our political, cultural and religious inheritance, of unpopular but incontestable truths of science—especially biology—and his radical opposition to identity politics of any kind, including that of both Right and Left, have made him an iconic figure. But what is by far the most significant thing about Peterson is that he reaches vast numbers of young people, often through Biblical stories and ancient myths, with perennial truths—of freedom, responsibility, the dignity of the individual, the transcendence of beauty and suffering and, above all, the liberating nature of Truth itself.
On November 2, 2018, I spent the day with Peterson in Cambridge, England. He had given a sold-out lecture at the fabled Corn Exchange the day before, and there was a full day planned for him at the University ahead of the next city stop on his lecture tour.
I met Jordan and his wife, Tammy, at their hotel at 9:45 a.m. We walked from there to King’s College (one of the 31 colleges of the University of Cambridge, est. 1209) so that they could see the Chapel, one of the great buildings of Europe. Then we went to another college for a discussion about higher education, then to still another college for lunch with a group of theologians and philosophers, then back to the first college for a conversation with Sir Roger Scruton, then to a local restaurant, then to St John’s College Chapel to hear its Choir sing Duruflé’s Requiem; then I dropped him at the Cambridge Union, where he was interviewed by a student before a large student audience; we met again later in the evening for a lively dinner with an eclectic group; and finally said goodbye around 11 p.m. when the Petersons walked back to their hotel. It had been an intellectually exhilarating and aesthetically inspiring day, the kind of day that I have come to expect in Cambridge, where architecture, Evensong, and intellectual vivacity seem to speak, even to the visitor, of 800 years of learning, of achievement, and of aspiration for deep and worthy things.
Media reports of Cambridge’s decision to rescind Peterson’s Visiting Fellowship made it seem as if he was widely disliked at the University—a controversial, divisive figure. That wasn’t my experience. During the day we spent together, walking around the busiest parts of campus, four colleges, two chapels, a restaurant, and through the city’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfares in broad daylight, there was not a single hint of negativity: no heckling, no awkward encounters, not a peep. To the contrary, we could generally not make it between any two places without someone—the man working the hot dog truck next to the Cambridge Union, a soft-spoken female student, a young woman in a restaurant—reaching out to him politely, often with shyness, to express gratitude, to shake his hand, to ask him to sign their books. Every interaction, without exception, was friendly and warm.
Over dinner that night, Douglas Hedley, Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and a member of the Faculty of Divinity, asked Peterson if he would consider making a longer visit to Cambridge sometime. Peterson said that he would indeed welcome the chance, especially to engage with Biblical scholars to help him prepare a series of lectures on the book of Exodus (Peterson’s lectures on Genesis have been watched by millions).
In addition to this arrangement, the Faculty of Divinity invited Peterson to apply for a Visiting Fellowship (a more official, but also unpaid, association). At their request, Peterson submitted the application (which required a plan of research and two letters of recommendation). His application was considered by the research committee of the Faculty of Divinity, which decided in due course to offer him a Visiting Fellowship. Notification of the decision, along with a written invitation and agreement, was sent to him.
Then, only a few weeks later, came the misleading announcement via Twitter—misleading because the fellowship was not ‘requested’ by Peterson; he was invited to apply. And the review was not merely an ‘initial review’ but rather the standard process by which such fellowships are awarded. It’s not usually a two-part process.
To announce the rescinding of the fellowship publicly, and to couch it in deliberate falsehood, was not only a breach of fair procedure, but an act designed to manipulate public perception. The speed with which supposedly serious news organizations parroted these false claims was the result of a coordinated campaign. One need look no further than the tweet sent by the Cambridge University Students’ Union, the CUSU (not to be confused with the aforementioned Cambridge Union):
The university have released the following statement regarding Jordan Peterson being a visiting fellow in the Divinity faculty:
"We can confirm that Jordan Peterson requested a visiting fellowship, and an initial offer has been rescinded after a further review."
— CUSU (@CUSUonline) March 20, 2019
This tweet was sent at 12:55 p.m. But—and this is a disturbing but critical detail—the University had not, in fact, released a statement. There was only the deliberately misleading announcement, quoted in the CUSU’s tweet, from the Faculty of Divinity, which was sent three minutes later, at 12:58 p.m.
The care with which this information was internally curated for public release did not, however, extend to communication with Peterson. He was notified of the decision only after it had been publicly announced. Nor was he given any indication of the research committee’s rationale, nor any chance to address its concerns.
Hours later, an unnamed “university spokesperson” was quoted in the Guardian saying that Peterson’s fellowship had been revoked because “[Cambridge] is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot.” What those principles are or what Peterson had done to violate them was not specified.
Only five days later did the purported rationale for the rescinding of the Fellowship finally emerge, from Vice-Chancellor Stephen J. Toope: that Peterson had “endorsed by association” the message on a T-shirt—“I’m a proud Islamaphobe [sic]”—worn by a fan with whom he had taken a photo.
Had the representatives of the Faculty of Divinity conducted some cursory research into Jordan Peterson they would have discovered that he is an opponent of all forms of sectarian hate and violence, and that his entire project is devoted to countering the nihilism that underlies identity-driven conflict and the alienation it gives rise to. Peterson’s interest in Biblical stories and other myths is inspired precisely by his effort to address that alienation—he believes that these stories convey the metaphysical underpinnings on which individual psychological health and social harmony depend.
To insinuate that Jordan Peterson is a contributor to sectarianism and division is the opposite of the truth. If there were anyone you’d want an alienated, disaffected, potentially violent young man on the edge of doing something terrible to listen to, it would be Jordan Peterson. If you doubt this, spend a few hours reading through comments on his YouTube videos: his work is having a transformative effect on the lives of many by helping them turn from resentment and hopelessness to meaning and responsibility. To suggest, then, that Peterson would incite violence of any kind, let alone connect him with the massacre of innocent Muslims by a killer motivated by identity-driven hate, is slanderous. To remove his books from sale in the hope of reducing such violence, as a bookseller in New Zealand recently did, is also dangerous—equivalent to denying sick people access to the very antibodies that can heal their disease.
That the committee did not offer Peterson an opportunity to address their concerns is what really shows their hand. For if they had been genuinely concerned that he was endorsing anti-Muslim sentiment—which reasonable people who did not know Peterson might have been—they could simply have asked him. But no: Peterson’s providing a reasonable explanation for the photo’s existence (as he readily did for the Times) is precisely what they wanted to avoid, for that would have made it impossible to use the photo as an excuse to withdraw his fellowship.
Perhaps it will emerge what particular forces were at work in this sorry affair—whether misguided good intention, cowardice, ressentiment, Machiavellian internal politics, or hatred for truth itself. But whatever the particular motivations that led to this scandalous episode, this is about more than the actions of a few academics, or Peterson’s fellowship, or even the University of Cambridge. What is at stake are the conditions of human flourishing itself. For there can be no peace, no freedom, no protection of the weak and vulnerable, no pursuit of happiness, no discovery, no science or art; in short, there can be no higher human culture at all, without access to the realm of higher things—of truth, beauty, and goodness—in which we all, by nature, can come to dwell. What, indeed, would be more restorative for our culture in this volatile historical moment than finding ways to re-imagine ourselves, together, on a journey in the wilderness, but seeking the promised land?
Perhaps the Faculty of Divinity will yet reverse course. I dearly hope they will, for their own sake. But this situation is not exceptional: if it were, Peterson would be overwhelmed with invitations from universities around the world. That he is not is proof of how completely at odds institutions of higher education have become with their essential purpose, and from the young people who seek the education they are meant to provide.
However, if Cambridge’s withdrawal of Peterson’s invitation is an accurate reflection of a widespread betrayal of purpose and systemic failure, Peterson’s worldwide popularity shows how ripe that system is to be challenged. Handwringing and despair, while tempting, only serve to affirm the status quo when in fact the broader situation reveals not intractability but rather how quickly true alternatives could now take hold. Peterson has shown there is now very strong global demand, especially among the young, for serious engagement on substantial questions—and if Cambridge and other universities won’t meet that demand, it’s up to us to set up alternative institutions.
I am engaged in the founding of one such institution (which includes Jordan Peterson among its Board of Visitors, as well as many other distinguished figures) that will be, in the words of Emma Lazarus’ beckoning sonnet, a Mother of Exiles: a place for intellectual refugees whose honesty, seriousness, and brilliance have made them unwelcome elsewhere. But whatever the fate of that particular venture, or of other new shoots now appearing, I predict future historians will look back on this moment, in which the University that many regard as the finest in the world turned down the chance to host the scholar most globally in demand, as the inflection point around which major shifts in the landscape of higher education occurred. All who seek a more coherent, more intellectually adequate and more fully human culture, must hope it will be so.
Stephen Blackwood is a theologian and the founding president of Ralston College. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @stephenblackwd.
Feature photo by Andy Ngo.