Inside Ralston College, Jordan Peterson's Quiet New Weapon In The Culture Wars
The Canadian-born psychologist Jordan B. Peterson is one of the most prominent opponents of what's been termed: left-wing cancel culture and "wokism." As part of his mission , he serves as chancellor of Ralston College in Savannah, Georgia, a picturesque setting for a unique experiment that contrasts with his image of provocateur par excellence.
This article was updated Sept. 21 at 5 p.m. with corrections*
SAVANNAH — Savannah is almost unbelievably beautiful. Fountains splash and babble in the well-tended front gardens of its town houses, which are straight out of Gone with the Wind. As you wander through its historic center, on sidewalks encrusted with oyster shells, past its countless parks, under the shadows cast by palm trees, magnolias and ancient oaks, it's as if you are walking back in time through centuries past.
Hidden behind two magnificent façades here is a sanctuary for people who want to travel even further back: to ancient Europe.
In this city of 147,000 in the U.S. state of Georgia, most locals have no idea what's inside this building. There is no sign – either on the wrought-iron gate to the front garden or on the entrance door – to suggest that this is the headquarters of a unique experiment. The motto of Ralston College, which was founded around a year ago, is "Free Speech is Life Itself."
The university's chancellor is one of the best-known figures in America’s culture wars: Jordan B. Peterson. Since 2016, the Canadian psychologist has made a name for himself with his sharp-worded attacks on feminism and gender politics, becoming public enemy No. 1 for those in the left-wing progressive camp.
Provocation and polemics, Peterson is a master of these arts, with a long list of controversies — and 4.6 million followers on X (formerly Twitter), and whose YouTube videos have been viewed by millions. Last year on Twitter he commented on a photo of a plus-size swimsuit model that she was "not beautiful," adding that "no amount of authoritarian tolerance is going to change that."
A few years ago he sparked outrage with a tweet contesting the existence of "white privilege," the idea that all white people, whether they are aware of it or not, have unearned advantages. "There is nothing more racist," he said than this concept. He was even temporarily banned from the platform for an anti-trans tweet.
Over the years, Peterson has become like a red flag to a bull for left-wing progressives. In 2019, the University of Cambridge rescinded an invitation to him to received a visiting fellowship, though he did finally make an appearance in the university two years later. And in 2020, employees at the publisher Penguin Random House tried to stop the publication of his book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. The company went ahead with the book anyway.
Ralston College graduates posing for a photo in Savannah
Back to the roots of free thought
The 60-year-old Peterson, who came to psychology from political science, describes himself as a "classic British liberal." The idea behind the new college is more in line with this self-description than with his penchant for making provocative statements. In Ralston College, where he serves as chancellor, the academic wants to offer a new kind of education — and to do that, he is going back to the roots of free thought.
Students on the year-long postgraduate course in humanities spend three months on the Greek island of Samos. The idea is that, in the birthplace of ideological and philosophical debate, they will sharpen their analytical skills and learn to think independently, rather than relying on preconceived opinions and prejudices.
The college seems to be setting itself up as an alternative to what it views as a narrow left-wing progressive school of thought dominating other universities. But it is not loud and aggressive in this, not engaging directly in the culture wars. The college claims that it is neither left-wing nor right-wing but dedicated to freedom.
The long, flowery text on the university’s website does not feature words like ‘cancel culture’. There are no attacks on other universities, like those so often seen on Fox News, or in the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.
These media outlets regularly come out in defense of professors whose jobs are at risk because of statements they made in seminars that were felt to be discriminatory towards certain minorities, or because they are against the use of gender-inclusive language. By contrast, Ralston College is trying to avoid the label of an ‘anti-woke’ university.
Inside Ralston College in Savannah, Georgia
"A meaningful life is the most important thing"
Peterson delivered a lecture to Ralston College students in Turkey last year, but on a day-to-day basis, the college is run by his compatriot Professor Stephen Blackwood. Much like the college itself, Blackwood eschews publicity. Requests for interview went unanswered for many months. After much persistence, he finally agreed to send written responses to our questions.
What does he think of the criticism in some U.S. media outlets, which compare the college’s advocacy of freedom of expression to current trends in right-wing conservative thought? Blackwood answered evasively: "We value the freedom of the press," he said. "Ralston’s mission is more important in 2023 than ever before: offering funded courses in the humanities to create a free atmosphere in which free thought can flourish... Our institution is not affiliated with any political party and we do not receive any state funding."
In recent years, American students have increasingly been favoring more practical courses, as they offer better job prospects. The one-year masters program at Ralston College, by contrast, begins with an intensive course in Ancient and Modern Greek, then explores the Ancient world, the Middle Ages and the Modern Era.
The course costs $60,000, but the college’s homepage says that it offers a number of scholarships funded by donors. In fact the entire university, which currently has 24 students, is financed by private donors.
Chancellor of Ralston College, Jordan Peterson
Homer, Plato and John the Evangelist
Anand Mangal is one of the students in the college’s first graduating batch. "I wanted a real change in my life, to leave behind my career as a software engineer and study classical philology," he said. "I liked the fact that Ralston placed great emphasis on studying the Greek language, as well as understanding classical cultures and reading texts in the original. I wanted a thorough understanding of the Western tradition. Ralston promised that, and that is what it gave me in every respect."
The differences between this course and those offered by typical American state colleges could hardly be greater, he said. "The emphasis on classical civilizations, the Middle Ages and the modern era — this complete historical overview isn’t found anywhere else,’ said Mangal. "And it’s even harder to find an intensive language course that allows you to read Ancient Greek and Modern Greek texts by Homer, Plato and John the Evangelist in the original."
An ideal place for anyone who is seeking truth.
As well as these ancient texts, the setting in which he studied was important for him. ‘The summer program in Greece and living in the historical city center of Savannah were huge points of difference."
Looking at photos of students having a discussion with Peterson, sitting in a circle on a shady terrace with the Greek countryside in the background, you can see its appeal to his acolytes. Likewise when you scroll through photos of Peterson delivering lectures in a suit and tie standing in front of ancient Greek ruins.
And even more so when you stroll through the magnificent streets of Savannah in the evening light. "Savannah is one of the most beautiful cities in the world," declares Blackwood. "An ideal place for anyone who is seeking truth, freedom and beauty."
*A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Jordan B. Peterson as the founder of Ralston College. Peterson serves as chancellor of the university.
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