Professor Jacob Wolf teaches students to consider political questions in a new light
Founding Faculty
May 31, 2024

Professor Jacob Wolf teaches students to consider political questions in a new light

AT UATX, 'we can re-design higher education based on reflection and choice,' Professor Wolf says.

Maggie Kelly
Maggie Kelly
University of Austin

Welcome to Meet the Founding Faculty, a series of interviews introducing the world-class teachers and scholars building the University of Austin's academic culture and shaping its intellectual life.

Assistant Professor of Politics Jacob Wolf received his Ph.D. in political science from Boston College in 2020, double majoring in political theory and American politics. His current research employs insights from those two disciplines to understand contemporary changes in American religious beliefs and practices. In particular, he studies the social and religious ramifications of individualism—especially expressive individualism. His overall scholarly objective is to demonstrate how ideas and presuppositions about human nature have profound consequences for both individuals and society.

UATXWhat is your hometown? Where did you attend college, and what led you to explore political ideas?

Dr. Jacob Wolf: I am from Minneapolis, Minnesota, which—fun fact—is the coldest metropolitan area in the United States. I attended University of Northwestern, St. Paul, a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, MN, where I majored in history and minored in political science and Christian theology.  

I learned early on that if I asked a political question, I quickly ran into a philosophical question, and that philosophical question, in turn, led to a theological question. To fully explore political ideas, I recognized that I needed to pursue a profoundly interdisciplinary education—just the sort of education I hope to provide students at UATX.

You received your Ph.D. from Boston College and were previously Assistant Professor of Government in the Honors College and the College of Arts and Sciences at Regent University in Virginia. What have you enjoyed about living in those very different parts of the country, and what do you look forward to about moving to Austin?

Over the past decade, I have been gradually moving down the East Coast, from Boston to Princeton to Virginia Beach. As someone interested in politics and history—especially the American Founding—it has been surreal to live next to, and visit, so many historical sites. While living in Boston, I got to visit Plymouth, Salem, Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, among other historical places in Massachusetts. Then, while living in Virginia Beach, I got to see Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. 

 But, while it has been enjoyable experiencing history in all these places, I am excited to be making history in Texas. Those cities represent our collective past, but Texas—and Austin in particular—represents our collective future.  

Moreover, I believe politics is downstream from culture, so I am excited to be in a city virtually synonymous with culture, whether that be art, education, or technology.  Finally, my wife and I adore hiking and kayaking, so we are excited to explore some of the natural beauty of Texas Hill Country. 

You study the social and religious ramifications of individualism—especially expressive individualism. What is expressive individualism? Where did that idea come from, and where do we see it today? What are some of the consequences of holding it?

In a certain respect, expressive individualism is so ubiquitous that it needs no introduction; it is the blood that flows through our veins. It is captured nicely in many of our society’s slogans: “Love yourself.” “Be true to yourself.” “Follow your heart.” “Don’t let others define you.” “Don’t apologize for being you.” It consists of two primary components—a manifesting of one’s internal self (as defined by one’s desires), and a corresponding rejection of all that constrains the self, whether that be social norms, tradition, laws, or religious strictures. Put simply, expressive individualism is the belief that one’s identity lies in the expression, rather than the suppression, of one’s internal desires. 

I argue that expressive individualism does not lead to sterling individuality but rather to homogenization, as true individuality requires mastery of one’s desires for the sake of some higher ideal.

Your current research uses insights from your fields of study—political theory and American politics—to understand contemporary changes in American religious beliefs and practices. How do political theory and American politics help us understand religion?

While many scholars of religion believe that America is becoming secular, my perspective leads me to believe that a wholly different phenomenon is at play here. About 28% of Americans claim to be “nones,”—i.e. claim no religious affiliation—which leads most scholars to conclude that we are experiencing European-style secularization.  My study of political philosophy—especially Alexis de Tocqueville—has led me to believe that American religion is being affected by something far simpler and more classically American: individualism. 

My own research has shown that Americans are not less religious than previous generations; however, the religion they confess and practice is far more individualistic. They prefer individual to group practice (classic individualism) and they avoid that which does not affirm their individual preferences, opinions, and desires (expressive individualism).  

Growing individualism has caused many interesting developments in American religion. A good summary is that younger Americans want religion that is convenient, makes no strong impositions upon them, can be practiced from the comfort of their own home, and places each person on the same level. Knowing how our political culture affects religion can help us understand some of the more complex phenomena in American religion, without falling into simplistic explanations like the secularization thesis. 

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

Philosophy, according to Plato, is born of wonder. Now this results in something of a paradox for teachers because wonder cannot exactly be taught; it can only be caught. While I cannot instill in students a natural curiosity or wonder about the world, I can help students see that the world is curious and wonderful. I can help do this by placing certain perennial aspects of the human condition in a new light.  Once we see things from a new light, even the most trivial thing becomes profoundly mesmerizing. As G.K. Chesterton once quipped, there are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.  

My goal as a teacher is to introduce students to perennial questions and permanent things, prudently translating them into modern idiom and updating them to demonstrate their relevance to today’s context. Moreover, I believe deeply in the idea of the liberal arts education—that there are certain things all free and self-governing peoples need to know. 

However, the idea of a liberal arts education runs deeper than that according to the Greeks who invented it. Leo Strauss puts it this way: “Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity. The Greeks had a beautiful word for ‘vulgarity’; they called it apeirokalia—lack of experience in things beautiful or noble. Liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful and noble.”

 I can think of no better way of describing my philosophy as a teacher: to introduce students to beautiful things and noble ideas. This, I think, is especially vital in the context of a liberal democracy, which tends to downplay the beautiful and noble in favor of the efficient and the practical. I tend to agree with Fyodor Dostoevsky that “beauty will save the world.”

What will be distinctive about a University of Austin education?

I like to think of the University of Austin’s education blending both the timely and the timeless, the present and the perennial. Students will learn many of the world’s great ideas in our Intellectual Foundations courses, and then they can choose a Center to focus on a specific discipline near and dear to their hearts.  

Students will come away from UATX with a deep knowledge of enduring human questions along with an ability to translate those ideas into concrete present ideas. More than that, they will come away from UATX with a gratitude for all the ideas and institutions they have been so fortunate to inherit. 

UATX students will know, of course, that the world is not perfect, but they will first seek to understand the world before they seek to change it—a priority too often reversed. Once they have a handle on the big ideas and enduring questions, they can then propose a tangible, real-world project via their Polaris Project which will solve a concrete problem and seek to increase human flourishing.  In this way, a UATX education seek a perfect balance between thinking and acting, contemplation and vocation.

What does it mean to be a founding faculty member? Could you offer some examples of what that will involve for you?

Being a founding faculty member means, to me, building something that will endure well beyond my own lifetime. In Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton pondered whether governments could be designed according to “reflection and choice” or whether they were forever destined to be based on “accident and force.” We have the chance to do something similar at UATX: we can re-design higher education based on reflection and choice. This is crucial in our current cultural moment, wherein many Americans have grown distrustful of, and disillusioned with, higher education. For the most part, existing universities are to blame—but we have a chance to restore that trust and rebuild that confidence, and that starts by educating, rather than indoctrinating, students.

I study religion and politics—the two topics Americans are supposed not to discuss around the dinner table. However, these conversations can be immensely rewarding if done correctly, and I hope to build that culture in my courses. 

Beyond generally shaping the culture of UATX, I would love to build an institute or think-tank dedicated to the study of civic education or, perhaps, religion and politics. 

Moreover, I want to lead optional reading groups, in which we discuss great texts, like Platonic dialogues or American short stories. Finally, I am hoping to start a podcast dedicated to the great ideas that have influenced the course of Western Civilization.  

UATX founding students will join faculty and staff in co-creating the university culture from the ground up. As a founding faculty member, how do you hope to guide students in this task?

The general curriculum is pre-established for students, but it is up to them to design, implement, and run the day-to-day groups, clubs, and activities they want. As Aristotle noted in Nicomachean Ethics, a person’s character is largely determined by how they spend their leisure time, and students at UATX will have a unique ability to structure that for themselves. Because I have so many random hobbies myself, I am eager to help facilitate student hobbies. I play several instruments, practice martial arts, do photography, read novels, weightlift, hike, kayak, etc. I try to balance the intellectual and the physical, which was inspired by a great Latin phrase: Mens sana in corpore sano (“A sound mind in a sound body”).   

I have been known to challenge students to a game of table tennis or pickleball, and I frequently get together with students to play strategy board games.  Whatever it is that students want to do or create—whether that be to read Plato or get into bodybuilding—they will find me to be a willing faculty advisor.   

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