Professor Kirsten Herlin Shares Lessons From Jane Austen, Stories of Modernity, and Hope for Higher Ed
Founding Faculty
Jun 21, 2024

Professor Kirsten Herlin Shares Lessons From Jane Austen, Stories of Modernity, and Hope for Higher Ed

Literature scholar aims to shape students for a "lifelong quest for wisdom."

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.

UATX Assistant Professor of Literature Kirsten Hall Herlin graduated from Hillsdale College and completed her Ph.D. in English at the University of Texas at Austin. Before coming to the University of Austin, she served as the Director of the Literature Program at Ave Maria University. 

She is currently the Managing Editor of the Genealogies of Modernity Project, which hosts a journal as well as a podcast. Her research focuses on religion and eighteenth-century British literature, and her work has been published in academic journals such as Modern Philology, Renascence, and Notes & Queries. She has also appeared as a guest on National Review’s podcast The Great Books and has written articles for The Weekly Standard and The New Atlantis.

UATX: Where did you grow up and complete your undergraduate degree?

Dr. Kirsten Herlin: I was born in San Antonio but spent most of my life in the Midwest after my family moved when I was three: I grew up in Wisconsin and went to Hillsdale College in Michigan. 

After I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas, my mom said, “It’s meant to be! You’re going back to your Texas roots!” 

At the time, I thought the idea of having a special connection to a place you didn’t even remember was absurd, but now I recognize that she was right (as moms so often are): to quote from Friday Night Lights, once a Texan, it’s “Texas forever.”

You completed your Ph.D. in English at the University of Texas at Austin. What can the incoming UATX freshmen class look forward to about life in the city?

I remember visiting Austin for the first time in the spring of 2015: I had just flown in from rural Michigan, where it was still winter, and I was struck by how vibrant Austin felt in comparison. Everything was in bloom, the sun was out, and the streets were full of people. 

There’s so much to explore in Austin, from great food and live music to hiking trails, parks, and the arts. Unlike so many other major cities, Austin is alive with the hope that its best days are not in the past, but in the future. 

Ideally, the study of history allows us to hold up a mirror to the present age. As a historian of the literature and ideas of the eighteenth century, I hope that reexamining this period helps us ultimately reexamine our own. 

Your research has focused on religion and eighteenth-century British literature. Could you say a few words about studying those those topics together?

My “eureka” moment in grad school came when I found out that in eighteenth-century Britain, religious literature—including devotional books, sermon collections, and Bibles—comprised the largest part of the printing industry and the bulk of people’s libraries and reading materials. 

I found this surprising because one of the most common narratives about the eighteenth century is what I and others call the “secularization story,” which goes something like this: the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution ushered in the modern age, characterized by skepticism about traditional forms of intellectual and religious authority. Progress in the natural sciences led to the decline of orthodox Christian belief and the rise of deism and atheism. 

In this account, the eighteenth century, which we often hear called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, became the age of radical thinkers like Descartes, Hume, and Voltaire, who threw off the shackles of the past and emerged from the religious “Dark Ages” into the light of reason. 

Through my own research and that of others, I've since discovered that the real story of the Enlightenment is far more complicated. Eighteenth-century Britain was not one where science and reason gradually took the place of God. Instead, it was a world with more options for religious belief than ever before. 

The conditions of belief were certainly changing and under siege, but believers were not giving up without a fight.

Ideally, the study of history allows us to hold up a mirror to the present age. As a historian of the literature and ideas of the eighteenth century, I hope that reexamining this period helps us ultimately reexamine our own. 

Who were a few writers or scholars who inspired you to study and teach literature, and why?

Growing up, I always loved reading, but it wasn’t until I discovered Jane Austen’s novels in middle and high school that I began to think about studying literature seriously. In particular, it was Northanger Abbey that inspired me. This novel, which wasn’t published until after Austen’s death but was the first she finished, is a book about books: about why we read, how we read, and why reading well helps us live well. 

Through this novel, I discovered that there were other authors, many of whom I had never heard of before, who Austen herself had read and engaged with in her books: Samuel Johnson, Frances Burney, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope to name just a few. From this basic insight that Austen was part of what you might call a larger conversation, it was just one more step to a college with a “Great Books” curriculum, Hillsdale, where I discovered that the conversation stretched all the way back to authors such as Homer and Dante and forward to writers like Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. 

Not only did her novels open up a whole world of other writers to explore; they helped me navigate the very real questions of growing up: How do you make good friends? What qualities do you look for in someone you’re dating? How do you handle awkward social situations? 

To study the Great Books is to be accompanied through life, and all of its problems and questions, in the best and wisest of company. 

What attracted you to the University of Austin?

Two things stand out. First, there’s a lot of despair in higher education right now, despair over illiberalism, declining academic standards, the challenges of AI, the rising cost of college, etc. 

In the midst of such despondency, the University of Austin offers something different—it offers hope, hope for the future of the American university and hope that liberal education is still worth pursuing. 

Second, I believe in UATX’s founding principle that the purpose of the university is to promote the pursuit of truth through free inquiry. Properly understood, free inquiry promotes humility because it helps us resist the temptation to believe we already know where truth is to be found and instead keeps us open to the possibility that truth can be found in places we don’t expect. 

What will be distinctive about a University of Austin education?

There’s a strange divide right now in higher education between universities that take liberal education seriously and believe in the pursuit of learning for its own sake and universities that focus on the utility of education and the importance of learning practical skills that will translate into jobs after graduation. 

What makes the University of Austin unique, I think, is that it doesn’t see these aims as at odds and believes, to borrow the words of Virginia Woolf, that it’s possible to “feed a family on philosophy.” 

UATX’s unique curriculum has been thoughtfully designed to promote both ends and to balance and bridge the contemplative and the active life. In the Intellectual Foundations program, as well as each of the centers, students will learn to read Homer and Plato deeply, while the Polaris Project will challenge them to put those ideas into practice and create something of practical value.  

What does it mean to be part of the founding faculty?

For me, being a founding faculty is both a profound honor and responsibility. The beating heart of this university will be the seminars that the faculty lead. It’s around the seminar table and through the daily conversations that happen there that students will learn and be formed in the intellectual virtues that they will take into their lives after graduation. 

The entire UATX community has worked very hard over the last few years so that these seminars can exist. They have articulated their principles, designed the curriculum, secured funding, found a building, and recruited the students best equipped to take part. 

In other words, the conditions for our success have been laid. Now it’s the responsibility of the founding faculty to make good on the promises of a UATX education and to lead seminars worthy of the principles on which the university was founded.  

What do you hope students remember about their UATX experience 20 years after graduating?

Years ago, when I was about to graduate college, I remember experiencing a great sense of loss: the point at which I was just beginning to appreciate and feel worthy of the education I had received over the last four years was exactly the point at which I was being expected to leave. What I wish someone had told me then was that these feelings were actually a sign that my education was “working,” that I had had my first real taste of the Socratic adage that the beginning of wisdom is knowing you know nothing. 

Here’s a secret: the job of a university is not to take ignorant high seniors and turn them into college graduates who know everything. Rather, the job of a university is to take ignorant high school seniors and to turn them into only slightly less ignorant college graduates who are now aware of their own ignorance and not content to remain so. If a university gives its students anything, it’s formation in the habits and desires that will motivate them to embark on a lifelong quest for wisdom. 

So, future UATX students: when you think about your education twenty years from now—no matter whether you become a college professor, business owner, or stay-at-home mom— I hope that you think about it not as something that was completed, but as something that was only just beginning.  

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