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October 9, 2023

How NSA Is Antifragile

Several years ago, I read the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. Taleb’s thesis is that there are certain fragile things that are damaged by chaos, but there are other, durable things that are unaffected by chaos. Then he argues that there is a third very important category–things that actually benefit from chaos. Taleb’s goal was to name and describe this third category. He coined the term antifragile. To be antifragile is to possess the ability to gain strength in the midst of chaos.

Reading Antifragile, I was struck by how there was a convergence of NSA’s founding principles which all seemed to share this characteristic of antifragility. There were a number of convictions that the founders of the college had intuitively felt, which radically distinguished NSA from almost every other college. These were matters of principle held by the college’s early leadership. But considering Taleb’s work, I started to suspect that these principles were not simply matters of principle but principles that could prove to be very prudential and strategic in a moment of cultural chaos. Little did I know, but we were about to experience just such a moment of upheaval and cultural chaos. 

A quick review of the year 2020 will illustrate what I mean. In that year, a number of NSA’s unique convictions were revealed to be unbelievably prescient and incredibly beneficial from a purely practical standpoint. Here are three examples to consider.

1. NSA has no dorms. Many think that this is because we are so small that we can’t afford them. But from what I have seen from other small schools, often their residence system is where they make all their profits. We could have captured those revenues, but we never liked how dorms infantilize college students. And so we’ve always said no to starting them. When Covid hit, all of those refunds for residence halls and meal plans creamed colleges. But because we had never bought into that system, we took no financial hit from the refunds during that period. 

2. NSA has never taken federal money. We don’t take Pell Grants, and we don’t take the federally subsidized student loans. The Biden administration has revived the Obama-era strategy of interpreting Title IX to include LGBT lifestyles, which means that any school taking federal money has to align itself with those policies. Christian colleges are increasingly in the position of having to decide whether to promote gross immorality on their campuses or say no to a financial stream that has slowly become their largest flow of revenue. I am really grateful that this is not a decision I have to make. NSA can maintain its biblical principles without Big Government trying to manipulate us with its money. 

3. Another significant piece of NSA’s DNA has been our identity with what you might call the Moscow project. This is that network of ministries, like Christ Church, Canon Press, Logos School, etc.—that whole orbit of ministries founded by Doug Wilson. One thing that Doug has long been known for is what he calls “the serrated edge”. It is a manner of speech that is a bit pugilistic but that always punches up, not down, and remains un-self-serious. Think of the way Jesus warmed up the Pharisees in Matthew 23. This approach has frequently provoked concerns from other Christians who tend to say something like, “Ok, what you said is true. But did you have to say it out loud?” There is probably a lot to be said on this subject. But I will just say this one thing—it is an amazing thing to be at an academic institution in America where I can say, “Boys need to use the men’s room,” and not have to look over my shoulder in fear.

As you look at Christian colleges around the country, many are weakening under the pressure of the surrounding culture. Some might be good on basic biblical principles, but they do not have a practice of pushing back on the dominant cultural narrative, so they have no voice when the truth needs to be spoken. NSA, following Doug’s example, is able to step up and speak the truth. We want our graduates to do this very thing, so we need to set the example for them. In particular, we want to model for our students the art of the cheerful warrior: ready to fight but also ready to laugh.

As you look around the country since 2020, you will see that colleges are struggling in various ways. College enrollment nationwide has shrunk. Many small colleges have had to close down. But if you look at NSA, we have had record enrollment years for the last three years. True to Taleb’s premise, this growth is the practical payoff of these antifragile principles that the college adopted early on. 

The last thing to say is that while we have been employing these antifragile principles, credit must be given where credit is due: it is really God who has been giving the increase to the college. We are thankful that He has been blessing us in this way. And we look to Him to continue to bless. Please join us in praying for the same.