A Bill Becomes a Law

Peter Wood

Three years ago, under pressure from Congress, the American Council on Education (ACE) released a statement endorsing the concept of intellectual pluralism as a central principle of academic life. ACE speaks pretty much for American higher education’s prevailing sentiments, and it was no surprise that twenty-seven other major higher education organizations, including the AAUP, co-signed the statement. With the final passage of the Higher Education Act last Thursday, Congress took a big step toward bringing to life what, thus far, has been merely a paper pledge.

Deep inside the dictionary-sized Higher Education Act, are 130 lines of text, (Part E, Section 805) describing something called the “American History for Freedom Program.” Almost six years in legislative gestation, it gives the Department of Education statutory authority to make grants to postsecondary academic programs and centers that promote and impart knowledge of “traditional American history” (defined as the constitutional, political, intellectual, diplomatic, and economic history of the United States); “the history and nature of, and threats to, free institutions,” and– “the history and achievements of Western civilization.”

Not so long ago, the American History for Freedom Program would have been an anodyne addition to the abundance of federally-supported academic programs. Thirty years ago most colleges and universities were actuated by a conviction that America had been blessed with an extraordinary gift of freedom, and wished an appreciation and understanding of that gift to be transmitted to each rising generation. This conviction, of course, has faded during the era of political correctness and postmodernism. It is no longer a central proposition on campus and it no longer receives much institutional support. 

Nonetheless, there remain many individual scholars throughout academe who embrace the idea that Western civilization in general, and American history in particular, have something important to teach us about the creation of free institutions. The American History for Freedom Program is a giant step towards recognizing the value of this scholarly work.  The new program will lift these often isolated scholars out of their relative isolation and, by bringing significant new funding to their research, raise their profile on campus. 

 Precisely because of this, we expect opposition. It is one thing for ACE and other organizations to endorse the idea that “Intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education.”   It is something else when a group of scholars who have been marginalized for more than a generation for pursuing unfashionable ideas suddenly become the recipients of their own federal support program.

The creation of the program, as Marxists used to say, is “no accident.” Since the early 1990s, the National Association of Scholars has sought to forge the scattered impulses of scholars committed to free institutions into a full-fledged movement. Our goal was the establishment, on as many campuses as possible, of programs focused on the American heritage of freedom, and Western civilization more generally. Our primary emphasis initially was on saving as much of the older curriculum as we could.  

But in an age that arrived with Jesse Jackson leading a chant at Stanford of “Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go,” and that culminated with the University of Chicago’s dilution of its famed core curriculum, we began to realize that the attempt to conserve university-wide curricula that emphasized the nexus between American history, Western civilization, and free institutions was a losing battle. Not only was the traditional curriculum fast disappearing, so were the faculty members who could teach it. They were retiring and being replaced for the most part by individuals trained in multiculturalism and other ideologies, or too hyper-specialized in their interests to care about broadly significant subject matter. Many of the new faculty members in the relevant fields were not just indifferent but actively hostile to the notion that Western history had anything to teach us except the use of power by dominant groups to oppress others. 

Where did that leave those scholars who continued to pay scholarly attention to such matters as the expansion of personal freedom in the American founding, or the rise in the West (and nowhere else) of a movement to abolish slavery?   It left many of them without serious job prospects and it left others who did have academic jobs professionally sidelined.   We quickly learned that to mention this reality was to invite sneers from the victors in the “culture wars.”   Scholars who pursued questions about the historical roots of free institutions were dismissed variously as second-rate, out-of-date, or prone to hate. Often they are depicted as mere apologists for the powerful and privileged who, according to the new mythos, control everything.

As we sized up the picture, NAS decided that one of our few good options would be to put aside hopes for immediate and robust reform and seek instead to grow a counter-movement.   We did that by helping individual scholars to found their own centers within larger institutions. There are now over thirty such programs on major campuses around the country, with a goodly number of others clearly in the making.   A few are able to temporarily hire post-docs, and visiting fellows, a few field minors, and all are enlivening their campuses’ lives with speakers who might not otherwise get invited, and symposia that might not otherwise be held. There is even a scholarly association to unite them, the Association for the Study of Free Institutions, located on the University of Nebraska’s Omaha campus.

Growing a counter movement, however, takes resources. We understood that few colleges and universities would be willing to direct much money into developing programs in the humanities opposed to the identity-politics -trumps-everything approach.   The concentrated study of free institutions and Western Civilization cuts against that universal leveling embedded in the nostrum of “diversity.”   Consequently, the faculty members who aimed to start such centers usually had to seek support from outside the usual institutional channels. In some cases, private donors came forth with the necessary funds. Others have contributed to philanthropic pools recently started by organizations like the Manhattan Institute and the Philanthropy Roundtable. The “We the People Program,” inaugurated by Bruce Cole at the National Endowment for the Humanities, has also been of invaluable service. Yet dollars remain a key limiting factor, both in their actual shortage, and in the lack of organizational buzz that rather magically attends the reverse.  

Thus, the NAS began to pursue another approach. Back in 2003, the NAS contacted two legislators, Congressman Thomas Petri of Wisconsin and Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, both senior members (Gregg was at the time the Chairman) of their respective chambers’ education committees. They crafted a bill, originally entitled the “Higher Education for Freedom Act,” that was introduced on each side of the Capitol. The strategy was to get its language inserted in the Higher Education Act, then seemingly on the verge of reauthorization. Alas, deliberations ended up being stymied by a variety of political tangles having little to do with “higher education for freedom.” The bill’s basic language was, however, finally inserted into the Senate reauthorization package and accepted by the House conferees. Hats off to Judd Gregg and Tom Petri, whose skill and dedication determined the final outcome.

Here’s our calculus. If the American History for Freedom Program is funded, a great deal more money than has hitherto been available to our movement will be put into play. For example, a small appropriation (by federal standards) of $25,000,000 per year, would be the spending equivalent of a half-a-billion dollar private foundation wholly devoted to backing “traditional American history”, free institutions, and Western civilization programming. (There is no foundation able or interested in providing funding at that level.)

Moreover, the first off the block in going after this money will naturally be the scholars we’ve been grooming, who not only have programs already in hand, but can present the best academic credentials in the competition for grants – the study of free institutions and the achievements of Western civilization not being a particularly multiculturalist forte. A new federal program should also prick the nostrils of administrators, instilling, at least in some cases, a strange new respect for program architects with the right kinds of scholarly interests. These scholars will themselves feel more confident of their prospects. A contrarian movement may be enabled to attain the status of a modest fashion.

Critics of government funding for academic programs, of course, will be skeptical.   We count some of these critics among our friends and allies on a variety of issues, and we’re mindful of potential drawbacks of the new legislation. Given the histories of federal programs, there is certainly a legitimate concern that colleges and universities will attempt to divert this new source of funding from its intended purpose and to capture it instead for programs that aim to deconstruct Western freedom. We’ve seen the strategy before.  Parchment barriers are of little avail against the black political arts. Western civilization, for example, might be reinterpreted to mean the doings of Tinsel Town. We’ve seen what’s happened to our “living constitution”. To work, the American History for Freedom Program needs to be placed in the hands of administrators who genuinely believe in it. In 2003, with fellow thinkers like Gene Hickok in command of the Department of Education, this was something we thought could be counted on at least for a while. The situation is now far less certain.

But even as some of these funds attract opportunists or fall into the hands of the academically orthodox, the cause of reform will gain. Orthodoxy already sits on a mountain of cash, largely built into the budgets of the many departments and campus activities that it controls. Reform, by contrast, is a starveling. Imagine a ten million to ten million dollar split on annual payout. Chump change for them, fields of clover for us.

There is, however, a failsafe mechanism. There are a great many programs on the federal statute books that are inoperative because they’ve never received appropriations. Right now, the American History for Freedom Program is in precisely that category, something that won’t change at least until the next Congress and, hence, after the upcoming election and selection of a new Department of Education leadership. As an appropriator, Senator Gregg will be in a good position to fund “American History for Freedom” should he wish. We can’t speak for him, but it’s our strong suspicion that he’ll only want the program to go forward if it can do so in a manner likely to achieve its intended goals.           

A typical fifth grade exercise, as we remember it, was to map out the stages through which a bill became a law. It’s often been fascinating to watch the process in this case. It may, of course, constitute a legislative episode that eventually comes to nothing. Yet pardon us if we persist in some optimism. Our gallant little bundle of titles, sections, and clauses has finally made it through the traps and snares of Capitol Hill and into the statute books. Having thus proven itself to possess a charmed life, the American History for Freedom Program may prove, as freedom is, to be inextinguishable.

Will ACE and its twenty-seven sister organizations join us in celebrating this important step towards realizing intellectual pluralism on campus? We’d like to think they stand behind their declaration, but at the moment everyone must be busy digesting the other 1,157 pages of the Higher Education Act. The American History for Freedom Program is a very small part of that missive body of legislation. But some haystacks really do contain a golden needle.    

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