This article originally appeared in American Greatness on October 5, 2017.
Deep within the United States Code a dynamite charge lies buried. Once ignited, it could blow the current landscape of higher education to smithereens, replacing its monotonous ideological expanse with an alpine variety of competing views and perspectives.
Triggering the charge would require a willingness to overcome political reflexives that often serve conservatives well. But the hour is late, the need for action desperately real, and pragmatism sits proudly at the nation’s helm.
So let us strike the fuse.
The dynamite is a provision in federal law planted nine years ago. That’s when Congress created the American History for Freedom (AHF) program. It promised federal funding for university centers promoting the study of traditional American history, free institutions, and Western civilization.
But when Barack Obama was elected, the congressmen and senators who had pushed for the bill wisely decided not to seek a federal appropriation. Obama would have opposed it and the whole program would have come under withering attack. Those of us who had worked hard to get AHF passed in the first place decided to bide our time. It has been a long wait.
The First Ka-Boom
How good is this dynamite? It should be compared to the explosives that the radical Left brought to campus at the end of the 1960s: black studies, women’s studies, and environmental studies. These three were the leading edge of the Left’s attempt to politicize the university.
Each had its own agenda but those agendas overlapped in their disdain for America and in their rejection of the university as a place reserved for open-minded inquiry. The proponents of these programs pleaded for them as exceptions to the old academic standards, which they thought would continue to be upheld in English, history, the sciences, and so on.
That proved to be an illusion. The radical environmentalists adopted Barry Commoner’s “First Law of Ecology,” namely, “Everything is connected to everything else.” You can’t expect radical environmentalists to keep their eco-apocalyptic creed isolated in the Environmental Studies Department. It has to be integrated into all the other departments because, “Everything is connected to everything else.” The same principle applied to black studies and women’s studies. Identity politics moves like a blob of mercury. It doesn’t stand still.
The political doctrines first spread to other academic departments via missionaries who held “dual appointments”—for example, women’s studies and political science, or black studies and English. But soon the bridges grew more plentiful. We saw the rise of cross-listed courses, “History 305, the Antebellum South, also listed as Black Studies 309, Slavery in Pre-Civil War America.” And soon there were distribution requirements and major requirements that entrenched the “studies departments” as central to whole of undergraduate education. The faculty in these departments also found their way onto search committees and other university bodies and carried their political programs with them.
Instead of occupying a space set apart in the curriculum for political indoctrination, the politicized departments became the agent for politicizing whole institutions.
That was the dynamite planted by the academic left circa 1968.
The New Dynamite—and the Atolls
Our dynamite isn’t exactly the same stuff, but it is pretty potent, too. American History for Freedom would create funding for academic programs that push back against the new orthodoxies.
At most colleges and universities today, the humanities and social science curriculum do little more than marinate students in the story that they are hapless victims of hateful oppressors. Free institutions are dismissed as icing on the poisonous cake of privilege. And Western civilization had been marked down as Guns, Germs, and Steel, to borrow the title of Jared Diamond’s bestselling 1997 book, aimed at deflating the Western ego.
The politicization of the university is now settled fact—except that, here and there throughout the Great Barrier Reef of Leftist Indoctrination, there are these atolls of intellectual integrity and freedom. They are places where the old standards are upheld, where Great Books continue to be taught, and where respect for good argument and valid evidence holds sway over political correctness. They include UCLA’s Center for the Liberal Arts and Free Institutions, Boise State’s American Founding Initiative, and Colgate’s Center for Freedom and Western Civilization.
Like most atolls, they are resource poor. A hardy handful of professors keep them going despite a dearth of institutional support and the scorn of the up-to-date crowd. The AHF program, if funded, would change that.
I have mixed metaphors. Dynamite or atoll?
Dynamite, in that well-funded programs in traditional American history, free institutions, and Western civilization would demolish the academic Left’s monopoly over the curriculum. Who knows? Maybe even some of the professors would get dual appointments and some of the courses would get cross-listed. Money changes everything.
Atoll, in that AHF would provision a small and isolated part of the college campus. The folks who are clinging bitterly (as someone once said) to their copies of The Aeneid and The Federalist Papers.
Building the Atolls
Steve Balch, my predecessor as president of the National Association of Scholars, was the prime mover behind the 2008 act. For more than a decade he had crisscrossed the country seeking faculty members willing to breast the tide of political correctness by proposing pro-Western and freedom-oriented programs at their colleges and universities. Some of these were slapped down fast by deans and provosts afraid of the intellectual contagion that they might spread. All the hard work of the multiculturalists, the diversiphiles, and the “critical thinkers” could be compromised by countervailing perspectives.
Yet Balch succeeded in launching the idea, and eventually dozens of programs were founded. But the initial idea that these centers would follow, although with genuine academic integrity, the footsteps of women’s studies, African-American studies, and environmental studies never materialized.
That was because the Left and the Right are not mirror images. While a good many institutions grudgingly allowed our programs to be established, few were willing to invest any significant resources in them. One of particular promise, the Alexander Hamilton Institute at Hamilton College was eventually expelled from campus. Another, the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas, Austin, having been identified as a conservative program in the pages of The New York Times, saw its director dismissed and the provocative phrase “Western Civilization” stripped from its title.
Traditional American history, free institutions, and Western civilization thus became orphaned subjects. Even if a handful of scholars could be found to teach them, lack of institutional enthusiasm, or downright hostility, would likely keep them marginalized. Seeing this, the NAS decided to do something not usually found in conservative playbooks. We turned to the federal government in the hope of persuading legislators to create a special package of grants designed to provide the financial support institutions were unlikely themselves to confer.
It took us a decade, but we finally found influential congressional sponsors, and the bill was written into the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Congress needed to consummate the enactment of the program by appropriating funds for it, but at just this critical moment the election of Barack Obama supervened. The opportunity to have the implementation of the program designed in anything like the spirit in which it had been drafted vanished. We thus elected to leave it, temporarily at least, unfunded.
It is, admittedly, hard to push the case for any increased funding for American higher education. Nearly half of the $600 billion spent on higher education each year derives in one form or another from the public purse, and what do we have to show for it? Mostly intellectually mediocre instruction compounded with politically toxic indoctrination. The huge expenditures in the federal budget should be trimmed. But at least in this one instance, the federal government should spend more. Why?
The results of our colleges and universities turning away from traditional American history, free institutions, and Western civilization are plain to see. Mobs of American college students today shout down speakers whose views they deem unworthy of protection. Large numbers see themselves as “postnationalists,” or “global citizens,” unconcerned with the need to live up to the responsibilities of their actual citizenship. Colleges and universities offer “sanctuary,” and even scholarships, to illegal aliens in defiance of the law. The Obama Administration channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into teaching its version of “new civics,” which discarded learning about institutions of self-government in favor of preaching the virtues of activism, protest, and occupation.
We are not short of dubious federal grant programs for higher education. But if ever there was a worthy exception to these boondoggles the American History for Freedom Program is it. Now that Washington is under different auspices, let’s get it working, taking some of the money, if need be, from the programs that should be cut or eliminated.
For many students, these new campus centers are the only opportunity they will have to learn what made America great, free, and prosperous; and the only chance that college will ever give them to hear everything that the progressive Left has filtered out of the curriculum and campus culture. Think of them, collectively, as a kind of reborn Radio Free Europe, taking a liberating message directly to those behind the Iron Curtain of campus progressivism. American History for Freedom can make their message loud and clear.