“Capitalism, American Style” at Christopher Newport University

One might think that capitalism is as American as apple pie, but a review of most American Studies programs at colleges and universities in the United States reveals little, if any, coverage of our economic system.  In fact, at many schools, what the students learn about our economic system is misleading if not downright false. Mention “capitalism” to many students and you’re apt to draw scowls.

That is not true, however, at the American Studies program at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, which takes pride in its inclusion of the study of free markets and the moral foundations of capitalism. CNU is a four-year public university in Newport News, Virginia enrolling 5,000 students in rigorous academic programs.

CNU’s interdisciplinary American Studies program, in which students can major or minor, offers a comprehensive study of the American Experiment through the exploration of the history, founding principles, and evolving economic, political and cultural institutions of the United States.  Students in American Studies use a wide variety of texts and primary documents by America’s founders, statesmen, philosophers, novelists, historians, and cultural critics to analyze important debates in the United States, including debates over American culture, religion, constitutionalism, capitalism, race relations, gender, and America’s place in the global community. 

Central to this study is a rigorous examination of such foundational concepts as liberty, equality, natural rights, and republicanism from the founding to the present. CNU’s focus on liberal learning combined with its close proximity to Jamestown and Williamsburg make it a perfect place for a study of the American Founding and the roots of our economic system.

The curriculum in American Studies at CNU consists of four required core courses, one of which (The American Experiment: Global Influence) includes coverage of our capitalist economic system and the relationship between economic freedom, political freedom and prosperity.  Students supplement these core courses with electives chosen from disciplines traditionally included in American Studies programs such as English, History, Political Science, and Philosophy.  In addition to these traditional electives, CNU’s program also includes choices from Economics, such as Industrial Organization, Money and Banking, and International Trade and Finance.

More uniquely, two American Studies courses on capitalism have been specifically developed for the program:  “Capitalism, American Style” and “The American Economy in Literature.”

The first course introduces students to capitalism as an economic system beginning with its philosophical and moral foundations and its evolution in the United States.  Students read excerpts from classic works such as Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, Mises’ Human Action, Buchanan and Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent, and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  The principles of free markets are then applied to a variety of historical and current issues ranging from business regulation and labor markets to health care and the environment. 

In “The American Economy in Literature” students study the workings of the American economy using selections from literature (such as Steinbeck and Frost) found in the anthology The Literary Book of Economics edited by Michael Watts.  Students in this class also read and study the full text of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

Some critics of capitalism might mistaken describe such courses as “brainwashing,” but at CNU all of them were thoroughly reviewed by the faculty and are approved for use in fulfilling some of the liberal arts requirements. The courses entail true academic consideration of capitalism as an economic system. For example, in “Capitalism American Style,” students study the Keynesian critique of laissez-faire and hold in-class debates on topics such as whether profit is the sole responsibility of business and whether we should allow a free market in human kidneys. In “The American Economy in Literature,” students learn how markets work and how they deal with problems like unclear property rights and negative externalities.

In addition to these rigorous academic programs, CNU is home to the Center for American Studies (CAS), which offers extra-curricular learning opportunities to complement the program’s  coursework.  The Center seeks to foster greater civic awareness by promoting classical liberal education in the area of American Studies, including America’s philosophical roots, history, economic foundations, and place in the wider global community. 

A major activity of CAS is to coordinate guest lectures, workshops, and conferences for students, faculty, and the general public such as the Annual Conference on American Principles.  For this day-long conference, prominent scholars with expertise in the fields of law, political science, philosophy, economics, literature, art, and history are brought to campus to share their insights on a topic related to civic engagement in America. Recent speakers include Professor Russell Roberts of George Mason University and Mark Bauerlein of Emory.

The conference generally results in a scholarly book based on the themes of the conference.  Conference topics in the past have been:  “American Founding Principles,” “Democracy and Democratization,” and “Civic Education and the Future of American Citizenship.”  This year’s theme will be “The Classical Roots of America.”  These conferences are kicked off each year by CNU’s BB&T Colloquium Series on Capitalism, a lecture series devoted to the moral foundations of capitalism.

Undergraduate students are involved in the planning of these conferences and in research with Center faculty through our junior fellows programs.  Some of these junior fellows are further supported with grants to participate in summer programs and internships outside of CNU that are related to the Center’s mission.

The combination of the academic major and minor programs in American Studies with the extra-curricular activities of the Center for American Studies helps students gain increased knowledge and a sense of civic awareness. Through our conferences and junior fellow program, students have the opportunity to interact with leading scholars in a variety of disciplines. Our programs help students develop “big picture” skills that are often lacking since many disciplines are moving toward increasing specialization.

Our unique version of American Studies demonstrates the commitment at CNU to educating undergraduates about all aspects of the American Experiment, including our economic system.  After all, what is more American than capitalism?