Saving academia from itself

European civilization collapsed in the centuries following the fall of Rome. Barbarian hordes overran much of the continent. The vibrant intellectual life of Greece and Rome was no more; learning and literacy plummeted between the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas.

Yet learning didn’t die entirely, thanks to the emergence of self-sufficient monasteries that sprang up in response to the chaos. Within their walls, monks continued the life of the mind as much as possible, provided education to aspiring monks and others, and carefully copied over important texts by hand to assure their survival. Through their efforts, the spread of knowledge was renewed with the return of political stability.

In academia today much of the college curriculum has been overrun as well. Learning is not threatened physically by violent hordes, but by modes of thought that undermine longstanding knowledge and practices of inquiry. Postmodern theory questions the ability to actually know anything, while history and literature are redefined by structuralists and multiculturalists to consist of little but a legacy of racism and sexism. Politicization threatens everything from facts to methods of investigation.

The humanities and social sciences seem especially lost to perverse philosophies. The three most cited authors in academia are Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Derrida—all French leftists.

But all is not hopeless. In 2000, a new form of intellectual sanctuary started appearing in the academic landscape, in many ways similar to the medieval monasteries. These are independent academic centers that promote the open and objective study of Western civilization, capitalism, and political theory against the prevailing postmodern winds, with a focus on undergraduate education. The new Pope Center report, Renewal in the University, focuses on them.

Academic centers focused on ideas of liberty, capitalism, and traditional perspectives have grown from one in 1999 (the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University) to over 150 today. They offer the best of a college education: the intimate and objective examination of important ideas among a small circle of other eager students taught by accomplished scholars and teachers.

While most of the centers are modest compared to establishment programs funded with university dollars, they are proving more effective than other attempts to restore viewpoints that are considered to be “conservative” or “libertarian” to the American campus. They can range from a single professor who, on a shoestring budget, coordinates occasional lectures featuring outside speakers and conducts a student reading group to substantial organizations that provide multiple lecture series, fund the salaries of several professors, offer undergraduate fellowships, and influence the relevant curriculum.

They have not been welcome everywhere. In 2008, a New York Times article branded them as “beachheads,” a militaristic term suggestive of invasion, which distorts their real goal—inclusion, not conquest.

On some campuses, the resistance was enough to prevent a proposed center from opening. One such “failure to launch” occurred at Amherst College, where historian Hadley P. Arkes tried to establish a Center for the American Founding. Even though he is a celebrated intellectual who had been teaching there for 48 years, his efforts went for naught.

“We had considerable support among the alumni and it was clear to everyone that if Amherst were willing to let us establish a new Center for the American Founding and could readily have raised the money—and given many disaffected alumni a good reason to return and support the school,” he explained to the Pope Center in an email. “But the project triggered, of course, opposition from one wing of the faculty, and that was enough to intimidate two weak presidents.”

Another instance where a center met faculty resistance occurred at Hamilton College. In 2006, investor Carl Menges gave the largest individual contribution in Hamilton’s history, $3.6 million, to start the Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization. An agreement with the administration stipulated that history professor Robert Paquette and two of his colleagues—historian Douglas Ambrose and economist James Bradfield—would run the center. In an interview, Paquette said the school president initially helped to protect the center from any potential takeovers by the faculty.

As anticipated, the faculty was upset about the arrangement and wanted to renegotiate the center’s governance to give themselves control. Had they been successful, Paquette said, he could have been removed as the center director by the school’s president or the dean of faculty “on a whim.” He said that the administration could have “replaced me with the most radical left-wing faculty member on campus.”

The faculty wanted “not to make the Alexander Hamilton Center better but to destroy it,” he added.

Eventually, the agreement fell apart and Paquette moved the now-named Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization off campus and into the nearby town of Clinton as a completely independent non-profit organization. There, it has thrived and now influences the campus through students and student groups. By doing so, it has shown that in today’s world, no amount of opposition can keep valuable ideas off campus if a single faculty member is determined to have them heard.

Centers have responded to the political attacks on them by becoming scrupulously objective and apolitical. “Our name is not the Center for Capitalism,” said Wake Forest University’s James Otteson. “It’s the Center for the Study of Capitalism—with an emphasis on ‘study.’” He said that study includes examining the role capitalism—“warts and all”—plays in the dramatic rise in human living standards that have occurred since the capitalist system took hold around 1800.

And they are indeed preserving knowledge that has been disappearing from academia.

One illustrative example is the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University. Director Bruce J. Caldwell told the Pope Center that the current emphases on applied economics and mathematical approaches to economics are crowding the study of political economy from a historical perspective out of the economics curriculum—a very negative trend for the education of future policy-makers.

The giant hole created by the absence of political economy courses is partly filled by Caldwell’s center. “The history of political economics is the one place you can discuss the ideas of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek and compare them with the ideas of Karl Marx,” he said.

At Harvard, the founder of the Program on Constitutional Government, Harvey Mansfield, said that his program’s funding of post-doctoral lecturers and visiting professors make up for his school’s astounding lack of courses on the American founding.

One reason these centers are proliferating so rapidly, despite faculty objections, is their attraction to administrators. Fortunately, there are still enough good people in university administrations who wish to keep the spirit of inquiry open and inclusive and see the centers’ value.

Furthermore, money talks loudly on college campuses. College presidents and chancellors are often judged primarily on their ability to raise funds. Centers that are fully funded by outside donors—often with one or more professorships or post-doctoral fellows attached—can melt the heart of university administrators, even those who are not kindly disposed to conservative or traditional approaches to education.

Another reason for such explosive growth is the flow of money from private donors. Mike Deshaies, vice president of development and communications of the Jack Miller Center, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization that matches potential donors with promising faculty members and universities, says he sees an increasing “hunger to give” by prosperous Americans, particularly in the last few years. Donors are “concerned about the country’s future…and fear that their grandchildren will not have the same opportunities that they had.”

With more than 150 independent centers already operating, they have achieved a critical mass that ensures their survival.

Independent monasteries arose during the Dark Ages in response to an extreme threat to knowledge amidst the anarchy and chaos of a crumbling civilization. In much the same way, today’s new independent academic centers were conceived to solve a real and difficult modern problem—how to counter academia’s gradual purging of a vast array of ideas and knowledge that are still very much alive and central to the nation’s intellectual and political dialogues.

They are doing just that, and they are here to stay; they may even save academia from itself in exciting and wonderful ways.