Preserving the Values of a Free Society in Higher Education

Editor’s Note: Roger Ream gave the following lecture at the Martin Center’s annual policy banquet on October 24th. It appears here in abridged form.

It is an honor to be here this evening with friends and supporters of the Martin Center, an organization on the front lines of the battle for education reform.

Speaking of battles, we are in the midst of one right now. What we see taking place in higher education is part of a larger battle for the soul of America and the soul of the rising generation of Americans.

Nearly 30 years ago, those of us who are classical liberals—believers in limited government and free market capitalism—thought we had won the battle of ideas. In 1992, we declared “the end of history.” Democracy and capitalism were transcendent and not to be challenged. Communism and its system of economic organization—socialism—were destined for the ash heap of history, as we were reminded often by President Ronald Reagan.

But, as Thomas Jefferson observed two centuries ago, “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” The end of history had not arrived in 1992, despite widespread acknowledgment at the time of the superiority of democratic government and market-oriented economic systems. The desire for power and the perks that come with it is so overwhelming that a clash of competing ideas will always be with us, both in the global arena and here in the U.S.

The battle-lines may not be drawn as clearly as they once were, but the contending sides are fighting just as fiercely as ever. Identity politics and an anti-capitalist mindset seek to overturn our commitment to the time-tested values of limited government and free markets.

Today, the American experiment in liberty is threatened, perhaps as never before, because the dangers lie within our once-respected institutions. Furthermore, an ever-growing, powerful state with unsustainable financial obligations, called “entitlements,” coupled with a dangerous and widening cultural divide, has put the future of our Republic at risk. The ideas and institutions that provided Americans with the space to invent, innovate, invest, create, and build the most prosperous nation in human history are in serious danger.

Our challenge today, if our Republic is to survive, is to renew the unifying principles that define us as Americans—that have made us exceptional. We need to rediscover and re-embrace the principles that hold our nation together.

Americans can disagree about any number of issues and we can divide ourselves down the middle when it comes to election preferences. But if we don’t accept basic, fundamental rules of conduct in the public square and agree on the basic institutional framework of civil society, our nation is sure to decline.

These basic concepts must be taught—inculcated into each generation—and understood, so they serve as a guide for conduct in the public square.

What are some of those fundamental ideas? The dignity of the individual, personal responsibility and self-reliance, and, perhaps the most fundamental of all: that we are endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

These are the “cohesive ideas” upon which a free society is built. On these bedrock principles rest such concepts as a free press, free speech, and religious liberty. They are the source of legal concepts such as due process and innocent until proven guilty. And they form the bedrock of our free enterprise system.

How do we reclaim these ideas that hold our society together? That role falls to each of us in our families, our churches, and in our communities. But an equally large burden rests with our schools, both K-12 and our colleges and universities.

Reform and renewal of our universities is vital. When those who despise America and disparage our nation’s founders and founding ideas control our schools, we have little hope of preserving our fragile experiment of liberty.

A nation cannot survive if a generation of its citizens are brought up to think that their country is corrupt at its core, operates on the principles of white privilege, or exists only to further enhance the wealth of the rich and powerful.

Yet, as those of you who read the outstanding analysis of the Martin Center scholars are aware, we have a serious lack of intellectual diversity on the faculties of our colleges and universities. In a recent study, Professor Samuel J. Abrams offers a new warning, not about college professors but about the professional administrators of the campus. He writes a warning to incoming college students:

These collegiate administrators — those who work in areas such as student affairs, diversity and inclusion, and residential life — far outnumber faculty and are gaining significant power on campus in terms of setting the overall tone of the school and in terms of how material is taught. The scary part is this group has amassed more power and influence than professors, the ones who are actually trained to teach. Further, college administrators are overwhelmingly politically progressive — to the tune of 13:1.

He continues:

The data also show how far administrators are willing to go when spreading their ideology. A whopping 71 percent of student administrators are far more concerned with teaching current events, multiculturalism, and highlighting social justice questions instead of math, science, and technical knowledge.

Such a worldview will only turn those of you in the classroom into ignorant, ahistorical activists with few analytical, empirical, and reasoning skills that are hallmarks of a true liberal education.

Evidence such as this reinforces the point of Jonathan Haidt, New York University psychology professor and founder of the Heterodox Academy. He argues that the lack of intellectual diversity in colleges and universities has led to a shift in the purpose of many institutions of higher education from the search for truth and the transmittal of the best values of civilization to the promotion of social justice. We have arrived at what he and Gregg Lukianoff suggest is the “coddling of the American mind.”

The consequences are many.

One result is a generation or more with abysmal civic and economic literacy. Public opinion polls show robust support for socialism, particularly among young people. We see regular evidence of ignorance of historical events and the Constitution.

But I don’t want to just offer a litany of complaints tonight. So let me suggest a few things that we can do to improve the situation and where I see bright spots on the horizon.

First and foremost, we need to be more informed and careful donors to our alma mater and higher education more generally.

Before giving, ask simple questions such as:

  • Can you provide me with evidence that shows what learning takes place at this institution?
  • Can you offer evidence that you have intellectual diversity on your faculty and in the administration?
  • What are your policies with regard to free speech?
  • Have any conservative speakers been invited to speak on campus in the past year?

If you get satisfactory answers and decide you want to support your school, please, please put restrictions on your giving to ensure that your philanthropic vision is met.

Better yet, seek alternatives that can accomplish your vision. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal is one such alternative you should support. And while this is self-serving advice, consider it good advice nonetheless: support your university through an independent organization like mine, The Fund for American Studies, or the many others out there.

There is a strong network of organizations that are part of the “alternative university” today. These include the Institute for Humane Studies, the Leadership Institute, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young Americans for Freedom, Young Americans for Liberty, Students for Liberty, FEE, the Network of Enlightened Women, the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute’s Values and Capitalism project, the Clara Booth Luce Institute, and many more. Support these organizations that give college students exposure to America’s founding ideas and free market economics they often won’t be taught in their universities.

I also challenge us all to follow the advice we got after 9/11 in this country: “If you see something, say something.” I would add, “If you hear something, say something.” By that I mean, speak up when you hear opinions or comments that you disagree with or think are ill-informed.

Don’t let economic nonsense and calls for more government go unanswered. If we are going to reverse present trends in our culture, we must present a compelling case for a free society and present it often.

I suggest many of us need to change our approach in order to get people to listen to our case for a free society.

If we believe that free men and women can accomplish remarkable things when left free, we must be more persuasive in making our case. Those of us who favor the use of “persuasion over force in human relationships” (Ben Rogge) must present our case in such a way that we will attract others.

One of the primary aims of the Fund for American Studies and our high school affiliate, the Foundation for Teaching Economics, is just that—to teach free market economics—the economic way of thinking—in a compelling way.

First, let me note that the students who come to our university-level programs are a cross-section of students who have an interest in politics, public policy, journalism, international affairs, and related fields. They come from colleges both large and small. They come from across the political spectrum as well, left, right, center, libertarian, undecided, and confused.

Our students arrive at our programs with a sincere desire to change the world. They see poverty and injustice and want to take action. Many look at the government as the vehicle to solve the very real problems they see around them.

We have a multi-step process to address this in our programs.

Step 1 is to start right at orientation with a heavy focus on the importance of free speech, intellectual diversity, and the value of confronting new and challenging ideas. We let students know clearly that they need to be open to new ideas and be willing to defend in a civil manner those they possess.

We found this approach became necessary a few years ago, as students were arriving at our programs uncomfortable with hearing ideas that challenged what they were being taught at their home university.

Step 2 comes with our requirement that all students take a course in economics. For many, especially the journalism students, but many others as well, this will be their first course in econ—and quite possibly their last. That is why we adopt the Paul Heyne approach of teaching introductory economics. We teach it as if it is the one and only economics course they will take. It is the only opportunity for a student to gain an appreciation for the tremendous power of markets to transform life on our planet.

Step 3 is to disabuse students of the idea that they have all the answers and are already equipped with what is needed to improve the world. One of our faculty members accomplishes this by giving students a quiz that is aimed at showing students how little they know or at least how much of what they know that is simply not true. We need them to understand they have a great deal to learn.

I also like to tell stories to convey the power of free markets. For example, to convey how free markets have made us richer, healthier, and better off, I tell the story of John Thoreau, beloved brother of Henry David. John and Henry were as close as two brothers could be, spending their childhoods exploring the woods and rivers of New England together. Then, while still a relatively young man of 27, in 1841, John cut a finger with a razor blade while shaving and died not long after of lock jaw.

Today, very few people die in the prime of their lives of lock jaw and staph infections. Thanks to the accomplishments of free people and free markets.

The personal story I share is that of my niece, Megan, on July 20, 1995. I returned home late that night from my organization’s 25th anniversary black-tie gala, held at the beautiful Library of Congress Jefferson Building across from our nation’s Capitol. Just as I nodded off to sleep, I was jolted awake by the ring of the telephone beside my bed. The voice on the other line was my father trying to get out the words that my then 16-year-old niece Megan Browne—my parent’s first grandchild—had suffered a heart attack and passed away. She had cardiomyopathy, a congenital defect also present in her younger sister.

Free people exercising free choice in free markets—that is the genius of America.

I often think about the medical breakthroughs that may have been delayed or denied because government absorbs and wastes so many of our resources and regulates our entrepreneurs and innovators. Would the implanted defibrillator that Megan’s sister has implanted in her chest have saved Megan’s life if it had been available 10 years earlier? I don’t know. Perhaps.

But let us not burden free enterprise and hold back the entrepreneurial discovery process.

I recall many years ago hearing Amway co-founder Richard DeVos observe that free enterprise has made it possible for the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the lame to walk. This is literally true, even though I questioned his comment at the time. I know people today who have cochlear implants that have restored their hearing, cataract and other surgeries that have cleared up vision and ended blindness, and artificial replacements of knees and hips, as well as bionic limbs that have restored the ability to walk. And Richard DeVos lived a much longer life thanks to a heart transplant.

There is so much more that we can accomplish when free to invest, invent, innovate, and pursue happiness unburdened by costly government interference. There are so many wonderful things yet to be discovered, so many diseases yet to be cured. We have more frontiers to conquer.

Free people exercising free choice in free markets—that is the genius of America. That is what makes America exceptional.

The exceptional student of liberty Leonard Read taught me many years ago that those who love liberty must focus on education.  Our politics is a reflection of the ideas in the minds of the people. That is why, despite dabbling in politics in my career, I now devote my energies to education.

I am confident that, together, our work with students and in pursuit of truth will change the world in ways both big and small. Thank you for your support of the James G. Martin Center and your concern about education and the future of the U.S.A.