One Question: What Must We Do to Ensure the Ideas of a Free Society Are Passed On?
The late Peter Schramm once wrote: “In America, each generation has to be educated in our principles of right, the natural rights that stem from those principles, and about our constitutional soul, which gives these rights their functional order. […] In this unique country—this novus ordo seclorum—citizens have to be made because it is not enough that they be born.”
While some surveys show post-millennials to be more libertarian than other generations, many of these young adults are or will soon be encountering a system of higher education that is beset with strikingly illiberal trends. America’s universities have long been a hive of multiculturalists who want students to believe there is nothing special about America worth learning. And now there is a student reform movement that demands safe spaces, trigger warnings, the checking of (others’) “privileges,” the right to shout down and shut down speakers they dislike, and limits on the free speech of students themselves. In short, they want to be given rights that cannot exist in a free society—because they want to be protected from a free society.
Too many university administrators, meanwhile, would rather avoid the sensitivity mob (and perhaps gain new powers as the arbiters of acceptable thought) than defend the university as a place of open inquiry. In short, higher education is training students not to be engaged citizens but servile subjects. So we ask: What can be done to better transmit the ideas of a free society to the younger generations?
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We can draw up a list of great and good works designed to explain the fundamentals of a free society to the young. Unfortunately, this is no longer enough. The very structures of our education system have been turned against liberty, and so the solution must be structural as well.
The very structures of our education system have been turned against liberty, and so the solution must be structural as well.
The College Board has taken advantage of its near monopoly over advanced placement testing to force a distorted and Left-biased version of American and Western history upon the next generation. The remedy to this is an open market in college placement testing, where competing companies can turn to traditional and conservative scholars to devise alternative curricula for states and school districts.
By promulgating speech codes, disinviting speakers, and confining free speech to narrow and highly regulated “zones,” many university administrators have become hostile to free speech. Too often these administrators are unable or unwilling to enforce discipline upon students who interfere with the expressive rights of visiting speakers, or with the rights of their fellow students to listen to those speakers. Faculty once kept weak-kneed administrators honest, but a powerful plurality of faculty members has now turned against the classic liberal vision upon which freedom of speech is based. Boards of trustees are generally too timid to assert themselves against administrative abuses of free speech.
The remedy for all this is state-level legislation that would re-establish the priority of free speech at public university systems, ban speech codes and narrow “free speech zones,” discourage speaker disinvitations, create a discipline policy for students who interfere with the expressive rights of others, and establish trustee-run oversight systems that would subject the administrative handling of free speech to public scrutiny. This legislation would apply to public university systems, which are already under the jurisdiction of the First Amendment, even if the place of free speech on those campuses has been neglected or abandoned.
Private universities should be informed that their receipt of federal aid will henceforth be conditioned on their willingness to protect freedom of speech. Through an amendment to the Higher Education Act, due for reauthorization this year, federal aid can be structured to achieve most of what legislatures can mandate for public universities under state-level free-speech legislation.
Finally, trustees, administrators, alumni, and the general public should start a movement to make John Stuart Mill’s classic brief for liberty of thought and discussion, On Liberty, the mandated “common reading” for entering freshmen. Common readings assigned to all entering freshman are now found at most colleges. These readings are not classroom assignments but come from the university as a whole. So it is entirely appropriate for trustees to require that instead of the ephemeral ideological tracts generally given as summer readings to incoming students, a classic defense of free speech should be assigned instead.
These steps would be only the beginnings of an effort to reclaim the American academy for the classic conceptions of liberty that have heretofore served as its proper foundation. Yet a very significant beginning they would be.
Mr. Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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A crucial step in the spreading of the ideas of a free society to younger generations is to first open their often-closed minds. The recent, shocking mob at Middlebury College that not only prevented scholar Charles Murray from giving a talk on his latest book, but also led to violence that injured the professor who had introduced him shows the depth of the problem.
A great many young Americans have been taught that it is actually bad to listen respectfully to any ideas that run counter to the “progressive” beliefs they have been imbued with. It is common to hear these students declare that such ideas must never be heard and should be opposed by any and all means. This shows a grave educational failure—but also an opportunity.
All of us who cherish a free society and fundamental civility should press college leaders to make at least a short seminar on the importance of intellectual freedom and rational discussion a part of the curriculum. Students must learn that there can be no progress in society if some people can use force to silence those who challenge the conventional wisdom about anything. They should be taught that their own freedom of speech and that of everyone else depends on tolerance and mutual respect. They should have to read and discuss John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.
Of course, students must be told that if they disrupt free speech, they will be subject to punishments up to expulsion, but that isn’t enough. We must do all we can to eliminate the root causes of intolerance, which is the belief among many Leftists (students and otherwise) that they have a monopoly on truth and righteousness. Once that has been reduced or eliminated, the ideas of the free and truly liberal society will spread.
Mr. Leef is Director of Research at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
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Young people do not look with awe or a sense of wonder at an iPhone, a computer, or the incredible medical miracles happening every day. But they should. Our tremendous material wealth; extended life expectancy; falling infant mortality; and even our enjoyment of arts, culture, sports, and recreation are brought to us by freedom and the free market system.
To ensure that the rising generation appreciates our free enterprise system, I offer several recommendations.
Teach economics in high school and college. According to the Council for Economic Education, only 20 states currently require high school students to take a course in economics. That is less than half of the country and two fewer states than in 2014. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni reports that only 3 percent of colleges and universities require economics. Yet economics affects virtually every aspect of life, from personal finance and public policy to international affairs and culture.
Improve the teaching of economics. Emphasis in an economics course should be on the way the world works, not simply on graphs and equations that are easy to test but difficult to relate to human behavior. The economic way of thinking, if taught right, can be applied to nearly all aspects of life. Therefore, the best economics is taught by doing economics, not talking about it. A variety of games and activities can be used to teach how trade creates wealth and why property rights are essential to prosperity. Economics should not be taught as “the dismal science,” but as a remarkable study of how prices coordinate the activities of millions of strangers from diverse backgrounds to produce mutual gain.
Support and send young people to “the alternative university.” There are many outstanding conservative and libertarian organizations that offer seminars, conferences, and academic programs that present ideas missing in college classrooms, including the one I lead. Young people must take advantage of this “alternative university.” Doing so will not only inoculate students so they are less prone to the propagandizing taking place in most classrooms, but it will connect them to a network of peers who share their ideas and values. Because these conservative and libertarian organizations are vastly outspent by the Left, donors should be generous in their support of organizations working with young people.
Read important articles and foundational books. At the risk of neglecting many outstanding contributions, I will suggest a few:
“I, Pencil” by Leonard Read, Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, The Law by Frederic Bastiat, the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, The Federalist Papers, and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. There are dozens and dozens of other classics out there. Choose ones that are age- appropriate and cover the range of concerns to those who favor freedom and free markets.
Author Jonah Goldberg has observed that “capitalism is the greatest collective enterprise in the history of humanity. It is the most successful cooperative endeavor ever undertaken. It has just one flaw. It doesn’t feel like it.” Freedom and free markets allow billions of people in this world to pursue their interests and improve their living standards without interference from elites who think they can plan a better life for them. We should celebrate that and teach the next generation why they should too.
Mr. Ream is the President of the Fund for American Studies.
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Karin Agness Lips:
We can’t depend on universities to educate the next generation of leaders on basic civics. A 2015 study found that 46 percent of college graduates don’t know the term lengths for members of Congress and one-third of college graduates can’t identify the Bill of Rights as a name given to a group of constitutional amendments. It is necessary for conservative groups to fill this vacuum with programs to educate the next generation of leaders on our Constitution.
We must engage with the next generation of leaders now, meeting and connecting with them where they spend their time.
We must engage with the next generation of leaders now, meeting and connecting with them where they spend their time. For example, having an active presence on social media is important. And not just on Facebook, but staying updated on whatever is the most popular platform. Earlier this year, my organization, the Network of enlightened Women, launched a social media campaign across various platforms, #ShesConservative, encouraging conservative college women to share with the hashtag #ShesConservative why they self-identify as conservative. Through this initiative, these women became spokeswomen for limited government and freedom. This was an effective way to meet our audience of college women where they are on social media and give them an opportunity to be part of the conversation.
Ms. Lips is the Founder of the Network of enlightened Women (NeW).
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Alan Charles Kors:
A “cultural” Left that loathes the American experience—the steady advance of equal justice under law in a society of individual responsibility, economic freedom, and limited government—now commands our Ed Schools, K-12 education, so-called “higher” education, and the children’s media. These closed-shop political fiefdoms deliberately are failing utterly to communicate the values of individual rights, critical mind, and actual, comparative historical understanding to the rising generation. The greatest scene of human liberation and mobility in human history is presented to its children as a caste system.
Conservative philanthropy seems to believe that a chair or two in Economics will suffice to end a juggernaut of closed-minded indoctrination across the board. It won’t. There are only two options. One: End the subsidies of taxpayer support for those who teach contempt for the taxpayers themselves; impose an end to political litmus tests where public educational hiring is involved; give parents educational choice; and found alternative institutions that combat the toxic trash at all levels. In short, fight back with courage, economic resources, real toleration, intellectual rigor, and moral will against those who would destroy our civilization. Two: Give up the fight and enjoy the waning days, betraying our absolute obligation to pass on the freedom and dignity of America to the next generation. There is no middle-ground.
Mr. Kors is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.