It has been ten years since the Federal Higher Education Act was last reauthorized. Little-noticed at the time, the 2008 reauthorization added a new provision—“American History for Freedom” (AHF)—which sought to counteract the politically correct agenda that has become all the rage at too many colleges and universities. AHF would award government funds to academic programs that focused on the political, philosophic, moral, and economic conditions of human freedom. The initiative included funding to hire philosophically unorthodox faculty—meaning, those professors who still believe American freedom is worth studying and defending.
If and when Congress ever gets around to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the AHF provision should be retained, and it should be funded at least $100 million—keeping in mind that there are extraneous and duplicate programs that could be cut to provide this funding.
In 2002, the nonpartisan higher-education organization, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) launched the idea for this federal program. NAS hoped to help the federal government jump-start a movement to restore intellectual pluralism in higher education through supporting programs about free institutions, Western civilization, and the American Founding and constitutional history (i.e., “traditional American history”). It took six years to translate this idea into congressional law, because Congress delayed reenacting the Higher Education Act for that long. But the good news is that there was no opposition to it at the time.
As difficult as the six-year effort to pass the law turned out to be, the true implementation challenge was still ahead: AHF lacked any congressional funding. Moreover, all efforts to obtain funding were shelved after Barack Obama’s election in November 2008, for fear that the intentions behind the legislation would be dashed and/or distorted if initial implementation was left in the hands of his administration. As a result, AHF lay on the statute books as an unfunded program, (which is hardly an exceptional state of affairs in the world of Washington, D.C.; there are many other unfunded programs). Now, of course, circumstances have greatly changed, and we have a Department of Education that is more amenable to the serious study of the conditions of American freedom.
However, some who support the content of such a civic education nonetheless object to federal funding either as a matter of principle, or, because they fear the purposes of the program will inevitably be twisted by subsequent administrations. These well-intentioned critics should consider, first, that the statutory language for AHF was drafted with exceeding care. The only types of programs to be supported are all clearly contrary to higher-education’s current neglect/disparagement of the American experiment in self-government. Moreover, all programs are specifically described, as are the academic credentials, equally contrarian, of their directors.
Second, there are already more than fifty programs at major universities and colleges having both the character and the type of leaders qualified to receive this funding. For the most part, these already-existing programs are modest in size, but they will likely be the first out of the gate in submitting proposals. (Their connections with NAS and allied organizations will guarantee this.) Not only do these current programs have great growth potential, but once money for them is made available, they will quickly come to be viewed much more favorably by always-money-seeking university administrators.
Third, a small amount of money (by federal standards) could be transformative with respect to promoting intellectual pluralism. If annual AHF spending for several years was $100 million (about the same level as the now-defunct Teaching American History Program, which had similar purposes), and if much of this money was awarded in large endowing grants, with matching requirements, as many as twenty substantial new programs could be created annually. This number is large enough to enable the hiring and tenuring of “intellectually diverse” faculty. Giving such faculty secure platforms on which to build their careers is indispensable to restoring intellectual diversity on our campuses.
Fourth, if the grants, or at least some of them, are matching, much more pro-pluralistic private philanthropy could be stimulated. Indeed, some university administrations would begin to steer donors in this direction. There will thus be a multiplier effect.
Fifth, some federal monies, even in the best organized grant programs, are likely to fall into inappropriate hands. But, that acknowledged, the politically correct already own the academy. By contrast, independent-minded professors have virtually nothing. Consequently, were such dissident scholars to receive only half the funding—they’re likely to do much better than that—the marginal gain to their academic standing and educational influence would far exceed those of the ideological establishment. (And “50/50” is a worst case scenario.)
Sixth, those who wonder whether it is worth it to spend taxpayer dollars to restore collegiate civic education need to recall Lincoln’s 1838 speech to Young Men’s Lyceum. There, Lincoln exhorts his countrymen to practice and teach “reverence for the Constitution and its laws,” lest American democracy degenerate into “mobocratic” rule. In our increasingly secular society, the professoriate has ascended to the role of crafters of American culture. Given what the late political scientist, Harry V. Jaffa, described (back in 1959!) as the “utopianism and intolerance” of the American academy, it should not be surprising that we are now watching the civic culture of freedom evaporate before our eyes. The hour is late and something urgently needs to be done if there is to be any chance of restoring the culture. The AHF program is a good place to start.
Finally, although the initial authorization called for an end to funding after five years (which would have been 2014, had any money ever been sought), this provision in the law does not bar providing funding for AHF now. Having worked for the federal government in D.C. myself, I recall that hundreds of millions, indeed, billions, of dollars a year pass through the appropriations committees even after authorization has expired.
Congress has a window of opportunity that may not stay open very long. For freedom’s sake, it should use it.
This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on September 27, 2018.