Higher education is in the midst of a battle right now, and according to Roger Ream, the president of The Fund for American Studies, it’s a conflict between identity politics and classically liberal values.
In an essay adapted from a lecture Ream delivered at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal’s annual policy banquet, he argues that the future of classical education, once seemingly assured, is now in doubt.
“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,” he writes.
“55In 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, quoting Thomas Jefferson, Ream acknowledges that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Now, Identity politics and an anti-capitalist mindset seek to overturn a “commitment to the time-tested values of limited government and free markets.”
It’s vital for the nation to remember the principles that once united us, Ream says. These values start in education:
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.
Ream highlights the progressive values that have inundated universities across the United States, along with the progressive professors advocating them. He points to a study that found that “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.”
He offers solutions to the problems of poor civic and economic literacy:
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?
He also describes several initiatives put forth by his own organization that seek to teach free market economics in a compelling way.
“Free people exercising free choice in free markets—that is the genius of America. That is what makes America exceptional,” he concludes. A return to these values in higher education will help the nation unite around its founding principles, Ream says.