November 2, 2004 | Commentary on Education
These are heady days for conservative thinkers. After all, most
of the ideas that will shape the 21st century are being hatched on
the right. For example: Conservatives have a plan to reform Social
Security; we want to build on the success of welfare reform, and
we're pushing for an effective missile-defense system.
Liberals, on the other hand, don't seem to have a lot of ideas. Things are so bad on the left that when former Clinton aide John Podesta launched a liberal think tank last year, he admitted to The New York Times that he was doing so because, "We've got to fill the intellectual pail a little."
It's ironic that Podesta would need to build a think tank to generate ideas. After all, liberals already control the institutions that ought to be doing that: our colleges and universities.
The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA surveyed some 55,000 educators nationwide a few years ago. Nearly half called themselves "liberal" or "far left." A mere 18 percent considered themselves "conservative" or "far right."
But this domination hasn't led to an intellectual revolution. If anything, all those tenured liberals have triggered academic stagnation. That's why it's time to improve higher education by creating an academic marketplace of ideas.
A Liberal Education
Doing so wouldn't be difficult. Most universities are made up of individual colleges. Each college contains faculty, and each decides what courses to offer and what requirements must be met to earn a degree. Unfortunately, today liberals run most of these colleges. But that could change. The first step is for conservatives to put their interests where their money already is.
One man tried to do this a few years back. Lee Bass was willing to donate $20 million to Yale University if his alma mater would offer courses in "Western Civilization." Bass was moved to make his donation after Yale professor Donald Kagan told incoming students, "It is both right and necessary to place Western Civilization and the culture to which it has given rise at the center of our studies. We fail to do so at the peril of our students, our country, and of the hopes for a democratic, liberal society emerging throughout the world today."
Sadly, Bass' gift was greeted with disdain by some of Yale's educators. According to the Yale Alumni Magazine, English professor Sara Suleri Goodyear said, "Western Civilization? Why not a chair for colonialism, slavery, empire and poverty?" And history professor Geoffrey Parker, who should know better, said, "The major export of Western Civilization is violence."
Bass eventually withdrew his gift, but he ought to consider making a similar donation to a different university -- if that school is willing to really teach a fair view of western civilization.
This Bass-funded program could quickly become a beacon of conservative thought on campus. It would give liberal students a chance to expand their education by studying conservative ideas, in much the same way that conservative students are already exposed -- and even over-exposed -- to liberal ideas. After all, shouldn't a good education expose students to both sides of the intellectual aisle?
Consider Brandeis University. It offers a sociology course called "Crisis of the Welfare State." The professor's class description says, "It is worth noting, for reference, that almost all other societies with comparable economic achievements and standards of living have much more generous welfare states [than the United States does]." Still, he writes, "Most of these welfare state programs are under severe challenge."
For example, "It is claimed by some that the programs make people dependent upon government and undermine their willingness to work." And, "Some claim also that social problems should not be handled by governments, but rather by 'private' institutions, in particular by private charity." Indeed, "some" -- or "most" -- do make those claims.
If students take that liberal welfare course, they should also be required to take a conservative class that explains the failures of the '60s era "War on Poverty," highlights the successes of the 1996 welfare reform law and outlines the prospects for future reform.
Liberals on campus no doubt would protest this attempt at academic balance. They'd probably fall back on their old formula: Claiming conservatives want to engage in censorship and indoctrinate students. But the very opposite is true.
Encouraging a wider range of ideas on campus would benefit everyone: liberals and conservatives, teachers and students. It would force liberal professors to rethink some of their long-held convictions. At the same time, conservative professors would be able to interact with students without fearing they'd be denied tenure by their liberal colleagues. The resulting free exchange might even help universities become idea factories once again.
The Benefits of Competition
The students, meanwhile, would enjoy the benefits of competition. Even the most liberal economics professor knows that when a Lowe's opens near a Home Depot, customers soon see better service and lower prices.
Students are certainly consumers of education, but today they're not getting what they pay for. If there was a conservative alternative on every campus, though, there's a better chance that the overall educational environment would improve, and students might start getting their money's worth.
After all, there's value in teaching Karl Marx, as long as students also learn about Adam Smith. Then they can make up their own minds about who's approach is superior. Let's shake up the academy with another idea from the right -- and start using competition to create a real academic marketplace of ideas.
Ed Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
First appeared in the Investor's Business Daily