Memo 11.30.2023 4 minutes

Just Say “No” to Sellout Schools


Education reformers should avoid funding institutes that sacrifice principle for hollow bipartisanship.

American education reformers have an unusual opportunity. New autonomous schools (actually colleges within colleges) dedicated to intellectual freedom and teaching the American heritage have opened, or soon will, at public universities in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. The radical monoculture, and the professional embargo on dissent, may at last be broken in American higher education.

But that opportunity comes with peril. As I previously argued, these new schools start with the disadvantage of needing to find qualified faculty decades after the radical Left chased conservatives out of the academy. This means that those in charge of the new schools will be tempted to make compromises on fundamental principles in order to curry favor with the current administrations. The line of argument would be something like this:

These new schools cannot survive if they are only “conservative”—they will be swept away everywhere save the reddest states, whenever party control changes. We must institutionalize these schools by building bipartisan, supportive constituencies throughout the university and the state. We must make bipartisanship foundational, because you cannot feign this commitment successfully. We will include large numbers of old-school liberal professors, who have nowhere else to go under the DEI regime. We can be confident that they will not set the schools on a path to be captured by the radical monoculture that controls the universities.

But once you make “bipartisanship” a priority goal, you risk these new schools being captured by the Left, the very thing they were created to avoid.

I am not dreaming this up. I’ve heard from some of the leaders of the new school movement, and this is the sort of thing they say. For example, the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University enthusiastically supports Educating for American Democracy—thus lending the imprimatur of a supposedly traditional-minded institution to the radical project of spreading action civics.

The prudential arguments for guaranteeing institutional survival are not trivial. But why should education reformers bother to set up a chain of Vichyite institutes dedicated to collaborating with the illiberal, radical authoritarians who occupy our schools? Education reformers need to be able to judge the value of these centers and ensure that they don’t waste their money on schools that will fold to the Left’s demands.

Here are some rules of thumb that could be useful for education reformers:

  • Provide temporary support. Do not endow these schools; provide them 1-3 year grants and mechanisms to ensure that they continue to fulfill donor intent.
  • Check class content. We allowed the Left’s false ideology to dominate the teaching of Western civilization, American history, and American government through a slow process of lessened affection, disaffection, hatred, and burial. Instruction in these subjects should be intelligently affectionate; professors should convey to students that they can learn from Plato and James Madison, not think of themselves as superior to them. There is no precise measure to distinguish warmly affectionate instruction from the cold arrogance that leads inexorably to hatred, but education reformers should go regularly to every class in these schools and judge the temperature.
  • Require avowed support of university reform. Free schools cannot co-exist in the long run in tyrannical universities; the schools must dedicate themselves explicitly and repeatedly to the reform of the entire university. Education reformers should require the schools to dedicate themselves not just to free inquiry and freedom of expression within their walls but to the recovery of freedom throughout the university as a whole.
  • Avoid moral equivalence. Old-school liberals facing extinction at the hands of their radical children focus on freedom of speech, within a framework of moral equivalence between (say) supporting Hamas’s butchery of Jews and opposing Hamas’s butchery of Jews. Their focus on procedural liberalism devoid of moral, substantive commitments is a death rattle. Education reformers should require these schools to make substantive commitments to support the American republic and its virtues. They need to condemn the education administrators and professors who work to revolutionize our republic and turn students into a mob that uses intimidation, shout-downs, and other tools of barbarism to promote “decolonization” and other “evils.”
  • Bring unwanted guests. It isn’t just about intellectual diversity—it’s about bringing the people whom the great and the good say are persona non grata. Bluntly, the schools should keep Christopher Rufo and his friends on the rubber chicken circuit and make sure they get the opportunity to speak. If the schools don’t have the courage to host the Rufos who say that the education establishment ought to be smashed to rubble, they don’t deserve the support of education reformers.

The schools will become Vichyite if their personnel want to be invited to faculty dinners because they never do or say anything truly shocking. Cheerful demeanor and political savvy aren’t bad qualities for school personnel, especially their leaders—but they should not sacrifice principle to break bread with their persecutors.

Education reformers should support these new schools politically and financially if they are stalwart for reform. But they should not give one dime to schools that sacrifice principle for hollow bipartisanship and take as their model a Tim Keller winsomeness translated to the ivory tower.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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