"Higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today's students," declared Allan Bloom in "The Closing of the American Mind," a book that chastised a generation of academics and students with its biting, furious analysis about the decline of American liberal education. Twenty years ago, at the time of the book's publication, things looked bleak for those who shared Bloom's qualms about the effects of relativism on the academy.
Recently, Bloom's heirs have been hammering on the closed door, trying to reopen the American mind a bit. Their latest door-opening move has been an effort to create scholarly centers on campuses around the country: These centers would be devoted to the great books of Western civilization and the study of the American Founding, and they would be conducted in a rigorous, pre-1960s classroom style. Is there a chance of success?
The prototype of the idea–the Founding center, as it were–is the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, begun in the summer of 2000 by Prof. Robert P. George. The program has featured a traditional curriculum devoted, as advertised, to "American ideals and institutions," and it has attracted an array of visiting scholars, many of whom have gone elsewhere to try to seed similar institutions.
Importantly, the James Madison Program raises its own money, serving Princeton students and operating under the approval of the Princeton administration but, in certain ways, structuring its courses and hiring its faculty independent of the usual campus bureaucracy. Even Mr. George has copped to "a certain frisson one experiences with being a heretic" on a predominantly liberal campus, but he and his followers don't sound like right-wing culture warriors. Mr. George is famous for his civil tone and Socratic style, his commitment to taking ideas seriously and his relentless engagement with an older, nearly lost educational philosophy.
But one center cannot, by itself, open up America's narrow university culture. "If the light of veritas was going out when Bloom was writing," asks David DesRosiers of the Manhattan Institute, alluding to Yale's famous motto, "where are we now?" The answer seems to be that things are better, but only marginally so. To follow up on the Princeton model--to share the veritas--the Manhattan Institute has recently inaugurated the Veritas Fund, offering support to academics of a Bloomian bent. "To the degree that we find people that are interested in these subjects, in the name of intellectual pluralism we need to support them," says Mr. DesRosiers, the fund's executive director.
Patrick Deneen, who heads the newly formed Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown University, attracted the attention of the Veritas Fund right away. He wants to return to "an emphasis on classic texts, and particularly the way in which the American tradition draws on classical Western tradition and biblical tradition." The Tocqueville Forum has adopted Georgetown's emblem as its own--an eagle clutching a globe, the calipers of rationalism in one claw, a Christian cross in the other. In October, Mr. Deneen hosted a conference on American civic education. Justice Antonin Scalia was the keynote speaker, and much of the conservative professorial elite was in attendance.
Mr. Deneen, who taught at Princeton from 1997 to 2005, notes that, "for many people, there was a sense that universities had largely been lost to the forces of political correctness, softheaded multiculturalism." The Madison Program, he says, "energized many people throughout the academy." It provided "a legitimate intellectual and academic space where the kind of questions that lie at the heart of a classic education could be discussed." The Tocqueville Forum is trying to open up a similar space on Georgetown's campus.
A few other established programs, like those at Duke and Claremont McKenna provide additional models for start-ups like the Tocqueville Forum and the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. On each campus, a center raising funds for itself has set up a roster of lectures, conferences and visiting fellows. So far--none is more than two years old--they have attracted a fair amount of student interest. And Clemson even boasts a couple of dedicated faculty members.
As worthy as such projects sound, setting up an quasi-independent institute devoted to the study of Western civilization can easily run afoul of university rules and regulations, not to mention university ideology. In late 1999, about the same time that Mr. George was setting up the Madison Program, political philosophy professor Hadley Arkes was working on a similar project at Amherst College and finding it much more difficult. Eventually, he established Amherst's Committee on the American Founding, but so far its staff consists primarily of Mr. Arkes himself. He says the university has stymied fund raising by demanding control of most of the money he has drummed up for the program.
"A week doesn't go by without someone in the administration trying to put restraints on the program or undercut the program," he says of both Mr. George's project and his own. Other scholars, at the moment wishing to remain incognito, are trying to start Madison-like programs on their own campuses, but they are meeting resistance from the faculty and administration, some of whom worry about the supposed conservative political agenda of such programs.
In November, Hamilton College decided to refuse a $3.6 million grant from alumnus Carl Menges to establish the Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization. A swirl of outrage from the faculty culminated in a 77 to 17 vote "expressing concern" about the project. Perhaps this was less than surprising from a school that made headlines for its invitations to Ward Churchill, who compared the people killed on 9/11 at the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns," and Susan Rosenberg, formerly of the Weather Underground.
Robert Paquette, a professor of history and one of the organizers of the Hamilton Center, pointed out that the center "did not seek to alter the curriculum of the college in any way, to create new courses arbitrarily, for example, or new faculty positions." It sought only to add another voice to the campus discussion. He contrasted his treatment with the treatment of the scientist who brings in an outside grant "from, say, the National Science Foundation. I know of no campus where such a scientist would accede to the faculty's demand to impose its choice of assistants on a proposed experiment." Mr. Menges has threatened to take the program's endowment elsewhere.
In defense of the study of Western civilization, and perhaps to give hope to those fighting for his vision in the present, Bloom wrote that "the failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency--the belief that the here and now is all there is." The organizers and funders of these centers are avoiding this tendency. They know that the past was different and the future still could be.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at reason. This article originally appeared in the January 19 Wall Street Journal.