By William Murchison
Well, now, if you want to reform higher education — bring it into line with historic standards and expectations– you can, of course, set up the National Committee to Buy Harvard for, well, just how many billions? More than Jeff Bezos keeps in his home safe.
Or you can listen attentively to Frederick M. Hess and Brendan Bell, writing in the Winter issue of National Affairs, laying out with some plausibility a schema for the founding of a university consciously aligned with the university ideals we used to assume everyone assumed. Sounds unlikely, does it? So unlikely perhaps as actually to make sense at a financial and intellectual level higher than my own.
Hess and Bell, both of the American Enterprise Institute, see the possibility of founding “a greenfield institution oriented by a clear mission, supported by the requisite funding, and guided by the right leadership” capable of growing “into a prominent and culture-shaping force in less than two decades.” For (as they project) “roughly $3.4 billion” or less — “an ivory tower of our own,” “unapologetically hospitable to right-leaning views and values that are marginalized across most of academe.”
A “critical mass of accomplished faculty could support one another,” showing students a “different kind of intellectual community.” Such a convocation would pursue the kind of academic freedom that used to inform — nay, ennoble — the once-touted academic mission of opening minds and strengthening character. “The aim is to create an incubator — not a sanctuary. No academic hidey-hole would do the job envisioned by Hess and Bell, namely, reinvigoration of the quest — sadly stalled in the era of political correctness — for Truth.
Core departments would be economics, history, government, and sociology. English, philosophy, religious studies, foreign languages, and psychology would offer undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees. The sciences would matter — science always matters in education — only not so extensively as at the elite research universities (where they prosper more than do the humanities).
Our prospective new university awaits a name. And receipt of collection plate that could, who knows, be passing through the pews. But maybe the important thing in the short run is the helpful suggestion, the intellectual prod — the mention of what could be, and at what cost (the authors do show how to eliminate conspicuous consumption), and most of all what it would mean.
It would mean, if successful, the freeing of the American mind — at one venue and likely a host of duly inspired others — for the resumption of the civilized inquiry we formerly took for granted as basic to the whole enterprise of civilization. The prospect of recovery from loss and degradation is never on its own terms to be taken for granted. But the wish for it — the wish starts, potentially, everything.