So I’ve written an article for Yuval’s National Affairs that’s all about sustaining truly higher education in America through deploying libertarian means to achieve non-libertarian ends.There’s a sense in which all libertarians are for that, of course. In a free country, the money we make through being productive is for satisfying our (subjective) personal preferences. Liberal education can be one “lifestyle option” among many.
I don’t exactly agree with that conclusion, of course. But there’s something to it in assessing our situation these days. The strength of American education is not a uniformly high standard of excellence, but genuine moral and intellectual diversity. What other country has our intricate systems of private education, homeschooling, and even all kinds of seemingly random niche programs funded by big donors and whimsical legislators at state institutions (such as the fabulous Honors College at the University of Houston)? This diversity remains threatened by two forms of leveling — political correctness (or egalitarian justice wrongly understood) and techno-vocationalism (or orienting all of education around the acquisition of immediately marketable skills or competencies).
Here’s my most recent encounter with genuine educational diversity in America: I just gave a talk at the Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn. It is the one and only college run by the (Pentecostal) Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn. The political-science department there is a niche center of excellence, a program with lots of safe space for political philosophy and exceedingly philosophical students. Most students at Lee and most members of the Church of God err on the side of Spirit-filled or highly emotional Christianity (see Tocqueville, Democracy in America, volume 2, part 2, chapter 12), but they have room in their hearts for indulging more-intellectual forms of human longing.
At Lee, I had dinner with two very impressive young men, whose knowledge and understanding of political philosophy rival or exceed (partly because of one particularly gifted professor) that of the students I meet at our most elite institutions. And each obviously has a massive — even scary — I.Q. They were both sons of Church of God missionaries, to (Communist) Bulgaria and (Communist) China, respectively. Each came to Lee because it was the only place he could afford. One has converted to the Greek Orthodoxy, and the other doesn’t seem very religious at all now. The latter young man told me, for example, that Straussians and even Strauss himself don’t know how to read Hegel (he made a fine case for his position), and that he was excited especially to have read Tocqueville and Walter Benjamin (whom he found on his own) together. He chided me, in fact, for my use and abuse of the word “postmodern” and my description of the Puritans as the heart of the American Left. He’s attracted to postmodernism (in my view) wrongly understood.
The point here is exactly the opposite of “it’s too bad they were stuck going to fundamentalist Lee in the hick town of Cleveland, Tenn.” (which is actually quite nice). They, by luck or grace, found exactly right place to develop in the direction of wisdom and virtue with devoted teachers in a genuinely “safe space” but on their own terms. They would have been much worse off at a lot of elite colleges I could list.
Lee has a lot more fine students whom I might get around to describing later, but the real story would be the the political-science faculty, each of whom is highly competent, devoted to his or her true vocation, and evangelical in the best sense. I don’t think any of them belongs to the Church of God, but each is a believer.