The Art of the Essay Contest

Rachelle Peterson

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”—Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi. Do you agree?1

Why is the separation of church and state integral to preserving religious freedom in America’s pluralistic society?2

How would you address the issue of the growing costs of post-secondary education in the United States?3

Those who don’t ride motorcycles often think of it as a dangerous/hazardous activity. What positive examples from your experiences riding motorcycles would you use to convince someone otherwise?4

These are some of the questions that scholarship providers pose to prose-minded students. Essay contests abound. One financial aid database, Scholarships.com, lists nearly four hundred essay contests alone.5

Browse these lists further, and you’ll find that the American Foreign Service Association invites students to imagine they are Foreign Service officials and propose diplomatic strategies for keeping international peace. The best strategist gets $2,500 and a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet the secretary of state. Last year the Joe Foss Institute awarded $5,000 to Lani Kaye Ford from Athens, Texas, for writing the top essay describing her friendship with a veteran.6 The American Society of Human Genetics will award $1,000 to the essayist it deems best analyzes whether minors should delay genetic testing for vulnerability to diseases and conditions—such as cancer—that typically appear later in life.7 The California chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association offers $2,500 to the applicant who writes something demonstrating “commitment to NLGJA’s mission.”8

Every year Penguin Books USA sponsors a contest on a book published in its Signet Classics series. This year’s book is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Students can choose one of five prompts, such as

Discuss possible interpretations of the word “little” in Louisa Mae Alcott’s [sic] novel Little Women. How do characters use or reference the term? Is “little” consistently employed as a positive term of endearment? How do you think Alcott intended the word to be interpreted?9

Other prompts ask students to examine wealth inequalities portrayed in Alcott’s book, or explain why Jo was not the right mate for Laurie (a perpetual question that bothers me still).

Not all contests are strictly academic. Fantasy Sports Daily offers $1,000 for the best four hundred-word account of “your favorite sports moment(s) or memories and how they have impacted your life.”10 New Mexico high school seniors living in pre-manufactured mobile homes could win $1,000 for writing about their college and career goals.11 Aspiring construction and design workers might nab $1,500 for describing “the most critical issue facing the construction industry.”12

Some contests openly self-promote: the Better Business Bureau of Delaware asks, “How are the values of the BBB relevant in today’s world and how have you seen them demonstrated?”13 Others blur the line with propaganda. The group Negative Population Growth will bestow $2,000 on the student who composes a two hundred-word text that can best “persuade the general public to support programs that are designed to slow, halt, and eventually reverse U.S. population growth.”14

There are plenty of scholarships that do not require essays. (Those more skilled in squawking than writing may take a gander at the $2,000 Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Scholarship Duck Calling Contest. Recent winners have predominantly come from Arkansas.)15 But essay contests fill an important role in private academic philanthropy. As diversity replaces merit in college admissions and financial aid supplants academic scholarships, the essay contest has emerged as a way for private organizations to reward students who still take their academic work seriously. Essay contests also fill another void: intellectual diversity. They can push students to consider ideas and texts not often taught—or, when taught, not taken seriously—at campuses awash in political correctness.

How successful are essay contests in fulfilling these goals? What, practically speaking, makes an essay contest successful? And what advice should student essayists consider when searching for tuition funding? There is little literature on best essay contest practices, so the National Association of Scholars set out to find out.

Background

We surveyed seven organizations that have recently sponsored essay contests, and asked the contest managers everything from how they wrote the prompt to who judged the entries to how much money was required to run the contest. We selected institutions of a kindred spirit with the National Association of Scholars: the Center for Political and Economic Thought at St. Vincent College, Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), American Enterprise Institute (AEI), First Things (published by the Institute of Religion and Public Life), the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW), and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

The Center for Political and Economic Thought sponsors the “Douglas B. Rogers Conditions of a Free Society Essay Competition,” asking college students yearly to respond to a historical text on politics or economics. This year students will read George Washington’s “Farewell Address.”16 ISI usually offers free copies of a book from the ISI press and poses a question drawn from it. This year students will answer “What is conservatism?” after reading ISI’s new edition of Frank B. Meyer’s anthology of that name.17 AEI’s Values and Capitalism Program held its first essay contest last year, inviting students to defend the morality of free enterprise.18First Things, also a first-time sponsor in 2015, offered a menu of three statements to which students could respond:

  • The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky famously predicted that “beauty will save the world.”

  • In a recent issue of First Things, Mary Eberstadt wrote, “Everybody who cares about social justice ought to deplore the new intolerance.”

  • I (R.R. Reno) have argued that “the Judeo-Christian culture spurned today will become more appealing as the weaknesses of the secular project become apparent.”19

The Coolidge Foundation’s fourth annual Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth asks students about the duties and privileges of citizenship.20 NeW asked students in 2015, its second contest, whether the American mind was being “coddled” at college and what they could do to promote intellectual diversity, while FIRE’s First Amendment essay competition has students discuss why free speech is important.21

These contests comprise a small slice of the larger essay contest pie, but closely examining a subset is a helpful place to start. There is almost no existing data on essay contests. The authors of the College Board’s Trends in Student Aid 2015 observe only that private sources of college aid have grown (from $4.5 billion in 1994–1995 to $16.8 billion in 2014–2015) and that private grants from foundations, employers, and donors comprise 14 percent of all non-loan financial aid.22 The College Board does not include in its annual survey a breakdown of what types of scholarships private donors give away. (Neither does the National Center for Education Statistics.) The National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA) conducted a national survey in 2005 that grouped essay contests and other miscellaneous scholarships together in the category “other,” which it estimated at 30 percent of all private scholarships.23 If that percentage remains constant, and if all contests marked “other” required essays, then about $5 billion in aid was awarded last year on the basis of student essays. We know of no other survey that tracks these numbers.

The NSPA survey recommended “increased communication among private scholarship providers” to help organizers learn techniques for “management, fundraising, student selection, and award distribution practices.”24 Our survey takes up the spirit of NSPA’s call.

Before You Sponsor a Contest

Are essay contests worth it? And how much time and money do they require?

Most of the sponsors we contacted said that holding an essay contest met important goals. For NeW, which sponsors chapters and reading groups for conservative women in college, an essay contest familiarized students with important ideas and texts. “It’s an extension of our larger program to bring intellectual diversity to campus,” said NeW founder and president Karin Agness. Some contests honor people—such as the Coolidge Foundation’s “Calvin Prize,” named for Calvin Jr., who died while his father was in the White House, and the Douglas B. Rogers Conditions of a Free Society Essay Competition, established in 2012 by the parents of a promising young economist who died suddenly.

Essay contests can draw attention to an organization. First Things started its contest in 2015 to “engage our younger readers and subscribers,” said Austin Stone, who managed the contest. For Molly Nocheck, who has run FIRE’s First Amendment-focused contest, one of the “high points” was seeing students understand constitutional protections for free speech. “We would receive emails after the contest from students interested in doing more when they arrived at college, and signing up for the FIRE student network,” Nocheck said. “That was most rewarding.” The essay contest ran for ten consecutive years until 2015, when a funding lapse closed the program indefinitely.

Sometimes it’s worth reevaluating the contest’s purpose. ISI’s annual essay contest morphed from a “marketing tool” aimed at “getting students to know about ISI,” into a “core program” that showed students that “We want to be a big part of your academic experience during your college years,” said Macarena Pollares, who directed the contest in 2013 and 2014. Pollares said that as student membership in ISI grew, the contest “became an intentional part of engaging with students at a more profound level, rather than them just being on a mailing list.”

AEI’s Values and Capitalism Program ran an essay contest in 2015, but closed the contest after it was outperformed by the “Young Scholars” program, which awards undergraduates research grants. Both programs attracted quality applications, program manager Meredith Schultz said, but because Young Scholars applicants are required to work with a professor on original research, the awards attracted papers with stronger research and writing.

How Much Time and Money Does It Take?

Respondents said the workload ranged from “streamlined—it almost runs itself” to “challenging.” The responses generally corresponded to the number of submissions. Stone at First Things estimated the administrative workload (separate from judging) took forty hours. Pollares at ISI guessed she had spent “two or three hours of every day for a month reading essays and communicating with students. Apart from judging it wasn’t hard.”

Most contests required one staff person to take primary responsibility, with ancillary help to write the prompt and judge submissions. Some organizations assign a midlevel staff member to oversee the contest, as at FIRE or the Coolidge Foundation, where Nocheck as director of campus outreach and Rushad Thomas as program and editorial associate oversaw their organizations’ contests. Smaller organizations may draw on executive directors. Bradley C.S. Watson, co-director of the Center for Political and Economic Thought, held primary responsibility for the center’s essay contest.

Many organizers said they spent much of their non-judging time corresponding with students and professors. They wrote to confirm receipt of entries, answer questions, or reach out to contacts who might promote the contest.

Most essay contests ran on low overhead, with prize money taking most of the budget. One contest, prizes and all, ran on $2,500. Another, with higher prizes and an awards dinner, took $10,000. FIRE’s contest required $18,000 in prize money alone. Thomas said the Coolidge Foundation’s Calvin Prize ($1,000 for first place, $500 for second) was “fairly easy and inexpensive in both time and money.”

Marketing the Contest

None of the organizations reported trouble attracting applications. First Things drew 170 entrants in 2015 “with zero paid media advertising,” according to Stone, having announced the contest via email and website. Watson said the Center for Political and Economic Thought announces the contest in three or four emails to its distribution list, which typically prompt others to advertise the contest on their own blogs and listservs. Friends of the center publicized it on such outlets as National Review Online’s higher education blog Phi Beta Cons or the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education website. Watson also includes reminders in center newsletters. “We don’t get hundreds of submissions, but each year dozens of submissions,” Watson said. “It’s actually been a challenge to read them all and come up with a top-three ranking.”

FIRE, with a long-running contest, a large prize (first place: $10,000), and heavy marketing, attracted between 2,000 and 3,000 applicants, Nocheck said. FIRE created a webpage for the contest, sent email announcements, and mailed postcards inviting high school teachers to encourage their students to apply.

The Coolidge Foundation, whose Calvin Prize is limited to high school students living or studying in Coolidge’s home state of Vermont, also reaches out directly to Vermont high school teachers, some of whom have assigned the contest to their students as homework. The foundation also purchases ad space in local newspapers and Facebook ads targeting Vermont residents. Thomas said the prize draws applications from “right around a hundred every year,” a number the Foundation is pleased with, considering there are “less than 100,000 public school students in Vermont, and fewer in high school.”

AEI’s Values and Capitalism Program maintains relationships with dozens of professors and asks them to invite their students to apply. Schultz said she has also sent announcements to financial aid offices.

As private sources of aid have proliferated, so have algorithms that match entrants to contests. Websites such as Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com offer platforms where sponsors can list scholarships, and students who complete a profile can see which contests fit their eligibility and interests. Of the people we spoke to, only FIRE’s Nocheck said she had posted the contest in an online scholarship database.

Quality of Essays

Were the essays good? A popular statistic holds that “billions of dollars” in aid go unused each year for lack of qualified applicants. (NSPA estimated in 2005 that the number was closer to $100 million.) No organization wants to award scholarships for half-hearted typo-filled screeds.

All our survey respondents expected to see some submissions of low quality. “It’s a mixed bag,” the Coolidge Foundation’s Thomas said. “A lot of essays are—I don’t want to say duds—but not top-notch.” “The poor ones just looked like they had been stamped out really quickly in a rush of Christmastime scholarship applications,” Schultz said of the lower ranking submissions to AEI. Pollares said each year ISI received “a few that were total flops,” but about a quarter of all submissions were “really good.” Stone reported that “about half” of the essays First Things received “were written very well.”

The Center for Political and Economic Thought issues an annual warning that “Prizes will not be awarded if, in the exclusive opinion of the judges, submitted essays are of insufficient quality.” Watson was “a little worried at first that we might only get five crummy entrants, but that hasn’t proved to be a problem”—and the center has never not awarded prizes. “The good ones are really good,” Watson said, “what we would consider an A paper.”

No organization reported ever having to suspend awards for lack of qualified applicants. “There are always worthy recipients,” Thomas noted. Nocheck commented, “Obviously it’s high school students—but I was impressed every year at the quality.”

Schultz concurred, “The ones that we selected were very strong. They had found an angle on the prompt that was compelling, they obviously drew on primary or secondary sources, and the style and the grammar was good.” Many contest organizers repeated the plea for good grammar and proofreading. Prospective essay contestants should take note.

Because they are often sponsored by organizations with well-known philosophies or viewpoints, essay contests can be vulnerable to student pandering. Most contest organizers tried to protect against this by writing a prompt with built-in latitude for students to express their own opinions. Many also said they suspected students self-selected to apply to contests from organizations they respected. There are “always those types of essays within a contest as big as this that are just reciting our mission. But at least they read the mission and wrote it down,” said Nocheck, adding that those essays were “just a minority.” Schultz said AEI did receive some essays that “disproportionately used AEI materials, I think trying to pander to us a little bit.” But those essays “seemed unoriginal, which is why we didn’t select them.”

What to do with high-quality, well-researched essays that came to a conclusion opposite to the organization’s mission? None of the organizers encountered such submissions. Pollares said she had read “some essays that were not in ISI’s line of thinking, but it was also the case that they were not well written.” She said that if they had been better written, “in principle they would be taken seriously.” Thomas said his only hard line was that the Coolidge Foundation would “never award the Calvin Prize to a student whose work was not honoring of Coolidge in its tone and general respectfulness,” though students were free to disagree with President Coolidge’s positions.

Writing the Prompt

Every respondent emphasized the importance of refraining from dictating what students should write. “I think the key is coming up with a good question, one that will lead to students really engaging with the ideas, and not just try to think what they would want us to say,” NeW’s Agness remarked.

FIRE retained the same prompt every year. Students must watch two short videos about censorship and answer “Why is free speech important at our nation’s colleges and universities?” First Things offered three options, Stone said, to “make sure [the winning essays] would be something we could publish on our site.”

Each respondent recommended teamwork in prompt writing. ISI has drawn on its programs team along with vice president for academics Jeff Nelson and executive vice president Nick Reid. The Coolidge Foundation executive director and chairman choose the prompt with program and editorial associate Thomas. Only the Center for Political and Economic Thought involved donors in such discussion. Watson said he and other center staff meet with donors to “talk about what they would like to see in this year’s prompt,” though the Center retains full control over operating the contest. “They’ve suggested prompts and we’ve either gone along with their suggestions or come up with our own.”

In writing a prompt, Watson and his team aim for something that “would inspire a relatively large number of undergraduates” and then they usually “leave it pretty open after that.” Watson’s basic formula is a text or quote followed by the imperative, “Respond.” This year NeW’s contest asks students about “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a much-discussed Atlantic essay by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, because “sometimes it’s good to use something in the larger national narrative,” Agness said. Pollares said that she framed prompts as “yes and no kind of questions” so that students would debate ideas, though ISI has since moved away from that model.

This year the Coolidge Foundation chose a prompt commemorating “an important Coolidge related anniversary,” Coolidge’s 1916 speech on the Declaration of Independence. After reading Coolidge’s speech, students will write about the importance of citizenship. One of the best foundation prompts, Thomas said, asked students to reflect on whether as adults they would leave Vermont or stay—a decision President Coolidge had wrestled with while attending Amherst College in Massachusetts. “Vermont really took to that one,” Thomas recalled. “We had some very eloquent and well-done essays in 2014.” In 2015 students were asked whether college is worth the cost. The responses were good, Thomas remembered, but “it was a lot more difficult to rely on people to come up with things that resonate deeply in their souls.”

Most contests assign or recommend readings, and no survey respondent thought the readings deterred qualified students. ISI traditionally assigns and provides free copies of a book. NeW assigned the Haidt and Lukianoff article, while the Center for Political and Economic Thought selects a historical text or excerpt, for example, parts of the Federalist Papers or Frédéric Bastiat’s famous claim that “The state is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.”

How long should the essay be? The shortest length in our survey was 800 words, at the Coolidge Foundation. (“Coolidge was a believer in brevity, so we definitely want to honor the president in that way,” Thomas said.) Most ranged from 1,200 to 2,500 words. The Center for Political and Economic Thought sets a 2,500-word minimum, with no maximum. Watson said he’s received entries that are longer than 2,500 words, but “nothing that’s been longer by orders of magnitude.” None of the organizations surveyed felt a need to alter the word limit between competition cycles.

Rules of Eligibility

Eligibility rules target a variety of demographics. FIRE and the Coolidge Foundation invite high school students to apply. The Center for Political and Economic Thought welcomes all college students. NeW limits its contest to female undergraduates. AEI focuses on undergraduates at Christian colleges. First Things invites all students in college, graduate school, or seminary.

FIRE chose to award scholarships to high school students in part to get students thinking about free speech and censorship before they attend college and face speech codes, Nocheck said. “We hoped to equip them with the tools necessary to hit the ground running.” Agness said NeW had considered adding a track for graduate students, but for now will “start with the audience already built in” at NeW campus chapters.

To guard against fraud, FIRE required student winners to provide the name of the college they were attending and their student ID number. First Things requires applicants to register with an .edu email address. ISI has students register to indicate interest in the contest (and provide a shipping address for the free book); after registering, students can submit an essay. Once the top essays have been selected, ISI staff examine their authors’ eligibility. The Center for Political and Economic Thought’s contest rules requires winners to “verify their eligibility, and to attest to the fact that the winning essay is wholly their own.” Watson says he runs the top-ranked essays through the plagiarism detector SafeAssign, and requires the authors to send a transcript proving enrollment and a signed waiver pledging their work is original. “The best thing is not to discourage entrants” by requiring them to prove eligibility upfront, Watson recommended. “Make it a condition of winning. When you’re dangling money in front of someone, they will jump through hoops.”

Submission deadlines dot the calendar. FIRE traditionally set a deadline of January 1, with the Center for Political and Economic Thought close behind, usually in the first week of January. Watson’s theory is that students won’t want to write during the summer and are too busy during the semesters: “I want them to be thinking academic things and in a scholarly mindset, yet not writing their final exams.”

Some essays due during the school year have had success. ISI’s essay is often announced in the fall but due mid-March. This year’s registration deadline was March 1, with a March 14 submission deadline. Pollares said she “wanted to have it out before Thanksgiving break and Christmas break, because that’s when students are able to do their writing apart from schoolwork.” The Coolidge Foundation rounds up its essays at the end of September. And NeW’s deadline last year was December 11—before most colleges had let out for break. Several contests are due in the summer time, with no reported shortage of applicants. First Things required essays by June 15 last year, and AEI asked for submissions by July 21.

Judging

Most organizations judged essays internally. Every organization relied on its own staff to help cull the essays, and six of seven used staff (often directors and CEOs) to rank the top entries. Only FIRE hired an external grader to make the first cut. The grader ranked essays from 1 to 5 (5 being “exemplary”), but FIRE staff read all the 5s, along with some 3s and 4s depending on the total count, to determine which essays to pass along to FIRE’s CEO, who made the final call. First Things relied on five staff members and interns to whittle down the top twenty essays, which the editor and senior editor then read and ranked.

The Center for Political and Economic Thought was the only organization whose final judges read every submission. Watson and two other professors at St. Vincent College spent a week reading and ranking essays before meeting to determine the top three. The Center has occasionally awarded honorary mentions to essays the donors liked, but the donors have never participated in ranking the top essays. “You have to be able to say with a straight face that scholars of American politics and the American founding are the ones who judged this competition,” Watson said.

The Coolidge Foundation is unique in assembling a new jury each year, drawing on descendants of President Coolidge, foundation donors, and figures in Vermont politics and business. Thomas and other foundation staff spend a few days reading all essays, and then vote on ten to pass to the jury. Jury members rank the essays, with first and second place determined by the average of their rankings.

Some of those surveyed, such as the Center for Political and Economic Thought, have a separate staff member remove all identifying information before judges read the essays. “One student from St. Vincent won in the first year,” Watson recalls, “but we didn’t know who that student was at the time.”

None of the organizations paid their judges, apart from staff members’ regular salaries.

Prizes

Prizes ranged from $500 to $10,000 for first place. Three of our survey respondents awarded first, second, and third place winners, and three awarded only the top two. FIRE awarded one first place ($10,000), one second place ($5,000), and three runners-up ($1,000 each).

Three—FIRE, NeW, and AEI—have awarded the prizes as scholarships disbursed directly to the students’ colleges. “We felt like a cash prize was unaccountable and was subject to tax,” Schultz said of AEI’s decision.

Two institutions held an awards ceremony. The Coolidge Foundation honors the top two essayists at its annual gala in New York City and covers their travel costs. The Center for Political and Economic Thought invites winners to attend its annual April lecture, but students must cover their own travel costs.

First Things publishes the top essays on its website, and the Center for Political and Economic Thought offers to publish in its journal any essays it deems of sufficient quality (so far, none have met this threshold). The Coolidge Foundation prints the top three essays (including the first runner-up) in the program for its annual gala, and partners with a Vermont literary magazine, the Rutland Reader, to run the top ten. Thomas said publishing the essays matters more for the foundation than the students: “I don’t think that’s on their minds at all. The money’s on their minds.” For First Things, however, offering students the chance to be published in the magazine is itself an honor that is “very important” to applicants, Stone said.

How to Win an Essay Contest

No contest organizer offered inside tips. But all agreed grammar and proofreading is essential, and some said typos could be enough to bump an essay out of contention. Because judges are looking for reasons to weed out essays, contest entrants are well-advised to take extra care with opening and closing paragraphs, have a structured argument, avoid over-writing, and use the time available to write several drafts. Most survey respondents indicated that judging doesn’t begin until after the deadline, so early submissions don’t typically get any bump. At the same time, a simple computer malfunction might make an entrant miss the deadline, so submitting just before deadline isn’t advisable either.

Contest entrants should spend time grasping the complexities of the ideas and bring them to light in their own words. Parroting sounds like pandering—it’s risky, too. Students cannot possibly know the organization well enough to write what its staff most wants to hear. And the final judges are not always directly affiliated with the sponsoring institution.

Entrants should read the recommended texts but conduct outside research. They must devote time, before sitting to write, to reasoning out and expressing their own conclusions, using logic and evidence, even if they think it challenges the organizers’ conclusions. Trying to undermine the sponsors’ core values isn’t likely to win points, but sounding out their depths can be persuasive. Essay writers must never write something contrary to their own conclusions in order to win a competition: integrity and character mean more than scholarship money. Judges will respect that, too.

And because time is scarce, it is not wise for students to focus on contests sponsored by organizations whose values they know contradict their own. Dialoguing with those with differing opinions and conclusions is valuable, but one cannot engage in constructive discourse with an anonymous judge. That said, it is useful for students to be open to contests whose premises may oppose their own. An essay requires scrutiny of potentially unexamined ideas, which could end up changing the writer’s mind on an issue. That is akin to searching for the truth. And that is what college—whose tuition is the reason most students are entering essay contests—is all about.

Parting Advice for Contest Organizers

What’s the most useful thing that experience teaches about running an essay contest? “Put as much on the website as possible,” Nocheck advised. “Inevitably you will receive a lot of student emails asking the same type of question.” Some recurring topics included exceptions to the rules, whether a works cited list is required, or how the prize disbursement works. She said if FIRE revives the contest, she would create an FAQ page.

Pollares instructed, “Don’t extend the deadline. It would be unfair to the people who did meet it.” “The takeaway is scholarly credibility,” Watson said. “Having a committee of scholars is important. So is anonymity—having some system to judge these things blindly.” “I would encourage any organization that is considering sponsoring essay contests to do so,” Thomas said, “even if it’s not for a lot of prize money. It’s a good way to get students thinking about your cause or person.”

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