Reviving the American History for Freedom Program

Steve Balch

In 2008 the National Association of Scholars scored a big win on Capitol Hill when the American History for Freedom Program (AHF) was included as part of the newly reauthorized Higher Education Act. AHF authorized the Department of Education to begin making grants to university and college programs geared to the study of liberty, the American Founding and Western Civilization and run by scholars with well-established credentials in those areas. The purpose was dual: to revive teaching and research in these critically underserved areas and inject a sorely needed dose of philosophical pluralism into the academe’s bloodstream. Federal funding, we hoped, might eventually become generous enough to spur waves of new politically incorrect hires, returning genuine intellectual contest our campuses. Think of it as a “Manhattan Project” for fresh ideas.

The enactment of AHF was almost immediately followed by the 2008 presidential election. The NAS quickly calculated that the new Obama Education Department would be unlikely to administer this program in the spirit intended and so shelved immediate plans to seek money for it. Four years and another presidential election didn’t change our minds, but the electoral upheaval of 2016 suddenly made all things seem possible. It was time to rouse American History for Freedom from its octennial slumber.              

So we’ve been sounding reveille and the results are beginning to show. This week Congressman John Culberson of Texas released a letter from the Department of Education, prompted by his own inquiry on behalf of a constituent, about the department’s attitude to AHF. Over the signature of James Manning, the department’s third-ranking official, Culberson was informed that the goals of AHF were consistent with the Secretary’s Priority 4: “Fostering knowledge of the common rights and responsibilities of American citizenship and civic participation,” concluding that “should the Congress appropriate funding for the American History for Freedom Program, we would implement the program accordingly.”

Though couched in bureaucratize, this letter is a real step forward, since the department could far more easily have said its existing commitments left no room for spending additional money. It also reflects (and communicates to Congress) the fact that AHF has friends well-placed in the department’s higher reaches. Of course, it’s the House and Senate that hold the power of the purse, and with the Higher Education Act again up for reauthorization, there is also the need to ensure that the AHF’s statutory language is retained within it.

Our footsteps have been sounding up and down corridors of power as we press AHF’s case. But the price paid in shoe leather is beginning to earn returns.

Updates to follow.

Read the Department of Education’s letter on the American History for Freedom program > 


Photo: Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

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