Supporting Western Civilization Education: NAS Interviews James Piereson

National Association of Scholars

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of IMPERFECTIOn, the print newsletter of the National Association of Scholars.

If you want to support the teaching of Western civilization in higher education, you have to know how to give money wisely. But how do you learn to do that? NAS asked James Piereson to weigh in.

Piereson is best known for his work as executive director and trustee of the John M. Olin Foundation from 1985 to 2005. He has been president of the William E. Simon Foundation since 2006, and chairman of the VERITAS Fund for Higher Education since 2007. He’s helped create numerous programs in American universities devoted to teaching the core texts and principles of Western Civilization. James Piereson knows as much as anyone in the country about the mechanics of wisely putting money to use in higher education.

Practically, how do you support teaching Western civilization on campus?

“All the good stuff is out of style in the mainstream academy,” says Piereson. He believes it’s unrealistic to hope that colleges will center their core curricula on Western Civilization any time soon. The professors and the administrators aren’t interested, and the trustees don’t think they’re supposed to do anything more than raise money and pick a college president.

“There are no magic solutions,” says Piereson. “We’ve been working on this for thirty-five years. We’ve done some good—but the academic mainstream keeps getting worse, faster.”

But there are now dozens of small programs around the country that promote Western Civilization—special programs crafted around a few professors, who can recruit interested students. Typically, a program includes a couple of professors, a lecture series, and some summer courses—but there’s a varying emphasis, tailored to what’s appropriate at each college.

“These things form beachheads to rally around, to keep things alive,” says Piereson. “You build small enclaves where students and professors can retreat, study, and have a real education.”

Any favorite programs?

Piereson thinks the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas, run by Thomas and Lorraine Pangle at the University of Texas, does fine work. “It has an undergraduate major on Great Books,” says Piereson. “Classics, the Bible, the American Founding. It’s signed up a lot of UT professors to be part of the program, so it’s going really well.” “But I don’t like playing favorites,” says Piereson. “They’re all good.”

Say I want to set up a program like that. What are the nuts and bolts I should put into place to make it work?

“Contact the Jack Miller Center in Philadelphia,” says Piereson. “Say I’m at the University of Iowa, or Nebraska, and I want to start something on the Constitution. How do I get it set up, raise money, bring in a postdoc or a visiting professor? The Jack Miller Center has summer seminars for professors interested in setting up a program, to learn the nuts and bolts.” The Jack Miller Center can also refer professors to donors, who might put some money up.

It isn’t all that expensive either. “What do you need?” Piereson asks. “Four or five outside lecturers, and you have lecture series. That’s twenty-five thousand a year. Hire a postdoc to come and teach two courses a year—on the American Constitution, on American History, on classical liberalism. That’s fifty or sixty thousand a year. Have a one week conference—another ten or twenty thousand. One hundred thousand dollars can get you started. If there’s interest, you can expand it. You can do a lot with one hundred thousand dollars a year. And you can do something solid with less.”

Say I’m a donor who wants to start a program at my favorite college—and I want to make sure it doesn’t get hijacked away from what I want it to do. How exactly should I go about it?

“The most important thing to realize,” says Piereson, “is that your favorite college just may not have the people in place to support such a program. If you’re only going to give money to your alma mater, or your neighborhood college, and there’s no one there interested in Western Civilization, they’ll take your money—but they won’t do what you want.” Piereson says that if you’re really interested in supporting Western civilization, then you need to be flexible and look around for people and institutions that are willing to support it.

“First, do research,” says Piereson. “Find out if there’s a faculty member who’ll put a good program into place.” He suggests talking to the Jack Miller Center, or to Robert George at Princeton, who’s creating a national organization called the Center for Excellence in Higher Education. A would-be donor can get in touch with CEHE, and encourage them to start a new program at a campus he’s interested in.

“Or talk to me,” Piereson adds with a laugh. “I’m always happy to help a donor find a good match.”

What shouldn’t donors do?

Piereson warns against donors trying to impose their own vision on a program. “Professors have to provide local knowledge of the resources available at a college,” says Piereson. “You shouldn’t give money to programs you don’t like, but you’ve got to trust that the person running the program knows how to run it properly.”

Piereson has a stronger caution. “Never endow a permanent fund,” he says. “You lose all control.” Once a college has control of your money, Piereson says, it will do what it likes. It’s better to fund annually, or three years at a time, and only renew if the program does well.

“Just give them enough gasoline to keep the car running,” says Piereson. “If they don’t do what they’re supposed to do—warn them, and then pull the plug if they don’t fix what’s wrong.”

What should potential donors really know?

“If you do want to fund a program in Western civilization,” says Piereson, “you can make a real difference. There are a few dozen programs nationwide—and that’s great, but we can always use more. Adding just one more program can make a real difference.”

Image: Public Domain

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