What Should College Students Study?

Curriculum of Liberty

David Randall

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has written a lot about what’s gone wrong with higher education course content—politicization, trivialization, the abandonment of a core curriculum that teaches the central knowledge of Western civilization, American history and government, and their ideals and institutions of liberty. It’s also stated its ideals in general terms: NAS “uphold[s] the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.” But it hasn’t provided an overall guide to what subjects and courses college students should take.

There are good reasons for that. America’s a big country, with an awful lot of different colleges and universities, and you can’t—and shouldn’t—prescribe one education to them all. Then too, NAS represents a membership with varying beliefs about what college education should be, and maybe one shouldn’t speak in one voice on behalf of the membership. So NAS as an institution shouldn’t try to prescribe to America as a whole.

Yet NAS still should try to provide some overall vision of what a good college education should be. If NAS as an institutional whole doesn’t do that, then one member of the NAS staff can provide his curricular interpretation of NAS’s ideals—not as an end of the discussion, not with the full NAS imprimatur, but as a way to spark discussion, and as a way to give my rough sense of what NAS’s vision of higher education looks like, when it’s spelled out as suggestions for what to study.

That’s what I’ve done with Curriculum of Liberty. It includes a long introductory essay, to explain my understanding of the sort of higher education Americans need now. Curriculum then articulates these recommendations in terms of Education Structure and nine educational sequences—Human Sciences, Liberty, Scientific Reasoning, Scientific Knowledge, Humanities Reasoning, Humanities Knowledge, Language, Self-Reliance, and Virtue. Each of these nine sequences is further subdivided into four components; Liberty, for example, includes European History, American History, Western Political Philosophy, and American Government.

I realize that no college is likely to include everything Curriculum recommends. If each recommendation were embodied as a stand-alone course, it would scarcely leave room for an advanced education. I drafted that structure so that individual colleges could select from these nine sequences to fit their own programs of education—and so that any student could select from them to educate himself. These sequences are meant to articulate educational priorities rather than to prescribe a concrete educational program.

The introductory essay gives my own vision of where America is, and what education Americans need. That vision is grounded upon hope that America and her universities ultimately can restore themselves, but it takes them now, in 2024, to suffer grave illnesses. In brief:

In 1987, when the NAS was formed, its founders sought to reclaim our colleges and universities from the harmful effects of a generation of radical academics and admin­istrators. They feared that if these radicals maintained their control over higher education, they would do grave damage to the American republic. Alas, what they feared has come to pass. Higher education’s establishment became ever more rad­ical, authoritarian, and incompetent—and they indeed have done grave damage to the re­public as they educated an equally radical, authoritarian, and incompetent leadership for America’s government and civil society. Academia’s decay has become America’s.

America was a land of tinkerers and engineers. Now American higher education fails to educate our young in the scientific and engineering disciplines whose technological fruit forms the modern sinews of power. America was a land of the self-reliant—the farmer, the businessman, the sturdy souls of private life. Now American higher education produces ever-increasing numbers of person­nel for the managerial-therapeutic state. America was a land of the free and the virtuous. Now American higher education incul­cates tyranny, conformity, and depravity.

This is a dark vision, and I believe it is true. I also believe that we can restore America and its universities. So I have written the Curriculum of Liberty, in the spirit of the NAS’s principles, as an outline of how colleges and universities can educate American college students toward freedom, the pursuit of truth, and vir­tuous citizenship. Curriculum has a double goal in mind. In the short term, Americans must learn the lessons of self-reliance, liberty, and virtue to make it possible for them to secure decent live­lihoods under an indecent regime, to endure their corrupt elites, and to reclaim our nation. In the long term, Americans should equip themselves with the scientific education needed to sustain America in its competition with rivals such as China—now our technological peers, and soon our superiors, if the crippling policies of our elites continue in force.

Curriculum of Liberty offers a vision of the higher education that can prepare Americans to make our nation free and great again.

I offer Curriculum of Liberty keenly aware that it is only the latest of a great many sketches on how to redo higher education—many of them worthy, few of them influential. But the new surge of successfully enacted education reform policies offers the possibility that a sketch of education reform principles may indeed have real-world effect. And again, it is intended as a first word rather than a last, an initial attempt to translate NAS’s principles into curricular detail.

I hope that readers will find both halves of the Curriculum of Liberty to be useful as an orienting account of what American higher education has been, is, and should be—and as a prompt to put forward their own visions of how to restore American higher education.

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