This weekend, more than 55 NAS members and leaders in higher education reform gathered in Oklahoma City for NAS’s 30th anniversary conference, “Securing Liberty: Rebuilding American Education in an Era of Illiberal Learning.” The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a leading free market think tank, hosted the conference at its Advance Center for Free Enterprise.
“Securing Liberty” featured Hillsdale College historian Paul Rahe as the keynote speaker. Dr. Rahe, the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale, delivered a lecture on "The Declaration of Independence, the First Amendment to the Constitution, and the American University.” He reminded the audience that free speech faces serious threats—not only on college campuses, where students demand the stifling of “offensive” ideas, but also in the U.S. legal system. Rahe cited the Federal Election Commission’s regulations on financial contributions and online personal endorsements as limitations on public advocacy and free speech.
Rahe, the author of numerous books, including the classic Republics Ancient and Modern, also signed copies of his most recent book, The Spartan Regime, released by Yale University Press.
Wilfred McClay, the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, was the luncheon keynote speaker. Dr. McClay recounted the battle with the College Board over its revised AP U.S. History Standards. The new APUSH minimized key American figures such as James Madison and Ben Franklin and concentrated on vague “historical thinking skills” at the expense of historical knowledge. McClay played a leading role, along with numerous historians gathered by NAS, in critiquing the new standards and forcing the College Board to make some changes to the course.
In his luncheon address, McClay noted the loss of a public memory of American history. Not only do schools fail to teach students the heritage of their nation and the events that shaped it, they also fail to emphasize memorization as a discipline. This prompted one attendee, Dr. K. Thomas Noell, to bring up during the question and answer period an analogy between Alzheimer’s disease and our society’s decreasing knowledge of history: “First you lose your memory, then your judgment, and eventually you become dependent on another person.”
A series of panel discussions took a close look at areas of higher education in need of specific reforms. In a panel on civics education, NAS executive director Ashley Thorne and director of communications David Randall surveyed NAS’s latest report, Making Citizens, on the way colleges have turned civics into training for progressive advocacy. Trent England, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, reminded the audience of the warnings from Abraham Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address” against failing to provide proper ideals for America’s youth. Since the founding, those who are ambitious have longed for difficult and glorious tasks, and our challenge is to make preserving the American republic both attractive and noble. Steve Balch, founder of NAS and now director of the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Texas Tech University, informed attendees of the existence of the American History for Freedom Program, which Congress can use to fund campus centers devoted to teaching the history of American liberty.
During the afternoon, NAS president Peter Wood and director of research projects Rachelle Peterson discussed the threats the sustainability movement poses to the neutrality of the university. NAS’s 2015 study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, cataloged the movement’s attempts to turn university curricula into vehicles for training students in a political ideology.
In a session on racial discrimination and the “social justice” movement, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity Roger Clegg and University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot described the shaky legal foundation for race-based preferences in college admissions. Heriot noted that affirmative action can exacerbate racial tensions by admitting ill-qualified students. Clegg also observed that many social inequalities, including in test scores and college readiness, can be more directly attributed to out-of-wedlock birth rates and fractured families, rather than to institutional racism.
Two break-out sessions offered attendees a choice between discussing college common reading assignments and the Department of Education’s increasingly onerous and politicized interpretation of Title IX of the Higher Education Act. Ashley Thorne, David Randall, and Thomas Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation discussed Beach Books, NAS’s annual survey of college common reading assignments. Gail Heriot and Oklahoma Wesleyan University president Everett Piper examined Title IX, which bans discrimination by sex. Heriot has strongly criticized the DOE’s use of Title IX both to force colleges to compromise due process for individuals accused of sexual assault and to require colleges to let “transgender students” use opposite-sex restrooms and locker rooms. Oklahoma Wesleyan University is currently engaged in a lawsuit against the Department of Education over these regulations.
The conference offered NAS members across the country an opportunity to meet each other and discuss the issues higher education faces today. Members came from as far as New York, Florida, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Alaska to attend “Securing Liberty.”
Conference attendees said they welcomed NAS conferences in heartland America and appreciated the information presented during the sessions. James Muller, professor of political science at the University of Alaska, said the conference was “enjoyable and illuminating.” “It was very well done,” commented Aaron Mason, professor of political science at Northwestern Oklahoma University. “Just hold another conference as soon as possible.”