Investing in the Ideas of Liberty: Reflections on the Philanthropic Enterprise in Higher Education

By Ealy, Lenore T. | Independent Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Investing in the Ideas of Liberty: Reflections on the Philanthropic Enterprise in Higher Education


Ealy, Lenore T., Independent Review


We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.... Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark.

F. A. Hayek, "The Intellectuals and Socialism"

During the past twenty years, fueled by a growing sense of crisis about the deterioration and politicization of university curricula, many donors inspired to renew the philosophic foundations of a free society have focused their philanthropy on efforts to encourage reform at colleges and universities across the nation. Donors have supported individual scholars, funded research, supported student organizations, encouraged specific curricular offerings, and established academic centers on campus in an effort to ensure that classical-liberal ideas--which encompass a commitment to the best traditions of a liberal arts education--are not lost.

These efforts have met with greater and lesser success (and more or less entrenched resistance), contingent on numerous factors, including the stature and quality of the personnel involved, the political climate at each campus, the strategic clarity with which money has been invested, and the extent to which universities have respected donor intent. With significant philanthropic funding targeting higher-education reform of some kind, it is pertinent to ask whether and how private giving to today's institutions of higher education can strategically align with the task of rejuvenating the free society's philosophic foundations.

Classical liberalism largely underwent a rebirth as an intellectual movement in America in the mid-twentieth century in part as a reaction against the expansion of government power under the Progressives by a motley alliance that became known as the Old Right and in part as a consequence of geopolitical turmoil that brought firsthand understanding of the threats of various forms of totalitarianism to bear on the American mind. During the interwar and post-World War II period, European and Russian exiles, including Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, and others, became U.S. residents and had a significant impact on American political and economic thought. The publication successes of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Rand's The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were important milestones in the revival and popularization of classical liberalism at midcentury. Out of the spreading concern for the fate of liberty in the post-New Deal and Cold War world emerged a group of businessmen who organized their philanthropy to support the intellectual foundations of the classical-liberal movement. Thus classical-liberal philanthropy was born.

We may define classical-liberal philanthropy as the philanthropy that seeks to understand, restate, and amplify the philosophic foundations of a free society and to ground social institutions (including traditional charitable activities) on these philosophic principles. Hayek's seminal essay "The Intellectuals and Socialism" (1949) was a guiding light for many of the early classical-liberal donors. The essay was foremost a reflection on the production and diffusion of ideas. Hayek focused attention on two groups of people: the scholars who define the philosophical foundations and the intellectuals by whose efforts ideas spread. He brought much-needed attention to the role of intellectuals: "It is the intellectuals ... who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented. Whether we shall ever learn of the results of the work of the expert and the original thinker depends mainly on their decision" ([1949] 1997, 223). In Hayek's account, the free society needed crucial support in two areas: support for those investigating, restating, and amplifying its ideals and support for the effort to convert the intellectuals from a belief in the principles of socialism to a belief in these ideals, which explicitly repudiated the possibility of an "all-comprehensive system of values" ([1944] 1956, 155). …

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