Political Science Program Recognized for Backing the Free Exchange of Ideas
Thursday, Apr. 06, 2017
Have we reached a point in the United States where the free exchange of ideas is no longer welcome at our universities?
Where a once-standard understanding of the “liberal arts” as the great ideas of Western civilization has been altered by newcomers like gender and environmental studies?
If we are indeed nearing that junction, one program in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University is applying the brakes.
The Center for the Study of American Constitutionalism seeks to promote debate on the definition of liberty, limited government and free markets, according to its co-founder Anthony Peacock, professor and department head of Political Science.
And for that effort, the center has earned national recognition from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization that in its own words seeks to “safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus” and foster “high academic standards.”
The ACTA has named the Center for the Study of American Constitutionalism as an “Oasis of Excellence,” joining a roster of institutes such as Columbia University’s Center on Law and Liberty, the Georgetown (University) Institute for the study of Markets and Ethics and the Center for Liberal Arts and Free Institutions at University of California, Los Angeles.
Peacock attributed the recognition to a “concern among many educators” that students need more exposure to American history, Western civilization, political theory and the Great Books.
The Center for the Study of American Constitutionalism was founded in 2008 by Peacock and associate professor Peter McNamara to do just that. Its most recent undertaking was last week’s successful Hamilton-versus-Jefferson debate that saw 17 students from five majors take on the issues that invigorated and divided America’s founders.
In our current divisive political climate, said Peacock, such buzzwords as the common good, liberty and capitalism are often engulfed in partisan rhetoric.
“That’s one of the reasons we created the center — to defend these ideas,” said Peacock.
The center, he adds, “is an attempt to introduce and maintain freedom of ideas that a lot of people don’t believe exists on university campuses.” This issue itself has made headlines with, for instance, the March 2017 protests at Middlebury College in Connecticut.
The violent student protests of guest speaker Charles Murray, a conservative scholar and author of the controversial book The Bell Curve, “indicate a high level of intolerance toward what they consider to be political incorrectness,” said Peacock.
“There are certain questions you can’t even ask anymore, let alone try to answer because of the bullying type of environment that has been created on university campuses by political correctness and other movements,” he said. “And that’s a very dangerous thing academically. I think we have to be very concerned about it.”
If such free exchange of ideas does not occur in higher education, said Peacock, “where is it ever going to happen? The whole point of a university education is to challenge the opinions students have.”
McNamara, who has taught in USU’s Political Science Department since 1991, has accepted a position beginning in fall 2017 to help establish the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, a new interdisciplinary effort at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Peacock himself is an expert on The Federalist Papers, part of the triumvirate of American founding documents along with the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. His most recent book, How to Read the Federalist Papers, was released in 2010 at the height of the Tea Party movement and the belief, he said, “that the country had moved away from the founders’ principles.”
Since the book’s publication as part of the Heritage Foundation’s First Principle Series, Peacock has lectured widely. If the Declaration of Independence sets out the principles that cement America’s founding and the Constitution defines those principles, then the Federalist “is the most cogent of the Constitution ever written,” said Peacock.
The 85 essays by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and other founders “are the authoritative interpretation of the original document,” Peacock said. He proposes in “How to Read the Federalist Papers,” which he describes as a “road map” to its major issues, “that the way you need to interpret The Federalist is that the writers are acting like lawyers who have been hired by a client, namely the Constitution, to defend it as best they can.”
Writer and contact: Janelle Hyatt, 435-797-0289, Janelle.Hyatt@usu.edu