Toward Curricular Change in the Academy

This paper was prepared for yesterday’s conference on “Capitalism on Campus: What Are Students Learning? What Should They Know?” The one-day event in New York City was sponsored by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University. Charlotte Allen, who writes frequently (and exceptionally well) for Minding the Campus, is preparing a report for us on the meeting. In addition to Dr. Butos, the conference featured Daniel Klein, professor of economics at George Mason; Jeffrey A. Miron, professor of economics and director of undergraduate studies at Harvard; Ryan Patrick Hanley, professor of political science at Marquette; Jerry Muller, professor of history at Catholic University; and Sandra Peart, dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. Howard Husock, vice president of the Manhattan Institute, served as moderator, and the luncheon speaker was Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.


For all the hand-wringing about “diversity” by the professoriate and college administrators, one of the more striking features about the academy is the absence of intellectual diversity among instructional faculty, especially in the social sciences and humanities. For example, according to a study by Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern, only a small minority of the economists surveyed (about 11%) could be considered “supporters” and “strong supporters” of policies associated with free-market principles. Using data from the North American Academic Study Survey of 1999, Stanley Rothman and his co-authors found that 72% of those surveyed considered themselves “left/liberal” while only 15% “right/conservative.” Those categories reported in a 1984 study by the Carnegie Foundation were 39% and 34%, respectively, suggesting a strong swing to the left among college faculties since the 1980s.

Of the nearly 18.5 million students enrolled in institutions of higher
learning in 2007, about 60% (10.9 million) attend institutions offering
baccalaureate, masters, and doctoral degrees. The number of bachelor
degrees earned in 2007 was about 1.5 million, with about 164,000 degrees
awarded in the social sciences and history.


Together with the results provided by Klein & Stern and Rothman, it is possible to use the above data to get a rough sense of the number of students in the social sciences (including business), philosophy, and history likely affected by the ideological stance of faculty. This can be examined with respect to principles of economics courses. For 2007, let’s assume that all business and economics students in the table above took principles of economics in college, while only 50% of the students majoring in Philosophy, History, Political Science, and all other social science did likewise. Extrapolating from Klein and Stern’s results, there was about an 11% chance that these students, numbering about 428,000, would have taken a course in the principles of economics taught by a free-market-oriented economist. These back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the vast majority of students who take a principles of economics course had instructors whose economic policy views were generally center and center-left.

How this affects students is another matter. Evidence on the effect of economics instruction on college students’ knowledge suggests that college tends to improve economics knowledge, although Zelijka Buturovic and Daniel Klein found that the magnitude of the effect is probably small. Kevin Lounds’ results, based on nearly 500 respondents randomly selected from the U.S. Census Bureau’s “American Community Study” survey, indicate that non-college young adults and college students have roughly similar political orientations with 43.7% and 49.1% describing themselves, respectively, as “liberal” and “leaning liberal” and 33.6 % and 32.9% as “leaning conservative” and “conservative,” while 20.7% and 18% are “moderate.” On the question of economic ideology, 36.1% of non-college and 37.5% of college respondents saw themselves as “liberal” and “leaning liberal” while for those two groups, 37.3% and 41.5% saw themselves, respectively, as “leaning conservative” and “conservative.” The figures for “moderates” were 26.7% in the non-college group and 21% for college students.

Another study this year by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, “Survey on Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service,” found that 38% self-identify themselves as “liberal” or “leaning liberal,” 27% as “moderate” and 35% as “conservative” or “leaning conservative.” According to the Survey, for college students these percentages are, respectively, 46%, 21%, and 33%.

The broad inferences that can be drawn from these studies may be summarized as follows:

– College faculty are strongly liberal, although less so in economics than other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities

– College students are generally liberal, although at least 1/3 or more consider themselves conservative

In short, while faculty is liberal, students are relatively more classical liberal or conservative. This suggests that a significant number of such college students, unlike their liberal counterparts, are likely to be underserved in terms of the availability of courses in the social sciences and humanities more in line with their political and economic ideology. Even if college tends not to have a strong impact on students’ economic (and possibly) political ideology, this disparity actually reflects an opportunity for supplying knowledge to these students that they otherwise might not receive.

A Strong Resurgence is Underway

There is, however, much good news here. During the past several decades, a case could be made that the quantity and quality of scholarly work in the classical liberal tradition reflects a strong resurgence, rediscovery, and extension of that tradition. The scholarly work in economics by Mises, Hayek, Buchanan, Friedman, Kirzner, and so many others has nourished two generations of contemporary economists and produced many outstanding economists. Unfortunately, however, the impact of this resurgence has either not yet been fully realized in college curricula or even if it has, more can and should be done to level the collegiate playing field.

The empirical evidence suggests an unsatisfied demand of students for instruction in classical liberalism. On the other hand, there are college instructors receptive (and eager) to satisfy that demand, which suggests to me an exploitable opportunity may be available for generating a more widespread exposure of classical liberal ideas at the college level. Especially given the current ideological and policy embrace of big government in Washington, grasping this opportunity is important, feasible, and even urgent.

Even if we suppose that a substantial number of students go off to college echoing vaguely free market or libertarian sentiments, they quickly discover that many of the faculty they encounter are likely to embrace quite different economic, political, and philosophical positions, a difference most noticeable in the social sciences and the humanities, but now also evident in the hard sciences with the increasing policy-orientation of climatologists. In many instances, these students who would be disposed toward or even curious about classical liberal ideas often have little or no opportunity to take courses that would extend or strengthen their knowledge. The mind-numbing reality of current policies from the Administration and Congress is by itself sufficiently alarming to warrant a renewed effort to provide curricular diversity to young minds.

Among the several ways this objective might be met, I suggest one is to promote First-Year Seminars as a way to expose eager freshmen to classical liberal ideas. At many small liberal arts colleges, students are required to take a First-Year Seminar in their first semester of college. These seminars are meant to be writing intensive, multi-disciplinary, and geared toward opening up intellectual vistas for bright young minds.

Put the Focus on First-Year Seminars

I believe that students should have the opportunity to read and discuss the foundational ideas and policy implications of classical liberalism, and First-Year Seminars seem an ideal place for this to happen. A multidisciplinary seminar principally geared toward a critical analysis of the history and expression of classical liberal thought from the Enlightenment to the present day provides one possible general model. And it is not difficult to imagine such seminars creatively organized around, for example, the venerable trilogy of “Politics, Philosophy, and Economics” or perhaps “Fiction, Art, and Film and Political Philosophy.” The possibilities are extensive, as the classical liberal tradition lends itself to a rich array of themes and disciplines beyond my aforementioned examples. Such First-Year Seminars could provide students with an integrated, coherent, and powerful array of ideas taught by scholars from disciplines across the curriculum.

One of the advantages of First-Year Seminars is they expose students to these ideas early in their college careers. Through the focus and content of this sort of intellectual foundation, students will be able to continue their own education if they are so disposed and would at least have the tools to critically evaluate the sorts of anti-classical liberal ideas they are certain to encounter as they move through college. While many of the ideas in such an approach could be, and in many instances are, provided in standard economics principles, political theory and history courses, I believe a more systematic and integrated course is especially useful for students during their first-year in college, provided it is not meant to persuade or recruit students, but to expose a broader segment of the student population to great ideas.

For those students who wish to delve more deeply into classical liberal ideas, it is important for faculty to offer them guidance and assistance during their college years. Sometimes these students will seek out faculty, but I think it is essential that faculty take the initiative here.

What might that entail? Well, the options here are as open as the creativity of faculty. By way of example the formation of extra-curricular reading and study groups has worked well for me, as has my supervising (for credit) Internships and Independent Study courses. What is important in these kinds of endeavors is not only to reinforce the intellectual purpose of college, but also to direct serious and committed students to the array of external institutions, think tanks, and foundations that promote classical liberal scholarship and offer educational services, including opportunities for advanced academic work. Mention should also be made of the educational institutions that have programs or faculty supporting free-market economics at the graduate level, such as George Mason University, New York University, University of Chicago, Florida State University, West Virginia University, and numerous undergraduate institutions (e.g., Hillsdale College, Grove City College) plus think tanks, institutes, and foundations such as Atlas Foundation, Cato, Earhart Foundation, FEE, Hoover institute, Heritage Foundation, Institute of Humane Studies, Manhattan Institute, Mises Institute and others.

My experience suggests that students interested in classical liberalism often feel alienated from the intellectual life of the college. This should not surprise us. At the same time, however, even with committing resources on a small scale, it is not difficult to show students that they can access and become part of a very large community of students, professors, and other classical liberals.

Given the economic and financial events since 2007, the direction and pace of change has been alarming. It is apparent that we are immersed in a clash of ideas, the outcome of which will figure prominently in the years ahead. Slowing or even reversing this trend requires an educational focus for exposing students, now and for the years ahead, to ideas centering on free markets, private property, sand limited government that have been developed over the past 250 years. It is questionable whether there is one overarching way to do all of this; rather, decentralized, targeted, and incremental changes in college curricula is best suited for the discovery process necessary for long-run effectiveness.

William N. Butos is a professor of economics at Trinity College, Hartford, CT.

One thought on “Toward Curricular Change in the Academy”

  1. I would like to congratulate Professor Butos for his insightful article. Although my own campus, Hamilton College, is not a particularly hospitable place for a core curriculum with foundational courses in anything, I can tell you that undergraduates hunger for a greater understanding of economics and the history of Western Civilization.
    Thanks to a grant from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, my Alexander Hamilton Institute has initiated two undergraduate clusters, one at the AHI and one at the University of Rochester,to study intensively the works of Friedrich Hayek. Next year we hope to do Joseph Schumpeter on the meaning of entrepreneurship.
    When we announced the creation of the groups, we had more applicants than seats. These students do not receive academic credit for their participation in the AHI’s groups, but the hunger to learn free market economics and engage the thoughts of great thinkers is clearly there.
    As a visiting official from the Koch Foundation noted after observing both groups last week, “[I]t?s great to see the students really taking advantage of that opportunity.”

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