’It’s the curriculum stupid’

[Posted 11:44 AM by Emily Ghods]

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of joining The New Criterion’s James Panero and Roger Kimball for a luncheon sponsored by the Center for the American University under the Manhattan Institute. Held at the Harvard Club, the purpose of the luncheon was to discuss ways in which intellectually monochromatic college campuses can achieve intellectual color. The luncheon featured Brown University’s Professor of Political Science, John Tomasi, who has spear-headed an effort at Brown to achieve what he calls “the specter of intellectual pluralism.” (Professor Tomasi wryly noted that “coming from Brown, I can’t help but beginning by quoting Marx”—with these asides, he won his conservative audience instantly).

The Manhattan Institute—through its new VERITAS fund—is establishing a way to support professors who seek to establish intellectual centers of traditional political, philosophical, and economic thought on their campuses. For instance, at Princeton University, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George directs the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and at Brown, Professor Tomasi runs the Political Theory Project—these centers not only organize speakers and debates on campus, but are able to hire highly qualified post-doctorate professors to teach small seminars grounded in Western thought or American civics. Professor Tomasi stressed that permanent intellectual change on college campuses is achieved only through the curriculum, which he calls the “pulse of a college campus.”

Professor Tomasi gives four examples of such courses: Conservative Thought in America, Principles of Classical Liberalism, Liberty, and the Philosophical Basis for the American Founding. He then went on to express his satisfaction that though there are a scarcity of courses, there is a high demand for such courses among undergraduates. His Project’s 18-person seminars are filled to the brim, and often there are waiting lists of students eager to be admitted to these seminars.

In a time when universities are becoming more like corporations in various ways, Professor Tomasi is using a market driven curriculum to his advantage. At Brown, with its open curriculum (you don’t ’major’ at Brown), this means that students can pick whatever courses they like, and they like the courses offered by the Political Theory Project. Aside from its many problems, an open curriculum leaves the education that a student receives completely in the power of that student.

Professor Tomasi’s program wins through “choice.”

Since a Brown student chooses which courses he takes, he is also deciding which courses the college will teach: successful, over-booked courses (such as Tomasi’s own "Introduction to Political Thought") will continue on, while less successful courses will be cut from the curriculum for a variety of pragmatic reasons. This is good news for Professor Tomasi and the CAU, given the success of Professor Tomasi’s program.

Professor Tomasi explains his success in terms of eating soup: often, on a campus as fervently liberal as Brown, Professor Tomasi is forced to listen to and endure the most absurd drivel while he quietly and passively looks down at his bowl and “eats his soup.” He is not a bomb thrower. After his talk, he explained to me the driving force behind his Zen-like approach: “We just want to win—-we just want to win.” He understands that to affect change from within, especially at Brown, patience and harmony are the only paths to victory. Contention and controversy would simply detach him and his program from the faculty and administration. For this reason, the post-docs and speakers that he brings to Brown express opinions that run the gamut of intellectual thought. His program hosts ’debates’ rather than monolectures on conservative principles. His courses on political and economic thought teach Marx but also teach Hayek. Some Hayek is better than no Hayek at all, and therein lies the success of Tomasi’s PTP.