Many years ago, as an undergraduate student at Fort Hays State University in my hometown of Hays, Kansas, meeting Paul Basinski—who was first my professor, later my advisor, and eventually a friend—was, for me, a life-changing event. Before meeting him, I was heading down one path. After, that path was no longer an option. I had to pursue a new kind of learning that I had just discovered by way of Basinski and had come to love. And I knew it.
Like most American university students, when I first enrolled I thought school was simply a place to acquire some kind of technical training or skill that would help me land a job, and not much more. But as Professor Basinski introduced me to the great books and the great minds of the Western philosophic tradition, I began to understand something of the higher purposes of higher education. I started to glimpse the intellectually rich world of genuine liberal education, and the politics of freedom upon which it depends, and to which it contributes—or ought to contribute. In short,
Basinski introduced me to a world I did not know existed before I met him: the world of ideas.
What most attracted me to the headiness of liberal education was the fact, hitherto unknown by me, that the most serious and famous minds were engaged in a debate, stretching across time and space, about the most fundamental human questions. What is the true, the good, the beautiful? What is the right way to live? What is the end or telos of our short time on Earth as free, conscious, reasoning and self-aware beings? I simply had never before known that great thinkers tackled such weighty questions head on, challenging each other, testing one another, each adding to or subtracting from or otherwise altering the answers that had been offered by those who had gone before.
More, and more importantly, I quickly learned that I too—just a kid from a small Kansas town who grew up wrenching on cars in his dad’s gas station—could participate in that debate. I could jump right in and read the great books, learn the thoughts of the great minds, see how the debates had proceeded over millennia, and eventually come to offer my own contributions by thinking my own thoughts more clearly.
And that perhaps is one of the most beautiful aspects of liberal education: When contemplating the great books and great minds, whether one agrees or disagrees, one starts to see the world from a higher vantage. Genuine liberal education elevates our view by seeing through the eyes and thinking along with those who spent their lives reflecting upon the fundamental questions of human life, some of whom changed the world and altered history in the process.
So I finished my undergraduate studies with two degrees, one in political science and another in communications, with no idea what I wanted to do except to continue my studies with serious thinkers who read serious books with care and attention. Basinski, who was by then my advisor, explained graduate school to me. I was only the second person in my whole extended family to finish college, and no one had ever gone on to any kind of graduate studies. This was new terrain for me. More, he pointed me toward a place in southern California, Claremont, where one could find the greatest living defender of classical natural right, Harry Jaffa. It would be like studying with Socrates, Basinski told me. And boy was he right.
I took Basinski’s advice, applied and was accept to the Claremont Graduate University, packed my things and headed for California. I arrived in Claremont in the summer of 1994 and started my graduate courses shortly after, with no idea what was to come, how I would pay for it, or even how I would live. I just knew that I wanted to study.
During the first semester, I was looking for a way to meet Professor Jaffa, who was already up in years and mostly retired from full-time teaching. Then I saw a flyer about a conference at the University of Southern California Law School that featured Jaffa as one of the speakers. But the conference also included a fee of $100, which to me at that time, as a poor grad student, seemed like a mountain of money. Thankfully, my parents loaned the money to me and I registered for the conference.
When I walked in, I was surprised to see many of my graduate classmates. When they learned that I paid to attend, they all had a good laugh at my expense. I felt a little silly. See, I did not know how the world of academic conferences worked—I did not know that students routinely attended such things free of charge. Still, it gave me the opportunity I had been looking for to meet Professor Jaffa. I introduced myself and immediately set out to argue with him, which he greatly appreciated.
Later, when he learned that I had paid for the conference, he reimbursed the fee I had paid. More importantly, we quickly developed a deep bond as teacher and student. He proposed an independent readings course with him, which I happily accepted. And we proceeded to dive into Plato, Aristotle, Locke, the American Founders, Lincoln, and others.
It was the beginning of the greatest educational experience of my life.
But there was a rub: I had no resources to continue my education. I had no idea how I would continue to pay graduate tuition. As Professor Jaffa watched my study habits, read my graduate essays, checked on my grades as I advanced through my classes, he called one evening to discuss my finances. In that conversation, he offered to me the entire H.B. Earhart Graduate Fellowship that he controlled. I had no idea such a thing existed, and it saved my graduate career. It changed my life.
The Earhart Foundation, it turned out, had chosen Professor Jaffa as one of their Earhart Graduate Faculty to whom they provided a fully funded graduate fellowship that paid tuition as well as a small stipend to help a student with living expenses. And Professor Jaffa, in turn, had nominated me to be his designated Earhart fellow student.
It would have been impossible to continue my graduate studies without the Earhart fellowship. But with it, I finished my classes, scored high on my comprehensive exams, and went on to write a dissertation for my PhD, which was later published in book form after being successfully defended.
There is no way I can fully repay the fellowship help that Professor Jaffa offered to me, which was funded by the Earhart Graduate Fellowship Program. But I have tried to make it right, and I continue to try. I taught at Claremont McKenna College, and later at schools including Hillsdale College, Ashland University, and George Mason University, sharing with students the world of learning I had experienced under the tutelage of Professor Jaffa and the rest of the world-class graduate faculty in Claremont.
Now, I am looking to offer the same kind of assistance I received as a graduate student to graduate students of the future, especially those who are freedom-friendly and interested in teaching the ideas of freedom to others, who will go on to become future faculty in America’s colleges and universities. The Earhart Foundation, after decades of noble service and strategic philanthropy, is closing its doors. In its years of operation, it has left an unmistakable mark for freedom within the realm of higher education. Among the students who received funding from Earhart to complete their graduate studies and carry on their research into the principles of freedom are people like:
- Friedrich Hayek
- Milton Friedman
- Thomas Sowell
- Gary Becker
- James Buchanan
- Vernon Smith
- Edwin Feulner
I created FreedomTrust because the Earhart Graduate Fellowship Program is ceasing operations in the near future. It is my hope that FreedomTrust will carry on the good work that Earhart has done, and make it bigger and even more influential.
For those who share our concern for the state of higher education in America, and the dearth of freedom-oriented education in the social sciences, humanities, and other disciplines, join us at FreedomTrust. With adequate capital, we will replicate and expand the excellent program launched many years ago by Harry Earhart.
We have done the preliminary legwork: we have lists of freedom-friendly graduate faculty across the country, in nearly every academic discipline. While they are typically tiny minorities without much influence at their home institution, there are more of them than you might think. We will partner with them, and in the spirit of a genuine FreedomTrust, we will rely on them to identify and nominate their best freedom-centered graduate students for a FreedomTrust Graduate Fellowship. Further, we will develop an extensive network of FreedomTrust faculty and FreedomTrust graduate students right within the halls of higher education, who can offer mentorship for budding PhDs as well as opening doors for teaching job prospects.
The universe of higher education in America is too big and too well-insulated to change overnight. But that doesn’t mean it is a lost cause. That is why we continue Earhart’s fight, and we ask you to join us.
Together, we can support and help to create an entire new generation of freedom-friendly academics—university faculty who will teach our future teachers, future politicians, future business leaders, and many others who will shape the opinions of future Americans.
If this kid from small-town Kansas could go earn a PhD and master the study and teaching of freedom, so can many others. Earhart made that possible for me, and for many of the most notable freedom educators the modern world has ever known. Now it’s our turn. Through FreedomTrust, let’s give young students concerned with freedom the opportunity to reclaim in American the freedom that is rightfully ours.