Whatever happens at Dartmouth, we should be grateful for the controversy the debate stimulated. It is not often that arcane disputes about college governance spark heated commentary on the editorial pages of major newspapers and at prominent internet sites. The public instantly grasped that what happened at Dartmouth concerned more than the mechanics of how a board of trustees is to be elected. It concerned the character of liberal arts education at one of America’s premier colleges. If nothing else, the drama unfolding at Dartmouth reminds us how effectively the status quo can be exposed and challenged by a little outside initiative.

We expect that the inauguration of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Clinton, New York will prove to be a similarly tonic enterprise. Readers will recall our enthusiasm—followed quickly by disappointment —when a center named for Alexander Hamilton was first announced and then torpedoed by Hamilton College. The whole sorry episode was yet another example of college administrators capitulating to ideological pressure from a left-leaning, activist faculty. It was not a happy eventuality for Hamilton. Rocked by multiple scandals—from a plagiarizing president to the disaster of Ward Churchill—Hamilton became a national poster-child for academic fatuousness. Probably, we should not have been surprised that the Alexander Hamilton Institute never got off the ground at the college that bears the name of that illustrious Founding Father. After all, it was dedicated (as a press release announcing its opening put it) to programs “focused on American ideals and institutions.” In the academy these days, “American Studies” means “anti-American Studies,” and here was an initiative that (in the words of its original charter) “proceeds under the premise that the reasoned study of Western civilization, its distinctive achievements as well as its distinctive failures, will further the search for truth and provide the ethical basis necessary for civilized life.” What a provocation!

The good news is that, thanks to three dissident Hamilton professors who persevered to create the institute, Hamilton students will be able to enjoy the fruits of this salubrious educational enterprise, even if they have to leave campus for downtown Clinton to do it. Independent trustees at Dartmouth; a new institute operating cheek by jowl with the college that disowned it: these are glad tidings. Among other things, they suggest that academic life is susceptible to genuine renovation. It’s just that the ideas might well have to come from outside the twittering purlieus of established academic opinion.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 2, on page 3
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