Economics, academics & liberty

(Denver Post, Mar. 1) One thing will get Colorado out of this recession, and it’s not big government. It is the human spirit. All economic growth is the improvement of material resources by creativity and work. Silicon, ignored for eons as beach sand, became microchips humming with intelligence. Petroleum was worthless tar seeps before men made it black gold. Our state was labeled “the Great American Desert” on early maps. People transformed it into the place of opportunity and productivity we now enjoy. Wealth multiplies when men and women combine the intellectual capital for producing goods and services with the moral capital for honest dealing and deferred gratification. Americans have always known this. “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,” says the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Constitution hadn’t been written, and we had barely crossed the Appalachians. But the founders put first things first.

Even today, sophisticated and stimulus-dependent as the nation has become, we sense that the truth from Washington’s time is still true: Moral and intellectual capital will make or break the American dream. Hence our endless arguments about education.

From preschool to grad school, Coloradans can’t get enough of the classroom – and can’t agree on what it’s for. That’s a good thing on both counts. The push to improve ourselves, improve everyone and leave no one behind, is laudable. The contention over education’s meaning expresses liberty in all its messy glory.

So it’s okay that the University of Denver will host a debate on Monday between Prof. Alan Gilbert and state Sen. Shawn Mitchell on trying former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as a war criminal. And that CU-Boulder on Thursday will allow back on campus the disgraced plagiarist Ward Churchill and the unrepentant domestic terrorist Bill Ayers.

I abhor the anti-American falsehoods that will echo at both forums. But this petty childishness is a small price for free speech and unfettered dissent. It was even a “good” if distasteful thing when a Metro State professor could smear Sarah Palin, or when a terror apologist could address the 9/11 commemoration at Colorado College.

Such unruly eruptions in the thought-life of a free society are tolerable on one condition – competitiveness in the education marketplace. As long as students have alternatives, outrageous utterances by academic malcontents hurt no one. In fair combat amongst the campuses, Jefferson’s assurance was right: lies won’t stand.

This is where it gets dicey for Coloradans. In March 2004, concerns over professorial mistreatment of conservative and religious students yielded written assurances to legislators by the presidents of CU, CSU, UNC, and Metro for better protection of academic freedom. But little has changed.

Fortunately, competition in higher ed isn’t limited to the old-line public and private colleges. Other choices include for-profit upstarts like Colorado Tech or the University of Phoenix, as well as faith-based options like Regis and Colorado Christian University. Both of the latter uphold a 1787 understanding of education’s moral and religious benefits.

CCU, where I now work, is proudly counter-cultural. One of its objectives, in addition to academic excellence, is “to impact our culture in support of traditional family values, sanctity of life, compassion for the poor, biblical view of human nature, limited government, personal freedom, free markets, natural law, original intent of the Constitution, and Western civilization.” Heretical, perhaps, but healthy.

CCU President Bill Armstrong, a former US senator, instead of railing at the Boulder leftists, politely counters by bringing to his Lakewood campus such eminent conservative speakers as Michael Novak on democratic capitalism and Thomas Krannawitter on America’s greatness. Take that, Bill Ayers.

All hail the open mind and the unregulated marketplace of ideas. A rebounding economy is sure to follow.