Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Understanding the Founders College Vision

I'm back at Founders College again. Obviously for both Ed Cline and myself, this new vision for higher education has captured our attention. As I said before, the campus is stunning-a fitting home for the pursuits envisioned. Here's a photo I took of a walk I was able to enjoy last night though the horse pastures.

During my walk, I noticed something that I had missed the first time I visited the campus. A few short steps from the Berry Hill mansion at Founders College lies the Bruce family cemetery. There, Mrs. Betty Bruce Williams (1878-1943) rests with the following epitaph inscribed upon her headstone:

"She has lived with a heart and soul alive for all that makes life beautiful."
I was struck by how this remembrance intended to encapsulate the meaning of Mrs. Williams' life comes admirably close to capturing the vision of this newly launched college. At Founders, Dr. Gary Hull and Tamara Fuller propose to create a multi-faceted institution dedicated to helping people come to know themselves and the world around them. I find myself utterly inspired by their vision-based upon what I have seen thus far, I believe them to be armed with both ideas and passion necessary to make this vision real.

I'm also struck by the controversy surrounding this endeavor, especially among some Objectivists, whom one would expect would be enthusiastic supporters of the college. It's inevitable that any new project be subject to some amount of scrutiny, particularly when it is as ambitious as this one, so as I've come to understand the ideas behind Founders, I think it would be helpful to examine some of the lingering doubts that I've seen raised over the past months.

Foremost is the idea that since Founders is not an explicit Objectivist institution, it is guilty of being a step away from goodness, or is somehow ashamed of the role Ayn Rand's philosophy played in shaping the thinking of its principals (and its ultimate educational strategy). I admit that I wondered about this issue myself, thinking that perhaps the school simply didn't believe that "the time was right" for an avowed Objectivist institution.

The reality of the situation is much different and it reflects the distinction between an institution with mandate to teach vs. an institution with a mandate to advocate. For example, the Ayn Rand Institute is an advocacy organization; it seeks to present the philosophy of Objectivism to the public and train new intellectuals who will aid the institute is expanding its outreach. ARI's more advanced programs teach individuals who are already committed to Objectivism the history of philosophy and other arts. While this instruction clearly benefits students in a host of life applications, the ultimate aim of this program is to produce scholars who will apply Objectivism to their scholarship and teaching (and thus grow our numbers). This end goal clearly shapes ARI's advocacy, from who underwrites its cost, to who is admitted into its training programs as a student.

In contrast, the goal of an educational institution is to provide a broad base of customers with the training they need to lead successful and productive lives. An institution like Founders College takes the unschooled (and that's putting it politely, given much of the rot infecting education today) and it educates them-many for the first time in a formal setting. And while it's easy to see the critical impact Objectivism has played in shaping the Founders College curriculum (please go to Founders' website and review its curriculum for yourself), it is improper to think of Founders as the equivalent of a bible college.

Ultimately, when it comes to making the integrations about what philosophy its students will use to guide them in life, students must be responsible for making their own choices. I believe Founders will give its students the skills and knowledge necessary to make an informed choice; in fact, I doubt that there is another college in existence that will do more for its students in this regard, but these students will have to make good on the very purpose of their education, which is to think properly and confidently. In my opinion, this is exactly what an education should be.

In any case, as I understand it, Founders will offer a minor in Objectivism. I challenge Founder's critics to name me any other college program in the world that offers such a program and explain to me why this program remains a secret.

Another controversy that I don't quite understand now that I've had a chance to see the college and review its program for myself is over just what assets Gary Hull brings to the table with the Founders' launch. The thinking that I saw argued that since Founders is not explicitly an Objectivist college and Hull is an Objectivist philosophy professor, the value of his contribution is somehow lessened.

With the benefit of a broader understanding, I say that this argument falls into a rationalistic trap by undervaluing Hull's real genius, which is his understanding of the philosophy of education and his groundbreaking practical application of his knowledge to the classroom. Hull's creation of an integrated and conceptual-based curriculum for higher education is revolutionary. His commitment to coach his professors, enhance their teaching talents and then hold them strictly accountable for how they perform in the classroom is pioneering. When I look at his handiwork and talk to people he has already coached, all I can see is evidence of a top-level Objectivist at his absolute best. I think it's high time Hull got some credit for it.

The last concern that I've seen is a minor one, but one that I've nevertheless seen repeated several times. Some are not quite sure how Founders is being financed, speculating that there is some behind the scene mystery donor funding the project. From what I have learned, there is no such financier, but instead a three-pronged business plan that Tamara Fuller, the business visionary behind the project has been able to successfully present to normal commercial lenders. In addition to its educational mission, Founders will continue to use the Berry Hill property as a world-class resort/conference center, as well as develop parts of the outlying estate for residential living. The appeal of this plan is that it allows each branch of Founders' business triad to grow while contributing to the strength of the whole, and places the business in the position of being able to capitalize on the economic benefits it creates. It's a simple and straightforward plan, but obviously sexy when it comes to capitalizing upon the benefits. My eyes often glaze over when I hear business pitches, but with this one, I have to admit-I'm impressed.

My view is now that Founders is out of the gate, its vision is clear and its methodology sound, Objectivists should be outspoken in their support of its mission. Right now, Founders needs (and in my view, deserves) boosters. If Founders fails, it will be only because potential students did not hear about it and not because its educational vision was flawed. And since my own thinking and misgivings have been answered by getting the facts straight from the source, I encourage those who continue to have their own misgivings to take their questions directly to those in charge. Founders College offers the education that I wish I had had when I was 18-and I think the others will feel the same way once they come to fully understand Founders' vision.