The Project for the Study of Liberal Democracy aims to unite the purposes of liberal education and civic education by fostering teaching and research on American ideas and institutions and their sources in the tradition of Western political thought and practice.
The erosion of confidence in our civic institutions and the disengagement of citizens from political life have been amply documented by observers inside and outside the academy. The Project intends to model the way higher education can contribute to the restoration of citizenship, principally by restoring the careful study of America’s political principles to a central place in the college curriculum. Because we are a nation founded on a set of ideas rather than on claims of religion or ethnicity, our civic health depends crucially on education in those ideas, their philosophical sources, their historical background and, not least, the continuing theoretical and practical struggles to define, revise or even reject them.
The Project is guided by the assumption that the first task in preparing the next generation of leaders is to equip them with a thorough understanding of the moral foundations of a free society and the challenges facing a liberal democracy. Toward this end, the Project will encourage teaching and research on such perennial issues as the competing claims of liberty and equality, consent and authority, the public and the private good, and policymaking within a constitutional order. The Project is housed in the Department of Political Science, but it encourages collaboration among faculty in disciplines like economics, history and philosophy who have overlapping teaching and research interests relevant to the Project’s mission. The Project will thus promote interdisciplinary teaching and research and encourage dialogue from a variety of normative and methodological perspectives. Our goal is to cultivate a community of scholars and teachers who will be committed to a challenging and important intellectual endeavor.
Part of the Rhodes mission is to prepare its graduates for “effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.” The Project will contribute to that mission in two principal ways: first, by having students critically examine important works addressing the moral, political, economic, and philosophical principles that support a free society; and second, by familiarizing them with the history and philosophy of the American founding and the distinctive American traditions of politics, economics and law. Liberal education aims at preparing for a life of intellectual and practical freedom, but in the typical college curriculum, a focus on freedom is curiously absent. Who or what is the free individual? Is the essence of freedom self-mastery or the absence of constraints? How may free individuals associate and retain their freedom in a common social order? Are individual and social liberty at odds? What responsibilities do we have to one another? What is the character of leadership and authority in a society of free and equal citizens? While a liberal education has always had such questions at its core, the contemporary curriculum tends to scatter rather than focus students’ attention on the principles and practices of the very life for which they are being prepared. The Project thus proposes to “recollect” what has always been implicit in a liberal education but which has become dispersed by the tendencies of a decentralized educational structure.
In sum, the Project for the Study of Liberal Democracy will promote curricular and co-curricular activities that critically examine the philosophy, institutions and experience of American democracy in order to:
- Cultivate a better understanding of the principled foundations of a free society through study of the classics of political philosophy that promote constitutional order as well as those that reject it.
- Study the historical conditions of the American founding and the challenges to which constitutional government has been subjected in American political history.
- Connect the philosophy and practice of constitutionalism to the significant policy disputes of the day.
- Encourage Rhodes students to unite their liberal arts education to their ambitions for leadership in the private and public sectors after graduation.
The Project for the Study of Liberal Democracy was established with the generous support of Mr. J. Bayard Boyle Jr., Chairman of Boyle Investments, and a former Rhodes trustee.