Association for the Study of Free Institutions


Born in antiquity, nurtured in the creative anarchy of the Middle Ages, and brought to maturity through long political struggle in Europe and the Americas, free institutions have now blossomed worldwide, to be increasingly enriched by the contributions of many peoples and cultures. It can now be truly said that they provide the foundation for an emerging global civilization - the very first in the history of our species - liberating human talent and energy to an unparalleled degree.

But the institutions of freedom also face fierce and continuing opposition from forces that would curtail liberty, deny tolerance, and suppress reasoned discourse. Indeed, freedom's enemies have lately born witness to the awful lengths they will to go to smash the confidence of the free, reminding us that each generation must vindicate afresh the liberties bequeathed it by its forbears. Yet freedom cannot be effectively defended unless it is adequately understood, and such understanding demands determined educational effort. Free institutions have not been the human norm, and in the absence of a serious effort to transmit the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind on which they depend, they are likely to prove ephemeral.

There are few subjects of study more integrally related to the mission of liberal education than the nature, history, basis, and prospects of free institutions. Indeed, in its classic conception liberal education is literarily a preparation for freedom, designed to cultivate the frame of mind and fund of learning upon which citizens must draw in making well-reasoned public and private choices.

As an academic subject the study of free institutions includes more than an examination of the constitutional, political, and economic arrangements that allow people to control their own lives. It also encompasses an exploration of the ideas, cultural values, and social and psychological structures that underpin these arrangements. And it is certainly not uncritical. Freedom has its costs as well as benefits, and there are a wide range of views about the worth of its specific instantiations, and the trade offs that accompany its exercise. Moreover, even the most unqualified intellectual opponents of freedom have things of real value to teach us.

Free institutions, and the ideals and practices to which they give rise, are, of course, currently objects of research and teaching in many academic departments and courses. A large number of individual scholars in political science, history, law, economics, philosophy, and other fields already have a keen interest in them. But there are very few venues on our campuses through which teaching and research about free institutions is coordinated and concentrated across interdisciplinary lines. This represents a serious gap in the organizational chart of academe, especially when so many subjects of a narrower nature have numerous and well-funded campus anchorages. It is certainly appropriate that our colleges and universities afford sites where the particularities of human experience can be explored. But there should also be institutional representation for programs concerned with matters of common interest and aspiration, such as the desire to live a life of freedom. The development of programs dealing with freedom will also add an important new dimension of intellectual diversity to the campuses of their host institutions.

The movement to create and multiply "freedom studies" programs has several specific objectives. It seeks to encourage and support faculty members and administrators who wish to establish new programs by putting them into communication with one another. It aims to provide them with information about model programs and to sponsor fora within which the challenges and opportunities involved in developing programs on free institutions can be discussed. And it seeks to generate the financial resources by which new programs can be launched or expanded. The Association for the Study of Free Institutions exists to encourage and mediate such activities.