Love Freedom, hate Liberty. Freedom University and Liberty University sound similar, to judge by names calculated to appeal to Americans’ favourite value.
But they could not be more different. Set in more than 6,000 acres of rolling Virginia countryside, Liberty houses more than 12,000 students and teaches 80,000 more online. Freedom operates in one room in a gritty street in Athens, Georgia, where a handful of youngsters turn up for class. Liberty has millions of dollars (including the fruits of a notorious bailout a few years ago from the Moonies’ guru Sun Myung Moon). Freedom has nothing except the dedication of its volunteers and moral support from veterans of the struggle for civil rights. Liberty, despite its name, is only for people who profess uncritical fundamentalism: no one is recruited to teach there who does not share the same faith; student organisations are barred from university facilities - unless they adhere to biblical dogma. Freedom is for the needy, irrespective of creed.
Liberty was founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, leader of the “Moral Majority”, who called Muhammad a terrorist and predicted the imminence of the Antichrist, “who will of course be Jewish”. Freedom was launched last year by a few conscientious professors who wanted every intellectually able student to have a taste of university education, regardless of race or status. Liberty charges full-time undergraduate fees of about $28,000 a year. Freedom University is genuinely free.
Freedom is also free in the sense of teaching critical thinking without demanding doctrinal compliance. Liberty represents the reverse of academic freedom, with a mission based, according to its website, “upon an inerrant Bible, a Christian worldview,…biblical Creationism,…eschatological belief,…an absolute repudiation of ‘political correctness’, a strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise”.
Yet despite teaching false science and tendentious history while proscribing rational debate, Liberty is accredited as a university by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Students at Freedom, meanwhile, cannot even be sure of official credit for their courses if they win places at other institutions. Liberty hosts politicians and swells - including, recently, the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Freedom has to keep its address secret for fear of the police, who will arrest the students if they find them.
Freedom’s reason for existing is to teach academically qualified children of undocumented immigrants, whom the laws of some states bar from publicly funded institutions and whom the board of regents at the University of Georgia has banned from the institution. It is hard to believe that decent legislators and honourable educators can be so unjust as to victimise poor children, who are not responsible for the deficiencies of their legal status. But that is what is happening in the US today. Romney is apparently among those who approve: he unsuccessfully proposed a similar measure in Massachusetts when he was governor there.
In hard times, it seems, the rich really do get the pleasure and the poor the blame. Fat cats nurse their bonuses; undocumented immigrants, who are typically near the bottom of the pile - short of money, bereft of rights - endure obloquy, face persecution, suffer harassment and live under sentence of deportation, even though they do jobs too dirty for their neighbours and pay, according to official statistics, taxes that subsidise a range of public benefits to which they have little or no access, including state education. Those I know personally did not come to the US because they were dishonest but because they were deluded by the American dream and genuinely believed in the promise of freedom and opportunity. Their children were not complicit in transgressing the border but are now suffering, with biblical exactitude, for the administrative infringements of their fathers: I won’t say sins or even crimes, as most immigrants say they want to redeem their status and are involuntary infringers.
The cruelty of Georgia’s board of regents is a mistake. All 501 undocumented students in the state university system in 2010 were paying out-of-college tuition rates, which exceed costs and subsidise Georgia-born students. The regents, all of whom are the governor’s personal, politically selected appointees, claimed that illegals were “taking seats in college from academically qualified Georgians”. So they stoked resentment against an easily reviled enemy. In fact, in 2010 there were only undocumented students in competitive colleges. They were there because they performed suitably in exams. The regents’ policy is explicable if they want to exploit xenophobia for political purposes and introduce in Georgia a form of discrimination unlicensed by law. In consequence, talents are wasted, along with the investment the state has already made in the students’ secondary education.
“Fight”, a Freedom student says on the school’s website, “for an education that makes you think, not an education that makes you obey.” His values are better than Liberty’s. Despite its thousands of acres, millions of dollars and the lickspittle politicians who love it, that institution will never rival Freedom for true teaching or real liberty.