Freedom from Pettty Tyranny — For the Time Being

Three years ago, on 24 October 2009, Scott Johnson at Powerline posted the following on my behalf. It is, alas, as apt today as it was then. I repost it here unchanged:

This weekend, I will spend my Saturday morning in a fashion unheard of in most academic institutions. Because I teach at Hillsdale College, I will be meeting with the parents of my students — at ten minute intervals — to discuss their progress.

If last year is any guide, something on the order of 800 parents will descend on us this weekend. Those who come to what we call Parents’ Weekend are, for the most part, parents of the 400-freshmen we take in every year.

Most of the conversations that I have with these parents will be inconsequential. They love their children; they worry about their well-being; and they want to be reassured that they are doing well. Once reassured, they relax.

Some conversations will, however, be of genuine importance. For some freshmen run into trouble, and there are occasions in which an intervention on the part of their parents serves a real purpose.

Some parents come back again and again. The parents of sophomores and juniors tend, however, to be more interested in meeting the professors that their children have described than in discussing their sons and daughters. They are no longer worried in the slightest concerning their progeny, and they come back a second and even a third time because they had a good time when they first ventured into the wilds of south-central Michigan.

Where I taught before I came to Hillsdale two years ago, nothing like this was possible. This is not due to the fact that Hillsdale College is well run (which it is) nor to the fact that the University of Tulsa is dysfunctional (which is also the case). It arises from the fact that Hillsdale College takes not one dime from the federal government.

With that money — whether it comes in the form of federal loans to students, research grants, or the GI Bill — comes the heavy hand of regulation. It is, of course, perfectly proper that a granting organization — whether public or private — sees to it that the money it grants is spent for the purpose for which it was granted. But this is not what I have in mind.When Washington gives money to a state government, a municipality, a school system, or even a private college, it encroaches on the autonomy of the entity whose beneficiary it is. This should come as no surprise. As any teenager will tell you, generosity is wonderful, but there are always strings attached.

In this case, however, the story is especially interesting. For the busybody who attached these particular strings, the man who denied to any institution of higher education that took in as much as a dime in federal funding the right to communicate with the parents of a student with regard to his well-being, was a libertarian.

His name was James F. Buckley. He was the brother of William F. Buckley. In the late 1960s, he was elected a Senator from New York on the Conservative ticket; and in 1974 he authored an amendment to a federal bill, aimed at protecting the putative privacy rights of eighteen-year-olds (among others).

Some years ago, while teaching at the University of Tulsa, I had a freshman in my honors course who showed up for the first class and then disappeared. I thought nothing of it; I presumed that he had dropped the course (as many students do). When he showed up four weeks later, I contacted the Dean’s office and asked that they look into the matter.

It turns out that this student had turned into a binge alcoholic and was sleeping on the floor of a fraternity house, surrounded by empty whiskey bottles. But the university could not contact his parents about the matter without risking the loss of all of its federal funding.There is, I think, a moral to the story — and I try to draw this moral in the two books mentioned below. We need government, and it is essential that the government be vigorous within its proper sphere. When, however, a government exceeds its prerogatives, especially when that government is far, far away and effectively out of sight, it is quite likely to succumb to tyranny — petty or otherwise.

We are all inclined to think that we know better than our neighbors. We are all inclined to be busybodies. When offered the opportunity to interfere, even a man as sensible as Jim Buckley is apt to succumb.

When our compatriots saw to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, legalizing the income tax, they created that temptation. What Barack Obama and the thugs with whom he has surrounded himself are trying to do right now on a very grand scale has been taking place on a much more petty scale for a very long time.

It is not enough that we throw the current crowd of rascals out (though that is essential). We need to remove the temptation to which Jim Buckley succumbed thirty-five years ago. As long as there is largesse in Washington on a magnificent scale, as long as the federal government has the wherewithal with which to offer to everyone a helping hand, our ability to govern ourselves in the ordinary business of life will be in peril. Obama may fail, but there will some day be someone who does not.

The two books alluded to in this post are Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect. You should buy at least ten thousand copies so that I can educate my children.

  1. Keith Preston

    Thank you, professor.  I just had my Family Weekend with my students.  There is nothing like the involvement of parents who send their children to a school where THEIR money (not some faceless mob) is responsible for their education.  They make great partners in the process.

    We have just finished a unit in my US Government class where we talked about Federalism (particularly the concept of fiscal federalism and what it has done to learning institutions).  You couldn’t be more spot on with your observations.  Here’s hoping the nation rethinks this…

  2. Douglas Wingate

    It’s because of the issue you discuss here that I’m in doubt about “voucher” programs as a substitute or supplement to public schools. It seems a government’s money effectively turns a private school into a public school, that is, a school controlled either formally or informally by the men in that government and the men who may control or influence them, in turn.

  3. Peter Christofferson

    Well, Professor Rahe, I can’t afford the ten thousand, but I do have one of each. I hope that helps. 

    Tell you what: when the time comes, instead of passing along my own, I promise to buy new copies of these indispensable books for my own kids.

    Deal?

  4. HoosierDaddy

    When I visited Hillsdale, I was quite intrigued by what I learned in the Admissions office about the mentor-based scholarship program. As I recall, the College encourages would-be donors to consider personally sponsoring one student, with whom they may have either an anonymous or personal relationship. Did I get that right?

  5. Hope

    Wow. I knew that Hillsdale didn’t take any government money, along with Grove City and precious few other colleges, but I never considered the fact that that meant you were not bound by FERPA. Very interesting, and thank you for sharing. 

    Here’s a question for you, though, if I may: If you had a student who was paying for his education himself and did not have a good relationship with his parents, and did not wish the school to contact them about his grades or anything else, would Hillsdale honor his wishes? We don’t have to worry about those sorts of decisions where I am because FERPA covers everyone, as you noted. 

  6. tabula rasa

    OK.  I’ll by the Montesquieu book.  I already own Soft Despotism, and it’s a great book.

    I’d love to be able to buy 10,000 of each and distribute them to both conservatives and liberals.

  7. Gretchen
    Douglas Wingate: It’s because of the issue you discuss here that I’m in doubt about “voucher” programs as a substitute or supplement to public schools. It seems a government’s money effectively turns a private school into a public school, that is, a school controlled either formally or informally by the men in that government and the men who may control or influence them, in turn. · 35 minutes ago

    Exactly. In Pennsylvania the Catholic Church has long been n favor of vouchers for K-12 education.  If they get them, it will not be long before they regret it, as it will not be long before Catholic schools cease to be Catholic schools in any meaningful sense.

  8. Gretchen

    I can attest to the frustration of those of us not teaching at Hillsdale or Grove City. Recently I had to tell the parent of a student undergoing cancer treatment that federal law prevented me from answering his inquiries about the student’s work.

    It is stunning that we owe FERPA to  James Buckley!

  9. Jojo
    Hope:Here’s a question for you, though, if I may: If you had a student who was paying for his education himself and did not have a good relationship with his parents, and did not wish the school to contact them about his grades or anything else, would Hillsdale honor his wishes? We don’t have to worry about those sorts of decisions where I am because FERPA covers everyone, as you noted.  · 45 minutes ago

    When my son went to a large NY state school they did have a partial solution:  personal information from payments to class registration to grades was stored online together, so whoever paid the bills was privy to the grades (at least the final ones.)  I understand at some schools even that is not the case.

  10. HoosierDaddy
    tabula rasa: OK.  I’ll by the Montesquieu book.  I already ownSoft Despotism, and it’s a great book.

    I’d love to be able to buy 10,000 of each and distribute them to both conservatives and liberals. · 53 minutes ago

    Edited 53 minutes ago

    Same here. Soft Despotism ought to be a household phrase, like “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. I have a fantasy of what it would be like to live in a society in which a conservative presidential candidate could hold up that book on television and say “This is everything you need to know.” Instead, we have “You have two minutes to answer, and 30 seconds for rebuttal.”

  11. Tim H.

    Very timely post.  I’m a professor at at state college, and I just had to go through the online FERPA training.  When I first heard of the law (a few years after becoming a professor, surprisingly), I was shocked that any such thing could exist.  And now that I’ve seen the details, I hate, hate, HATE it.  Along with some aspects of HIPPA (the medical privacy law—sp?), it doesn’t recognize the existence of a family unit.  It splits families into their constituent atoms, treating the group as having no value and no standing.  Horrible, horrible, horrible.  I really hope that someone will take the initiative and sponsor a bill to repeal this.

  12. Frank Monaldo

    Dr. Rahe,

    I believe if you look at the law in question, Mr. Buckley can be slightly forgiven.  If the students are dependents, their parents can be notified of problems and these parents have a right to academic and other information from the school.  However, most schools find it convenient to separate the consumers (the students) from the funders (many times parents).  Most schools are disinclined to make the exception for dependents clear.

    When my children went to the University of Maryland, we were informed by the school during a parents’ orientation of our lack of rights.   This prompted me to check the law, and isolate the exception for dependent children.  After much nudging the school’s attorney agreed with my interpretation.  

    Fortunately, my children did well and informed me of their grades and progress.  There was never a need to exercise my rights as a parent, but these rights are there.

  13. HoosierDaddy

    Aren’t nearly all undergrads still legal dependents of their parent(s)? And up to 26 years old under Obamacare.

  14. Frank Monaldo

    Yes, many are dependents. During the parent orientation, one parent asked a question to which the academic authorities had no cogent answer. “If my child is considered to be an independent adult, then why does the school inquire of the parents what their expected financial contribution is?”

    HoosierDaddy: Aren’t nearly all undergrads still legal dependents of their parent(s)? And up to 26 years old under Obamacare. · 8 minutes ago

  15. Kate Logsdon

    My best friend’s grandson is a freshman this year at Hillsdale-we’re all very proud of him

  16. Robert Ham

    Dr. Rahe,

    We couldn’t agree more.  We are pleased to have our daughter at Hillsdale, and as importantly, to support Hillsdale’s lonely fight against the government’s intrusion into our lives in all too many aspects.   

    For those readers inclined to assist, there are multitudes of opportunities to support the school by spreading the word about Imprimis as well as the the on-line course offerings on the Constitution and of course, by direct contributions to the school.    

    We have been particularly pleased to see the astonishing character of the students and note that several have prior military service.  We understand that many of these students do receive scholarship money via Hillsdale, so as to not violate the School’s ban on accepting Federal dollars (via the GI bill or similar).

  17. HVTs

    There seems to be some dispute about the letter of the law, which the wannabe lawyer in me finds interesting. It doesn’t change, however, Prof. Rahe’s excellent point about the slippery slope to which even solid conservatives fall prey once in power.  Alas, not even party affiliation can impound Human Nature.

    Laws aside and Feds be damned, we parents shouldn’t make this more difficult than it needs to be.  My daughter’s university has all her data online but does require her to grant me permission to access it.  It’s simple: if I don’t get said access, the school doesn’t get her tuition.  I would have this rule even if it wasn’t online access we were talking about.  So, were this pre-internet, if she didn’t provide me her grades or anything else I deem important without fuss or fiddle … well, that’s a stunt she could pull exactly once.  The next semester, she’d better have her own means of paying the school or some other life’s plan that didn’t involve a University degree.

    This is plain and simple enough for my teenager to understand, that’s for sure.

  18. Schrodinger

    Vouchers should not trigger government overreach because the money goes to the parents, NOT the school.

  19. Red Feline
    Frank Monaldo: The law can be found here: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=11975031b82001bed902b3e73f33e604&rgn=div5&view=text&node=34:1.1.1.1.33&idno=34#34:1.1.1.1.33.1.132.4.   See § 99.31 (8)   · 14 hours ago

    Was James F. Buckley a lawyer? I wonder if he knew what he was signing? I wonder if the schools really understand this law, or are just applying it as they want? Parents’ meetings can be time consuming and difficult, this sounds a good way to avoid them?

    Surely it is outrageous that schools not work with parents for the good of the students?

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