Stimuli and Ideas

This was originally penned on February 27, 2009. It is, by contemporary definition, old hat. It’s worth another look and appears here slightly modified.

The most powerful stimulus ever invented, used for good and evil since the beginning of time, and producing both astoundingly positive results and the greatest tragedies in human history, creating vast wealth and pervasive poverty, leading to fulfillment or failure, is competition in a free environment.

Adam Smith, I am not, but I keep both eyes open, and this is what I see.

American higher education has been the most stimulating form of post-secondary learning in the world for the past century. Credit the Morrill Act during the Civil War, the German polytechnics and the quest to produce new knowledge, and the pioneering leaders at universities like Harvard, Michigan and Chicago, (Not sure this is always the case today, but it was unquestionable 100 years ago.) who transformed the notion of universities as places to “cultivate gentlemen” into places to generate knowledge and apply it to real problems. To make ideas come to life.

Some things never change. Study might lead to a cure for cancer, a faster computer or stronger, more drought-resistant crops. A really powerful university recognizes the sustained importance of attending to real problems as well as the more elusive aspects of the human condition, including joy, fulfillment, faith and other liberating aspects of our daily existence. All require ideas, our stock in trade.

The agendas addressed at a university are driven by many forces. Current events have created a surge of curriculum and research initiatives addressing issues of terrorism, weapons technology and insurgency warfare. Simultaneously, faculty and students study the ramifications of belief systems and their impact on world, national, state, city and family order.

Universities need freedom to engage in what they believe to be important. They don’t need stimulus so much as they need freedom from intervention to generate ideas. Any stimulating resource given by one group of people to another creates a quid pro quo. We see it in the political circles of states and nations all the time.

Universities should compete for everything they have. By everything, I mean knowledge and insight: the real currency for institutions like West Texas A&M University. The competition should not be for resources but rather for ideas. If resources that generate ideas come too easily, the pursuit of new ideas falters.

Good ideas always generate resources, but resources will not always generate good ideas. Stimuli, other than good ideas, are redundant at good universities. So it is with our students, a level field in the pursuit of knowledge and insight, free from ideology but founded on ideas. If you look carefully at the concept of grade inflation, you will see that its rise over the past fifty years has led to degradation in the quality of student work and similar diminution of a student’s ability to perform, even though the grades are going up.

Life is always graded on a curve, and in its absence, inspiration, stimulus and ideas evaporate like water on the high plains. When we give students access to federal loans, access that has not always been earned by performance in high school, we create a burden of debt that cannot be assuaged with high grades. As higher education has become a property right rather than an opportunity, students graduate to fewer jobs with greater debt and less skill than ever before.

Freedom to fail is the genesis of competition and, ultimately, the most potent stimulus package available. According to Blaise Pascal, “Tyranny is the wish to have in one way what can only be had in another.”

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at