More than a quarter century ago, I was involved in a mission to Eastern Europe in pursuit of an optimistic, if daunting, goal: teaching freedom to students who had spent their entire lives growing up behind the Iron Curtain of nations aligned with Soviet Russia.
The fundamental human yearning for political and economic freedom transcends national boundaries. And by impacting one individual at a time, programs such as TFAS will eventually tip the scales in favor of freedom.” – Dr. Michael J. Collins, TFAS Professor of Ethics and Leadership
We had no idea what was in store, but in 1992, a group representing The Fund for American Studies (TFAS) set out on a journey to find out whether such an idea was viable. Our mission took us across Europe, including Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, searching for the right place to set up this new academic program. Eventually, we settled on Prague, the capital of what was soon to become the Czech Republic.
During the Cold War, schoolchildren learning about economics and government in Soviet-aligned nations were only taught about Marxism and Communism: nothing else. However, once Eastern Europe suddenly broke free of its communist past, we saw an opportunity to help students understand what freedom truly means. It wasn’t an attempt to impose American-style democracy on them; rather, we hoped to give young people in these newly-independent nations the tools to chart their own course.
Through hard work, luck and the commitment of our professors and students, the program was a success. Eventually, it proved so popular that we not only continued it year after year, but also established additional programs around the world including the Institute for Leadership in the Americas (ILA), held in Santiago, Chile; the Asia Institute for Political Economy (AIPE), conducted in Hong Kong; and the European Journalism Institute (EJI), also held in Prague.
Now, 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the first Prague class, and I’m happy to report that more than 5,500 students from 144 countries have participated in one of our TFAS International Programs. The majority of these students come from other countries – some of which don’t have the democratic tradition of the United States – and they may be learning about classically liberal political and economic ideas for the first time.
However, the program has also included a sizeable number of Americans, who have been afforded the opportunity to spend time in another country and mingle with their peers from around the world. This American contingent has included officer candidates from our nation’s military academies who have enhanced their understanding of the complex world in which they will play a crucial role.
But beyond the numbers, the true value of these programs has been the impact they’ve had on individual lives, by inspiring graduates to pursue public service, leadership and volunteerism. In fact, TFAS graduates have gone on to be elected to office, start free-market think tanks, found political parties and be columnists for major newspapers in their home countries.
We teach our students that this is exactly how democratic ideas eventually succeed: step-by-step, one person at a time. If they want to live in a just society, they leave our program knowing they have to take it upon themselves to make that happen. As John Lennon said: “It’s all down to you, mate.”
In turbulent political times such as these, it’s easy to feel that lovers of liberty no longer have the wind at their backs. And it’s true that recent developments everywhere in the world represent a setback for our ideals.
But for anyone who might doubt the future of democracy, the spirit and tenacity of our many international students are grounds for encouragement. The fundamental human yearning for political and economic freedom transcends national boundaries. And by impacting one individual at a time, programs such as TFAS will eventually tip the scales in favor of freedom.
Dr. Michael J. Collins teaches The Good Society in the TFAS American Institute on Political and Economic Systems (AIPES) program in Prague, Czech Republic, as well as Ethics and Leadership in TFAS U.S. Summer Programs in Washington, D.C.