Center for the American Idea

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Center for the American Idea
Motto "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816.
Formation 1976, the U.S. Bicentennial
Founder Rolland Storey
Headquarters Houston, Texas
Key people
Chairman, George W. Strake; Emeritus Chairman, Robert C. McNair; President, W. Winston Elliott, III;

The Center for the American Idea is the leading program of the Free Enterprise Institute, a Houston-based think tank, founded in 1976 by Rolland Storey to advance the principles of liberty and free enterprise through continuing education programs for teachers.


The Free Enterprise Institute was founded by Mr. Rolland Storey in 1976. As Mr. Storey was nearing retirement from a 25-year career with Houston Natural Gas Corporation, his friend Lucy Eisenhower suggested that he attend a Mont Pelerin Society meeting. Once there, he was delighted to learn that people devoted to freedom and liberty were meeting and talking with such enthusiasm. He already knew that the defense of the market economy and limited government rests on the premise that ordered liberty, freedom guided by virtue, produces prosperity. Knowing that others would benefit from all he had learned, Mr. Storey saw an opportunity to use his retirement in a new and productive way.

Storey closed his business career with a “Founding Party.” At this event, he shared with his colleagues his dream of preserving and perpetuating America’s heritage of freedom by educating teachers and students on the principles of free enterprise and a thorough understanding of the U.S. Constitution. He announced the creation of the Free Market Education Foundation and unveiled a film, “The Second Battle of Britain,” that he had purchased, and laid out his plan to show it at schools and any place else he could book it.

He began with a program offering prizes to students for the best speech on the “Ten Pillars of Economic Freedom” which reached hundreds of students, many of whom made numerous appearances before service clubs and organizations. Over time, he became more involved in teaching high school students about the United States Constitution. Using W. Cleon Skousen’s “The Miracle of America” program, students routinely spent over a hundred hours mastering the framework of the Constitution. This program had tremendous impact, and launched several careers in law and government service.[citation needed] Over time, Storey sought to leverage the impact of the Institute on students by conducting programs for teachers. The American Idea professional development program for teachers was born. Professors and scholars were brought in from around the country to impart to teachers the virtues of the free market system, including private property, individual responsibility, and limited government.

In 1992, Storey retired from the Free Enterprise Institute. In his second retirement, he still kept busy spreading the word of freedom to a large mailing list of interested people. That year Winston Elliott, then a member of the Board of Advisors, was named President. Under Mr. Elliott's leadership, the Institute expanded the American Idea seminar offerings from economics and government to include history, literature, and the great books generally: the foundations of America's heritage. Through the years, the Free Enterprise Institute, with its Center for the American Idea, has become an influence in the careers of over 5,000 teachers, from hundreds of schools, in Houston and across the country, impacting the education of hundreds of thousands of students every year.


The Center for the American Idea promotes Burkean conservative principles to teachers through various programs, such as workshops and lectures. Teachers study writers who have influenced the Western intellectual tradition from the classical age to the modern period. The most common sources for the Center's readings are:

American Idea Conferences[edit]

The Institute’s American Idea Conferences have multiple lectures on a single day on a specific theme. Teachers hear lectures by professors in such fields as economics, history, government, and literature. With partnerships in the community, the Institute has been holding conferences at the University of St. Thomas, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Museum of Fine Arts, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas – Houston Branch.

The American Founding and the Western Intellectual Tradition Colloquia[edit]

The Institute's partnership with Liberty Fund, Inc., a free-market-oriented foundation based in Indianapolis, has made possible a series of intensive programs across the United States. With this partnership, the Institute is hand picking educators for these discussions on texts related to liberty and its moral foundation. Colloquia will be held at cities like Philadelphia and Williamsburg, sites with deep ties to America's founding. Educators compare texts on the role of liberty in free enterprise, private property, and limited government. Topics include: Liberty and Responsibility in the Western Tradition, The Constitutional Convention & Liberty, Tyranny and Liberty in Shakespeare and Plutarch, Historical & Philosophical Roots of American Constitutionalism, and the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists: Competing Visions of Liberty.

American Idea Socratic Symposia[edit]

Institute Socratic Symposia are small group, one-day seminar sessions. Teachers read a specific text relating to freedom and responsibility. Visiting scholars lead them in an orderly discussion where they engage each other in a rigorous consideration of the text at issue: what it says, how it says it, and what difference it makes. This forum provides teachers with an environment where they are able to exchange their ideas at a graduate school level. Past Socratic Symposia include such topics as: Jacques Barzun-The Classics and Education and Russell Kirk: A Program for Conservatives. These discussions are an opportunity for teachers to develop an ongoing relationship with the Institute.

See also[edit]