Interview with Jack Miller

Jack Miller began his efforts to reinvigorate education in America’s founding principles and history on college campuses in 2004. As JMC begins its second decade, Jack shared his thoughts with Mike Deshaies, JMC vice president, on what has been accomplished and why he is so passionate about this education.

MD: Jack, the classic liberal arts have come under fire in recent years because people say they really don’t prepare students for the workforce. As a successful businessman, you have actually immersed yourself in the study of American political thought. What would you say to those who try to dismiss the liberal arts?

JM: Well, students should graduate with skills that prepare them for the workforce. But, eliminating the liberal arts is a terrible mistake. People have to understand the world in which we live and the ideas that drive the world. Even if they’re studying business, engineering, science, whatever it is, they need to have the opportunity to learn what this country is all about, what makes them free and keeps them free. I also think that students should not only study our nation’s founding principles, but also study what the Founders studied that helped them determine our founding principles.

MD: Will you please describe your personal growth as a result of your efforts to learn more about our nation’s founding principles in history? 

JM: What the study has done is to help me understand the things that are at the core of my belief, the core of my being. It has helped me understand the idea behind the pursuit of happiness, meaning the ability to improve your station in life. Jefferson put in ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in place of John Locke’s ‘property’ —life, liberty and property. So, he thought that people at that time would better understand ‘the pursuit of happiness’ to mean improving your station in life—property.

I pick up a little bit here and a little bit there. I read certain books or parts of books, and I begin to understand what they’re talking about. For example, I have to read Aristotle, which I never read in college. There are so many great thinkers that, quite frankly, I don’t think I’m going to live long enough to read them all, but I am reading as many as I can. It has helped me understand what was behind the thinking that I have had for many years.

I grew up in a different era. I was in high school during the Second World War. Patriotism was in the air. You could breathe it. You went to the movies on a Saturday afternoon and the news films were on. You saw the war progressing and the whole country was alive with patriotism. We saved foil, rolled it into balls and gave it to the government, all types of things. So, I had that sense as a natural part of growing up.

My parents were terrific, they allowed me to be free. They weren’t supervising me every minute. I started working when I was 13 years old delivering, cleaning, working in the drugstore behind the soda fountains, things like that. I was always free to do those things. When I went to college, I tested out of two courses, so I had six credit hours. Then, I carried extra heavy programs and was able to graduate in three and a half years.

Then of course, I worked for somebody. I got a lot of experience and started my own business with the phone in my dad’s chicken store. It developed into a pretty big business. When we started, I chose the office products industry without knowing anything about it. I didn’t know how big the industry was or how much opportunity there was. I had a few contacts that I could probably sell some stuff to, so I chose that field.

It was easy to get into business then. I borrowed $2,000 from my father-in-law, and I was in business. I had business cards printed up and put a phone in my dad’s chicken store. I don’t remember filling out all kinds of paperwork—I just started knocking on doors. I started it, my brothers joined me, and together we built the business.

It is much harder today. There has been a tremendous encroachment on businesses and the rights that were guaranteed to us by the Constitution. So, I started trying to understand what this country was about and became very interested in the idea that the principles of our country’s Founding should be taught to young people. It should be taught in the grade schools, high schools and certainly in college.

MD: The Jack Miller Center has experienced remarkable growth in the past 10 years. In your view, what has been the key to the Miller Center’s growth so far?

JM: I think there are several keys to our growth. First and foremost is the talent and dedication of the organization we put together. Thanks to Mike Ratliff’s leadership, we have demonstrated the energy, the drive and the focus to succeed. Focus is the key. We are helping faculty who want to do more to teach our nation’s founding principles and history. We are non-partisan, non-political. Our focus is on education at colleges and universities and being a reliable partner with faculty, administrators and our donors.

Another driving force, quite frankly, is that I think people in this country are concerned with what is happening on college campuses. They’re concerned with the idea that most of our colleges do not require students to take a single foundational course in American history or government. They’re concerned that our young people, who did not grow up in a time of great patriotism as I experienced during World War II, are not encouraged to learn about what made America great.

I also think that the students themselves are tired of the lack of diversity of opinion and not learning about America and how good it is. All too often they are exposed only to criticism of America.

So, there’s a number of things driving it. It happens to be the right time in our history when people are beginning to yearn for more freedom, more personal freedom. The government is involved in every little thing that’s going on. From the left and from the right, people are beginning to realize that the government is over-controlling everything, whether it’s too much regulation of business or too much control in their personal choices in life. I think people are ready for a change, and they see the Miller Center as a valuable resource to make that change happen.

MD: Diversity of gender and race are major issues on college campuses. What are your views about diversity of thought, with regard to what is taught about America and its institutions? 

JM: I think that diversity of thought is critical. Speech codes and things like that are crippling the discourse that is happening on campus, and I think that’s a shame. We should hear all sides of an argument, all kinds of different ideas. Let the battle of ideas take place on campus, which is what universities are supposed to be doing. Unfortunately, from what I see, there isn’t that type of diversity on many campuses. There is a need for civil discourse on campus, one that respects the rights of all to express their opinions.

When it comes to thought, you need diversity. I have ideas, and I put them forth. I may believe in them, but if somebody else comes up with a counter idea, oftentimes they have a point. I shift my thinking, perhaps. Diversity of thought is critical to a good education. It broadens your horizons.

MD: When we first started the Jack Miller Center, some people, who were sympathetic to our cause, said this would never work because there wouldn’t be enough student demand for this kind of education—young people today don’t really care about these things. As we’ve seen now, the demand from students is really encouraging. How encouraging is it that so many college students are showing such a great demand for this education?  

JM: Student demand is critically important. Every student should have the opportunity to take excellent courses in American history and America’s founding principles. I think they are eager to learn about the values that are the foundation of our country and of Western civilization. They see what’s going on in the world these days, and they see that we are in a war of civilizations. If we want to win that war, we have to know and appreciate and defend our values. I think young people are eager to learn about those values because they want individual freedom, and that is what this is all about. We can do a better job in helping professors publicize their efforts; help them attract more students from all disciplines, not just those majoring in political science and history.

MD: You have participated in all of our Jack Miller Center Summer Institutes in the past 10 years as well as many of our other academic programs that have included leading scholars in political theory, political economy and history. Many of these scholars are our teaching faculty, such as Jim Ceaser, Michael Zuckert, Gordon Wood, Steven Smith and Tom Pangle. Tell us what you have learned from your interactions with these prominent scholars.

JM: They take their subject seriously, and they’re devoted to teaching. I admire excellence in whatever field it is, and these people are at the top of their game. I enjoy going to these conferences because I have gotten to know the best in the field—professors such as Gordon Wood, who is one of the best historians in the country, and Jim Caesar, who has developed a tremendous program at the University of Virginia. I have developed an understanding of how good they are, but I also have come to learn what really fine people they are.

So, I’m happy to see that our post-docs and young future professors are learning from the best in their fields. It’s an amazing thing for them to be able to meet and begin a relationship with these top professors.

MD: You’ve met almost all of the four hundred or so bright young scholars who have participated in our summer institutes and will teach thousands of students over the next thirty years. Please share with us your thoughts about these young scholars who share our mission to reinvigorate education in our nation’s founding principles and history. 

JM: I’ve seen all kinds of people at our Summer Institutes. Some of them seem to be very reserved; some of them seem to be very aggressive—all of them are very smart. It makes me very happy to see these energetic young people progress in their careers and go out into the workplace, become tenured professors and start programs on their campuses with the Miller Center’s help. I’ve seen some of them take hold and actually change the whole atmosphere of their campus by what they’re doing.

It’s very gratifying at the end of a summer institute when they come up to me, thank me and tell me how wonderful our program is; how they felt isolated on their campus, and how valuable it will be for them to be part of the Miller Center’s nationwide network of scholars who are dedicated to this education. Now they have twenty-five new colleagues they can call upon for help and support. They feel reinvigorated knowing that for the rest of their career, they can stay connected with the many resources the Miller Center provides. I think they’re fabulous.

MD: Here’s a subject I’d like to ask you about that’s near and dear to your heart. How do you see the great concepts of the Torah in America’s founding principles?

JM: I have recently begun to understand how everything fits together; how the Enlightenment was such an influence on our Founders. As I thought about what influenced some of the Enlightenment’s great thinkers, like John Locke and Montesquieu, it led me back to the Torah, the Old Testament. It led me back to the Torah to try and understand what’s in it. It’s a religious work, but I look at it as a work of the philosophy of life, a political science book or primer. In the Torah, you can find many rules of governance—ideas that found their way into our Founding. I think it is important to understand the Torah so that you can understand the basis of America’s founding principles.

When the pilgrims landed here, they talked about the shining city on the hill, which came from the Bible. They talked about Moses leading the children of Israel out of slavery. This was a driving force, so right from the very beginning of America, the Bible—the Torah, was a driving force of America. Let me give you some examples.

At a time in history when monarchs ruled with absolute and unquestioned authority, King David’s powers were limited by the Sanhedrin, the court. A senate was established as part of the ruling authority. This was an early example of division of powers. These things, which are found in the Torah, found their way into America’s founding principles. I am working now to develop a program of study that I hope will lead to a whole new area of study. So, when they talk about America as being a Judeo-Christian nation, they’re going to understand why it is called a Judeo-Christian nation. I want to bring some focus to the Judeo in the phrase Judeo-Christian!

MD: In addition to your support of JMC, you are engaged in many other philanthropies. You must have strong feelings about how important it is to meet donor intent. Share with us your thoughts on why is it so important for the Jack Miller Center to meet donor intent?

JM: I had a very disappointing experience where I gave a large sum of money to a university for medical research. Within a year or two, the recipient of my gift began researching something other than what I had wanted done. So, according to our contract, I requested that the university return the money that had not yet been used. Unfortunately, most of my gift had already been spent. That was a lesson that was important to me.

The Jack Miller Family Foundation has given a lot of money to the Miller Center, and you guys have been overwhelmingly good about sticking with donor intent. The same goes for all of our donors. This has been an absolute critical element in our success. When we talk to donors, we talk about stewarding their money. We make sure that their money is used the way they want it to be used. If their goals do not fit with our mission, we say politely that they should give their money elsewhere.

So, if it fits into our mission, we will shepherd it, make sure it is used properly and oversee it. We make sure that the university doesn’t charge 40-50% overhead and use it for something else. We make sure that they charge a small amount for overhead, or nothing. And we even make sure in a lot of instances that universities participate in the program by putting some money of their own into it. So, donor intent is the absolute base rock principle when we are asking people to put money into programs that we oversee. That will always be part of our operating procedure.

MD: JMC’s Chicago Initiative was your idea. What was the inspiration for this?

JM: I have a rope theory, which I’ve lived with for a long time. If you take individual strands, each one of them could be easily broken. But if you begin to weave them together, they become a rope. It becomes almost unbreakable. So, it seemed to me that it would be logical to take different universities that are in close proximity to one another and get them to work together.

It also seemed to me that if you’re going to ask people for money, it’s much easier to say look, you’re in Chicago, you’re a Chicago native, like me. We have ten universities in the Chicago area that are working together where our students, probably your children or grandchildren, are going to be going.

The whole idea is that by collaborating, we can get more done. I really like the idea of collaboration. It adds strength to whatever you’re doing, and it’s working in this instance. 

MD: The academic journal American Political Thought was also your idea. What was your thinking behind that?

JM: I was at one of our academic programs and some young professors mentioned that it’s very difficult for them to get published, which is critical to advancing their career. I also learned that the journals out there don’t have much of an interest in articles about the American Founding, about America’s greatness. So on the spur of the moment, which is the way I do a lot of things, I said, ‘Why don’t we publish our own journal?’

It was an instant success, which again, shows the demand for this type of thing. Now it has turned into a quarterly journal instead of a semi-annual journal, so more and more young scholars are getting published. It’s something that is beginning to have a major influence in the area.

MD: You frequently refer to Benjamin Franklin’s quote when he was asked at the close the Constitutional Convention; “Well doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?” And Franklin’s reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Why does that particular quote resonate with you?

JM: It resonates with me because I see it in every walk of life: if people are not working hard to preserve something that is good, it disappears. And it doesn’t disappear just like bang, it’s gone—it disappears piece by piece by piece and you hardly notice the change. We see it today. There is supposed to be a separation of powers, and the federal government was supposed to be limited, and the states were supposed to have a lot of powers. Well, through the years, piece by piece by piece, the states have lost their powers, and the federal government has grown tremendously and has tremendous power.

We are on the verge of losing our republic. Unless we educate our young people, unless we educate our older people, our citizens—we are going to lose our republic, and not by war. If we’re going to be defeated, it will be from within. It is critical that our young people get educated in what this country is about, and I think that would carry over that older people get educated in what our country is about, because we have lost many of the principles on which this country is founded.

I hear it time and again from people who say it’s a ‘living constitution,’ it can change depending on the circumstances. My answer to that is, well then the Ten Commandments are a ‘living document,’ you can change any of those depending on the circumstances. It just isn’t true. There are certain basic truths that are true; they were true years ago; they’ll be true years into the future; and they’re true now.