The Liberal Arts Program in Economics and History

An alternative to typical university study

Many young people and their parents, surveying the landscape of U.S. higher education today, are dissatisfied by even the top tier of U.S. colleges and universities. A few are ready to do something about it.

A better alternative: study economics and history with one of today’s leading thinkers in the Classical economic tradition, in the original method of higher education in the West–a small group of students led by a single mentor, committed to excellence together.

The result: a far better education, at one-quarter the cost of comparable private colleges today.

The Vega Institute of Political Economy offers a four-year, full-time residential undergraduate-level Liberal Arts Program in Economics and History. The program embraces the best traditions of American higher education, and leads naturally to careers in business, finance, law and government.

The program concentrates on the principles and practical application of Classical economics at a high level; the history of the United States, the West, and the World; the founding Classical Liberal principles of the American democratic republic; and a practical foundation in business and investing. An ambitious survey of enduring works of Western Civilization forms a cornerstone of the course–an immersion in the philosophical and literary achievements of the centuries, cultivating the ability to read, write, speak and discuss at an elevated standard. This is centered on the Harvard Classics, a fifty-one-volume compilation created by Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University, in 1909. It represents the essence of cultural achievement during the noblest era of the American university, and remains a celebrated resource over a century later. Some time is set aside for students to follow their own interests in study, which can include further reading in economics and history, classic novels, math and science, anthropology, foreign language, current issues, psychology, Asian philosophy and cultural traditions, or business and investing.

This is an elite-class education, more engaging and substantive than one is likely to find in “top-tier” institutions today. The program is intensive and demanding. The materials are challenging and not dumbed-down. In general, the program is appropriate for the top 10% of typical high-school graduates. The like-minded student should find that it satisfies their ambitions, develops their abilities, makes good use of the time that society has set aside for their self-improvement, prepares them for careers that require a capable and refined mind, and progresses naturally towards leadership roles in society later in adulthood.

The program is led by Nathan Lewis, one of the leading thinkers in the Classical economics tradition today. He is the author of three books on economics, plus hundreds of short-form items and columns (available at He has fifteen years of experience in the asset-management industry, as a macro analyst for institutional investors and as a money manager. He has participated in major television documentaries on economic topics in China, Russia and South Korea; has been a speaker at events hosted by the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, American Principles Project, and other organizations; has testified in U.S. Congress on economic topics; has helped craft bills for U.S. Congresspeople; and has served as an advisor to foreign governments. He graduated from Dartmouth College.

Nathan Lewis has established himself as one of history’s most formidable and correct-thinking economic writers, joining the ranks of Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt and a handful of others. Lewis understands the subject of money better than almost any other observer today, demolishing one harmful myth after another that plagues economic policy and has shackled the U.S. and most of the rest of the world with subpar growth.

Steve Forbes

The Classical tradition in economics stretches from Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, to the mid-twentieth century advances of the “Austrians” including Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The “supply side” school that began in the 1970s further added many new concepts that were previously neglected, and continued to refine earlier insights. Many of the best minds of recent decades have been closely involved in the asset management industry, which informed their work with experience in the real world of global markets and economies, and refreshed a tradition that had become somewhat stagnant, abstract and academic. Today, almost all economics taught in universities is neo-Mercantilist or “Keynesian” in nature. It is the economics of government manipulation and distortion, and became popular during the 1930s. Despite the continued failure of such approaches, and their general disparagement among financial professionals and others with real-world experience, the Classical tradition–the original study of economics–remains hard-to-find within the walls of the common university. The Vega Institute may be, at this time, the only place for young people to formally study the most sophisticated, contemporary approach to the Classical tradition, informed by real-world experience.

Study the most sophisticated, contemporary expression of Classical economics.

The program focuses on reading, regular discussion and writing, with no formal lectures and no formal classes. There is only one course of study. Discussion is in small groups of seven or less. The framework is based on the “leadership education” model described by Oliver and Rachel DeMille, used with great success by thousands of students from the homeschool to post-graduate level for more than two decades. This itself is a contemporary extension of the classic mentor-student model, which served as a primary model of higher education in the United States before the rise of the large university, modeled after the Prussian example, in the latter nineteenth century. Education reformers have recommended a return to that earlier model at least since the 1930s.

President James Garfield said in 1879: “Take a log cabin in the West, put a wooden bench in it, with Mark Hopkins at one end and a student on the other, and you have a college.” Hopkins was the president of Williams College. Garfield had been his student.

One mentor. A small group of students. Serious commitment.

The princes of Europe were not educated in universities–they had private mentors. Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s noblest and most successful emperors, attributed his superior education to the use of private mentors instead of schools. John Milton, the English poet who also held high office in the government of Oliver Cromwell, had several students that he mentored directly from his home. Thomas Jefferson–one of the greatest minds in American history–spent five years (ages 18-22) under the mentorship of George Wythe, a practicing lawyer who guided many influential leaders of the Founding generation. After retiring from the presidency, Jefferson himself mentored students from his home. Yale University was founded by Abraham Pierson; for the first six months, he had one student. Adam Smith, the early economist, served as a private mentor for a wealthy family. Carl Menger, one of the most influential economists of the nineteenth century and considered the founder of the “Austrian school of economics,” was the private mentor of the prince of Austria.

Students get close personal attention and guidance appropriate to their individual needs, interests, development and character. The student/mentor ratio will not exceed 12:1.

The tuition is $12,000 per year. The location is in New Berlin, NY, a beautiful country setting close to three other universities. Students are assisted in finding rental housing in the area. They cook their own food, do their own laundry, vacuum their own floors, and in general learn to be capable young adults. The school year follows the standard September-June schedule, separated into three terms.

A beautiful country setting, near three other universities.

The principle of a “liberal arts” education derives from the ancient Greek liber, which refers to the tree bark from which books and contracts were made. It serves as the root of “liberty” and also “library,” and describes the education necessary for a person to serve an active role in a self-governing democratic society. It is thus a combination of history, philosophy, government, literature and arts, and stands distinct from vocational training. While training in a vocation – including science, engineering, law, medicine or business – is necessary and important, it cannot be considered an education in the liberal arts tradition. The U.S.’s elite institutions are “liberal arts” colleges today, and remain the preferred path to high-level professional careers in business, finance, law and government.

You have been wishing to know my views with regard to liberal studies. My answer is this: I respect no study, and deem no study good, which results in money-making … they are our apprenticeship, not our real work. Hence you see why ‘liberal studies’ are so called; it is because they are studies worthy of a free-born gentleman. But there is only one really liberal study – that which gives a man his liberty. It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled.
Roman philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.–65 A.D.)

[L]iberal education…is the education that prepares us to be free men. You have to have this education if you … are going to be an effective citizen of a democracy; for citizenship requires that…you do not leave your duties to be performed by others … A free society is composed of freemen. To be free you have to be educated for freedom.
Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago (1929-1945)

The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant — of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business — and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth.
Sister Mary Joseph, The Trivium: the Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric (1948)

Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life. …
If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.
Will Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)

Today the “liberal arts” tradition has been degraded to such an extent that it is perceived to have little value at all. As it exists today–dumbed down, hollowed out, reduced to a disorganized grab-bag, subject to extreme moral relativism, eroded by gender/race politics, little more than an archaic label useful for marketing purposes but whose meaning has been forgotten–this assessment has merit.

This deterioration in the tradition of higher education has driven a focus on professional training. For university majors such as engineering, most math and science, pre-med, computer science and so forth, the professional focus is overt. Other courses of study are seen as stepping-stones to careers in business, finance or law, in which the ceremony of education is more important than any actual content.

Today, graduates of top universities are well-trained and (perhaps following graduate studies) professionally competent, but largely uneducated. Many graduates feel this lack keenly, perhaps later in life. Others, whose imagination does not extend beyond indoctrination and conditioning, have no idea what they missed. The deterioration we see today, in government, politics, business ethics and culture, is an inevitable consequence.

I graduated with highest honors … I was great at working the system but I was not educated. I could see my daughter doing the exact same thing, and I wanted more for her.
Ashley Slaten, 2017

This program returns to the original goals of liberal-arts education in the West: to provide a foundation of knowledge, insight, morality, virtue and wisdom that can be drawn upon throughout one’s life, which allows one to play a productive leadership role in a free society, and which forms a core of culture and civilization that can later be transmitted to a younger generation.

The program is a period of concentrated study that is integrated into the process of establishing a career and the later transition to adult life for the student. In the last year, the focus moves from principles to practice, with a study of current issues, financial analysis, business and investment. While these studies certainly have immediate practical value, and serve as a transition to the world of career, they are also a necessary foundation to understand real economics and real business in the real world. Our current state of affairs certainly reflects the fact that many people involved in politics and policy – even some economists that promote “free markets” – have little idea of how business is practiced.

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Chancellor of England

These values are generally considered “conservative” today. Earnest spirituality and morality, from any tradition, are welcomed. Good diet and exercise are encouraged; debauchery and dissolution are not.

The program is wholly unaccredited, and any work done may not be recognized by other institutions. Satisfactory completion of the program is recognized, but no degrees or diplomas are granted. (These are exclusive artifacts of the existing education cartel.) In practice, students from existing high-quality unaccredited institutions have not had difficulty in gaining recognition by graduate schools or employers, for work well done and adequately documented. Experience has shown that, if you work hard, get a great education, and document it well, most people will recognize that you worked hard and got a great education, and respond accordingly. Guidance, planning and preparation for the time following graduation, including internships or other early involvement in careers of interest, are an intrinsic part of the program.

Immersion in the Classics of Western Civilization.

A provisional curriculum is here:

Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4

But here the main skill and groundwork will be, to temper them such lectures and explanations upon every opportunity as may lead and draw them in willing obedience, inflamed with the study of learning, and the admiration of virtue; stirred up with high hopes of living to be brave men, and worthy patriots, dear to God, and famous to all ages. That they may despise and scorn all their childish, and ill-taught qualities, to delight in manly, and liberal exercises: which he who hath the art, and proper eloquence to catch them with, what with mild and effectual persuasions, and what with the intimation of some fear, if need be, but chiefly by his own example, might in a short space gain them to an incredible diligence and courage: infusing into their young breasts such an ingenuous and noble ardor, as would not fail to make many of them renowned and matchless men.

John Milton (1608-1674), “Tractate on Education”