''The foundations of a free society.'' What a worthy and ambitious topic. What a timely (and timeless) question. Unfortunately, this book, which is a collection of four lectures given by Andrew R. Cecil at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he is distinguished scholar in residence, is only a partly satisfactory treatment of its topic. Focusing on ''Natural Justice and Natural Rights,'' ''Due Process of Law,'' ''Education for Citzenship,'' and morality, religion, and knowledge, the author provides an introductory survey of some of the historical highlights in the evolution of these important concepts and shows how they have been institutionalized to varying degrees.
On the positive side, Mr. Cecil's essays are well organized and mostly clear. They demonstrate the author's great erudition in the fields of philosophy, the Bible, history, and jurisprudence. Although they contain no original ideas, they are a useful remedy for today's ''social studies'' curricula, which so often fail to provide pupils with even an elementary understanding of the ideas and values that have given shape to the American body politic.
Regrettably, though, these histories are fundamentally flawed. They virtually ignore the pivotal historical fact that all of these foundational principles (especially natural rights and natural justice) have been forsaken or perverted in the 20th century. The welfare state of today has a radically different ethos than did the American society of ''rugged individualism'' in the 19th century.
Having pretended that no such fundamental shift has taken place in the United States, Cecil spares himself the formidable task of suggesting needed reforms or of propounding a cogent, comprehensive thesis as to what steps must be taken for Americans to ensure a free society in the 21st century. Rather than confronting the critical dilemmas inherent in the welfare state (e.g., who determines what the ''general welfare'' is and to what extent it is legitimate to abrogate property rights in the name of ''justice''), he glosses over them with vague generalities and annoying ambiguities (or else with discreet silence).
It is obvious that Cecil desires consensus, not controversy.