I came to Hillsdale College because I wanted a normal college experience.
Of course, I wanted Hillsdale’s liberal education, to read the canon of the western tradition — you’ve seen the brochures. I was skeptical, too, of the monastic environment of “great books” schools like the 100-student Thomas More College of Liberal Arts or 400-strong Thomas Aquinas College. That was not the college life about which I’d heard so much — where the football games, where the fraternities, where even the majors and minors?
Hillsdale seemed to offer good young Republican boys a solid education that could be comfortably set aside for time with friends and recreation. I was going to a normal college, like the ones you see on TV. In that sense, Hillsdale has been nothing but a disappointment to me.
I know now that Hillsdale College is a profoundly strange place. From my first interactions with my peers and upperclassmen, I began to understand that a strange and scary thing happens: Hillsdale changes you into one of its own.
The real glory of Hillsdale is that I wasn’t entirely wrong about her when I chose to come here. Hillsdale is in fact a school with a vibrant Greek life, successful athletic programs, parties and dorm rooms with video games and pranks and even enough anonymity to make it feel comfortably uncloistered. I wasn’t wrong about a lick of that stuff. I was simply uninformed about the real, core, unrepeatable “only at Hillsdale” experience: that these things are in no way exclusive of or set apart from our intellectual life.
Professor of English John Somerville enjoys bragging about the success of the Visiting Writers Program here and sharing the testimony of previous campus visitors about their experience with the college and its students. What stands out about these stories is that the writers, many of whom are not familiar with Hillsdale or its reputation, all identify in Hillsdale’s students some element of unique intellectual engagement. You can find nerds anywhere in honors colleges and humanities core curricula. What you cannot find just anywhere is the type of partnership which Hillsdale has been so quietly intentional about creating among us as it transforms us from Hillsdale students into Hillsdale’s students.
Provost David Whalen warned me during an October visit to campus in 2011 that Hillsdale students can’t go home again without feeling like they’ve just left home. Halfway through my freshman year, I experienced that ridiculous claim as personally true. I realized I’d been wrong: that Hillsdale doesn’t simply mean that you happen to be cocktail-party comfortable with The Western Tradition and The American Founding. What it can mean, if it is allowed to, is that things which have been in most places and for many years dead letter become a part of our shared life. It’s organic, unnoticed as it develops.
This is, in my estimation, Hillsdale’s greatest strength as a college. It is informed by the conservative ethos of her professors and students and by the large core curriculum in the oldest, greatest things, but it’s not really reducible to that. It’s the ability to learn while living, or more accurately, live through and in our learning.
We should never take this for granted, and we should take some inspiration from our founders, “grateful to God for the inestimable blessings resulting from the prevalence of civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety in the land, and believing that the diffusion of sound learning is essential to the perpetuity of these blessings, having founded and endowed a college at Hillsdale, Hillsdale County, State of Michigan.”