During the Senate debate over Hillsdale College’s tax status last Friday night, New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer ungrammatically tweeted: “Impossible to overstate how beloved Hillsdale is in USA right. It’s their ideal college & constantly has right-wing luminaries as guests.”
Heer is correct that Hillsdale College is openly conservative. But he and many of Hillsdale’s critics are confused about what our conservatism means. They seem to think that the college is an ideological boot camp, training a new generation of policy wonks and campus activists. This is not and never has been Hillsdale’s mission.
“Conservative” is a slippery word that means many things to many people. When seeking to define it, we must begin by asking what exactly the conservative seeks to conserve.
At Hillsdale College, conservatism is not a catechism of policy prescriptions. It does not mean protecting particular tax rates or levels of entitlement spending — although these are important questions which are sometimes debated on campus.
In just the last few weeks, campus groups have hosted everything from a series of talks on the Reformation from both Protestant and Catholic perspectives, to a debate on what U.S.-China relations should look like in the future. One student club, Praxis, even brought in a speaker to make the case for increased immigration.
Unlike other colleges, these debates are still possible on Hillsdale’s campus. Black-clad gangs of radicals do not shout down our guests, and the administration does not police student speech according to the faddish standards of political correctness. Heer and Hillsdale’s leftist critics say that the college’s conservatism is stifling and discriminatory, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Students at Hillsdale are open-minded and willing to question their beliefs because of their conservatism, not in spite of it. Hillsdale is a place where young people choose to learn from old books, and that’s what makes us conservative. We believe that the truly great things, the things most worth studying, never really change. They are permanent.
Russell Kirk, the late founder of modern American conservatism and a former faculty member at Hillsdale College, explained that “By ‘the Permanent Things’ [we] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.”
It starts even before students get to campus. Freshmen are asked to read Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” the summer before they begin classes. Then, every student is required to go through a demanding core curriculum which focuses on the great books — no football player, science nerd, or frat boy can escape life-changing encounters with Homer, Augustine, and Shakespeare.
Over time, the Hillsdale student accumulates a broad knowledge of the Western heritage. But even more than that, Hillsdale initiates her students into a conversation with the greatest minds of human history. For the Hillsdale student, that conversation is not merely of antiquarian interest. It raises urgent questions which provide the very foundations of Western civilization and our way of life.
In 1938, as Nazi Germany prepared to conquer Eastern Europe, Winston Churchill gave an address at the University of Bristol. “When Civilization reigns, in any country, a wider and less harassed life is afforded to the masses of the people,” he said. ”The traditions of the past are cherished, and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.”
Hillsdale’s students and faculty are interested in politics because they want to conserve education in civilization’s permanent things.Whether it is the Department of Education’s bureaucrats interfering with the college’s admission policies or Democratic Senators slandering our college on the floor of Congress, the government often tries to obstruct our ability to enjoy and use our civilization’s inheritance.
Heer and other critics were quick this weekend to point out how many of our students go on to careers in political life. The thing these critics miss, however, is that Hillsdale produces just as many doctors and teachers and businessmen working in their home states as it produces activists and staffers working in Washington. A Hillsdale education isn’t about politics, it transcends politics.
The graduates we do send to D.C. do not go because they are want to promote a partisan agenda. They go because they are conservatives in a truer sense of the word. They want to conserve the permanent things. If Jeet Heer understood that, perhaps he wouldn’t say that Hillsdale is merely the American right’s ideal college — perhaps he would say that Hillsdale is the ideal college, period.