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Russell Kirk taught at Hillsdale College as a dis­tin­guished vis­iting pro­fessor of the human­ities.

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.

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Michael Lucchese
Michael Lucchese ‘18 is majoring in American Studies, and is a member of the Dow Journalism Program. In addition to the Collegian, he has also contributed to The Federalist, Acculturated, Conservative Review, and several other publications. In 2015, he reported on national security and foreign policy for Breitbart News. He also hosts a weekly radio show, The Michael Lucchese Show on Radio Free Hillsdale WRFH 101.7 FM. e-mail: mlucchese@hillsdale.edu Twitter: @MichaelLucchese