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: Twitter: @MichaelLucchese
  • AlexanderYpsilantis

    The Political Left in America no longer has any ideas or proposals worth discussing. Nearly all their core beliefs have been tried and found wanting in America and other nations around the world. Their current ‘contributions’ to political discussions and debate are mostly name-calling, insults, ridicule and refusing to tolerate open discussion of any ideas not related to promoting more federal government control. Hillsdale College, which not only tolerates open debate but promotes it, is a threat to those who fear free discussion. So, they fall back on their usual methods of trying to diminish your input by associating the College with the fringe elements of ‘the Right’. Ignore them, they’re losing their power and they know it. The name-calling has been used to such an extent it’s lost it’s impact. That club doesn’t hurt anymore.

  • Ellsworth_Toohey

    Son, I think we have a difference of definitions.

    Hillsdale isn’t “Conservative”, it’s just less liberal. Or are you confusing “Socially Conservative” with the classical definition of Conservative… which ultimately is classical liberalism? They have nothing to do with anything, “Social Conservatism” is progressivism under any other definition.

    But lets look at not words, but actions. The chair of you economics department graduated from UC Berkeley and run a consulting firm, that amoung other things, sollicites grants from MEDC.

    Conservative? No, less liberal, maybe. But a long way to go. Look up occasionally as you drink the koolaid.

    • AlexanderYpsilantis

      As well he should. NEOCONservatism is not conservatism. It promotes US military intervention in parts of the world where American interests are questionable. The big NEOCON advocates in America, like Bill Kristol, are questionable in their conservative/libertarian credentials and could just as easily be Democrats as Republicans. In fact, many of them have been Democrats in years past. NEOCONservatism is just camouflage for Globalists hiding in the Republican Party, nothing more. They have done great damage to the GOP under the Bush Administration(s) in particular.

      • Ellsworth_Toohey

        I didn’t state that for your benefit, but the writers.

        • AlexanderYpsilantis

          My comments were intended for the education and edification of casual readers, not for you.

          • Ellsworth_Toohey

            Well thank you for that clarification. I’m sure the students and staff of the College appreciate your education in this matter.

          • AlexanderYpsilantis

            Only too happy to help out clearing up the confusion you contribute. It’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it.

          • Ellsworth_Toohey

            What “confusion” were you clearing up? I said Kirk rejected NeoConservatism. That’s all I said. You agreed with me and then went into a long diatribe.

            You insistence on arguing the inane, and now the apparent full agreement does explain why you have a post count of over 3000. I guess you like hearing yourself??

          • AlexanderYpsilantis

            Relax, I was joking about some of the other posts that we’ve locked horns on. On this topic we mostly agree. Peace.