About 100 years ago, the cynical columnist H.L. Mencken wrote a two sentence piece that accurately frames Vice President Mike Pence’s conundrum as he prepares for his 2018 Hillsdale College commencement speech: “The saddest life is that of a political aspirant under democracy. His failure is ignominious and his success is disgraceful.”
Pence can’t win in the eyes of the public — even in our small-batch eyes. And he never has. When, as Indiana governor in 2015, he chose to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to favor the LGBT community, principled conservatives cried out against him. A governor letting himself get pushed around by empty threats from those corporate eunuchs over at Apple and Salesforce? Ludicrous. Cowardly.
When he was picked as President Donald Trump’s running mate in 2016 (goofily billed as the assuagement for “principled conservatives”), the rest of the country railed against him “because he hates gays.” That’s the only thing many people know about him. It’s not even true.
But so it goes. Pence is a politician, and he signed up for this hullabaloo.Whatever he does — failure or success — the nation will criticize him because he’s only a human. Just like the rest of us.
For many students at Hillsdale, that’s not the whole problem. By picking Pence as our commencement speaker — a choice that has already made national news — some argue that the college furthers the perception of Hillsdale as the intellectual arm of the Trump administration, not the paragon of a liberal arts education you see on the brochures.
It’s a fair criticism. Seven of our professors — including College President Larry Arnn — publicly endorsed Trump in the 2016 election. Hillsdale just hired Trump’s now-former National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton to be a lecturer at the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship. If that name isn’t familiar, look up Publius Decius Mus, the fourth-century B.C. Roman consul who wrote a series of fervently pro-Trump blog posts in early 2016. Our school is a locus for highly educated people who support The Donald.
And that’s fine. The administration and the friends of the college want to situate graduates in positions of political influence. Right now, that means supporting Trump.
So be it. These people helped most of us pay for our educations with generous scholarships. To all those liberally educated soon-to-be-graduating students, the ones who are afraid of becoming implicit in the Trump administration just because they will receive their final collegiate benediction from the vice president — too late; you took that cannoli. Now leave the gun.
That’s just the nature of this college. We like to say that we approach education in the style of ancient Athens, building spaces for free inquiry. In truth, we’re more aligned with the tactics of ancient Sparta, which retained order and a specific culture through a strict and rigorous education. Hillsdale College is not a place of unbounded conversation or a center for opening up the minds of its students with unregulated discourse. That would be the same madness that allowed demagogues such as Alcibiades to crash the Athenian empire after 30 short years.
No, this is Sparta. Hillsdale College is a conditioning camp that teaches its students how to think, if the students choose to participate. Like Spartan education, which taught its young men to hold the fatherland dear, we learn to cling to the good, the true, and the beautiful. Anything else is foreign — and not good enough for a Hillsdale student. The only major difference between us and Sparta is that Hillsdale does not force opinions on its students. It simply presents a way of looking at the world; students can either embrace it or abandon it to the Michigan cold.
No matter what he says, Pence’s commencement address will present weighty questions for students’ judgement — so give the guy a chance.
After all, these things are a parable. If you listen closely, maybe you’ll decipher its meaning.
Nic Rowan is a junior studying history.