Rivendell | Wiki­media Commons

In last week’s Col­legian (“Hillsdale Isn’t Athens. This is Sparta.”), junior Nic Rowan com­pared Hillsdale College to Sparta. According to him, a Hillsdale edu­cation more closely resembles the rig­orous mil­itary training of Spartan youths than the open inquiry that char­ac­terized Athens.

But, really, Hillsdale isn’t much like either of those ancient cities. In fact, the place it most resembles is Rivendell, the fic­tional Elven realm of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” novels.

In “The Hobbit,” Tolkien called Rivendell “the Last Homely House,” and described it as “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” 

Rivendell is the place Tolkien’s pro­tag­o­nists go to prepare for the quest to save the world from the forces of evil. At Rivendell, the hobbits hear the songs of old and ancient legends — they learn what is good and true and beau­tiful in the world, and why all those things worth loving are imperiled. 

But, they do not learn these things for the mere sake of their defense; indeed, quite the opposite is true. Frodo and Sam and the rest of their party more-or-less overhear many of these old stories and beau­tiful songs, because the ones singing and chanting them are cel­e­brating their beauty for its own sake.

Likewise, the purpose of liberal edu­cation is not merely to teach men what is good, true, and beau­tiful so those men can become war­riors, turning the tide of pro­gressive pol­itics against leftist activism.

In a 1961 essay titled “What is Liberal Edu­cation?”, Leo Strauss, a political philosopher who has influ­enced many at Hillsdale, wrote that “Liberal edu­cation is lib­er­ation from vul­garity… Liberal edu­cation sup­plies us with expe­rience in things beautiful.”

For Strauss, this liberal edu­cation is a prepa­ration for the life of phi­losophy — the con­tem­plation of those beau­tiful things. In his view, and the tra­di­tional view upon which the her­itage of liberal edu­cation is built, the goal of the uni­versity in society is to make a space safe for this philosophizing.

In a 1962 essay expanding on these themes, Strauss wrote that, “When com­paring pol­itics to phi­losophy strictly under­stood, one realizes that phi­losophy is of higher rank than pol­itics.” The object of the good life is the beau­tiful things, and the good society is orga­nized around those same things, too. 

Rowan’s view of Hillsdale College becoming a kind of tech­nical school for budding statesmen, “a con­di­tioning camp that teaches its stu­dents how to think, if the stu­dents choose to par­tic­ipate,” flies in the face of Strauss’s con­ception of a liberal education.

To be sure, the college has a certain respon­si­bility to the republic. Stu­dents are, in fact, meant to go out into the world and accom­plish amazing things, and we should always be grateful for the liberty that makes the city safe for Socrates. But, in a much deeper sense, the republic has a duty to the college. Pol­itics exists to protect phi­losophy, because phi­losophy is the higher way of life. 

A schol­arship of freedom is good and true, and the glories of states­manship are both nec­essary and attractive. According to Strauss, though, “liberal edu­cation con­sists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loud-speakers. Liberal edu­cation seeks light and therefore shuns the limelight.”

Tolkien’s hobbits expe­rience some­thing similar at Rivendell. After an evening of lis­tening to epic poems and great songs, Tolkien wrote that Frodo and Sam “spoke no more of the small news of the Shire far away, nor of the dark shadows and perils that encom­passed them, but of the fair things they had seen in the world together, of the Elves, of the stars, of trees, and the gentle fall of the bright year in the woods.”

Com­mencement is a moment much like this. We gather to remind our­selves what this good life is. We gather to cel­e­brate the essential expe­rience of a liberal edu­cation — an expe­rience that tran­scends politics. 

Hillsdale is not the scene of the final battle. We don’t make stu­dents endure the core cur­riculum as a last-ditch attempt to break through the cul­tural siege of the left; we undertook the endeavor of the last four years because reading Plato’s “Republic” or Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is worth doing for its own sake

Ulti­mately, our edu­cation is founded on some­thing bigger and better than the swirling cur­rents of con­tem­porary pol­itics. “Goodness, truth, and beauty” is more than a mar­keting slogan — it is a way of life.


Michael Luc­chese is a senior majoring in American studies.