One of the greatest aspects of college life is the embrace of tradition. Those traditions come in varying forms, shades, colors, hues, and amounts of pride. Mascots, scarves, jackets, victory marches, alma maters. You’ve probably never met a graduate of Texas A&M or the University of Notre Dame without immediately knowing — because that person has probably signaled it, quietly and not so quietly — that he or she attended that institution. Rings, clothing, songs, lingo, and even personality are stamped on each and everyone of them.
This is just as true at Hillsdale as it is at Notre Dame or Texas A&M, we just don’t shout it as loudly as the members of those communities.
After all, think about our origins. Founded in 1844 by those who embraced intelligent piety and an evangelical Christianity, the institution sought much that was radical but deeply humane in that chaotic upheaval of a decade. From day one, this college allowed anyone — regardless of the accidents of birth — to attend. Astounding, really. Not only could those of African descent participate fully in every aspect of college life, but women, too, were allowed the privilege of earning a liberal arts degree. Yes, there’s at least one other college in the United States that can claim the admission of women just a bit earlier than we can, but that college restricted its female students to the study of home economics (domestic science) only. In other words, we were the very first college to allow every single person the potential of being liberal in the absolute best sense of the word, to be liberated from the things of this world and inhabit the life of the mind.
It doesn’t stop there. The earliest historian here, Ransom Dunn, furious with the immoral and unethical Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 — which would allow territories to offer a simple majority vote over whether or not some men had the right to enslave other men — helped launch a movement that would ultimately doom the institution of slavery in 1865. Faculty and administrators from Hillsdale followed the age-long Anglo-Saxon tradition of creating their laws under an oak tree. Just as Venus descended upon a grove of oaks to give her son, Aeneas, the weapons of the gods, so these men from Hillsdale met under a grove of oak trees in Jackson, Michigan, and formed the Republican party.
When the time came to defend those beliefs, hundreds of Hillsdale men volunteered to serve in Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Like Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at the Gates of Fire, Hillsdale men — members of the 24th Michigan regiment — stood at a bottleneck on the eastern side of a little Lutheran town in Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863. As fate would have it, they met the same end as the 300 Spartans over 2,300 years earlier. Confederate forces which outnumbered them almost ten to one that afternoon mowed down the 24th Michigan in about twenty minutes. The 24th Michigan and their allies had stood so firm, though, that the Confederates, intimidated by what they saw, refused to advance any further into town. Through their failure, the Confederacy spent a full three days attempting to take the high ground. After 52,000 men had fallen, each side gave up. Though not a clear Union victory, Union forces had prevented rebels from marching through New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Leonidas helped birth the West, and the Hillsdale men helped create “a new birth of freedom.” Molon labe, indeed.
The next time you walk between Kendall and Lane, past the statue of the Civil War soldier — with Lincoln bowing to him and Douglass encouraging him — offer at least a small thanks to the Hillsdale soldiers who gave everything in the cause of constitutionalism and the liberty for all. And, when you have a bit more time, give a much larger thanks.
And, never forget, you are connected to that Hillsdale student who fought in Civil War as much as you’re connected to the person who lives in the dorm next to you. When you’re choosing everything from how to behave to your neighbor to how to study or to how to pick a career, make sure you ask yourself if you’re worthy of those who gave everything in 1863.
Whatever my own failings — and they are many — I do not let a day of lecturing go by without silently acknowledging what Hillsdale men and women have done, time and time again. It is humbling, and it is inspiring, but, no matter what, I want to be worthy of them.
Hillsdale students, indeed, have been performing heroic service to and for the republic since 1844. Don’t ever let this tradition fail or be found wanting.
There’s another tradition we embrace, as important as the one of sacrifice — and this is liberal education. What we teach, what we study, and what we learn has its origins in the very beginnings of philosophy, somewhere around 510BC in a town that is now on the Turkish coast. Over the last century and a half, all but a handful have neglected this tradition. What was once the means by which educated men and women formed a community bridging time and space has become a relic, a nuisance, and a distortion.
Hillsdale, though, knows that true liberalism is about liberation and fulfillment, not esotericism and Gnosticism. Just as Hillsdale embraces universal principles in its own unique way, so every person to ever live is a unique expression of universal truth. Or, as one of my heroes once put it, every person is an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom. Liberal education never conforms, but it always leavens.
So, yes, we have profound traditions. We may not be as loud as Notre Dame or Texas A&M, but we most certainly know who we are and that for which we stand. Whether you’ve just arrived here or whether you’ve resided here for several years, embrace the tradition. And, be worthy.
Dr. Brad Birzer is a Professor of History and holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College.