Hillsdale College Central Hall 

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.