The Hillsdale freshman summer reading assignment has been a requirement for approximately 10 years, but many students are still wondering where it started.
“The reasons are many, but in essence you have readings that illuminate the Honor Code and what it means to be a student here,” Provost David Whalen said in an email.
When incoming freshmen are accepted, one of their first tasks before arriving on campus is to complete two assigned readings: “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington” by Richard Brookhiser, and the introduction and first book of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics.”
The reason for selecting these two pieces is ambiguous to most students, and often the choices, particularly Aristotle, are said to be more frustrating than enlightening.
Assistant Director of Northwest and Great Plains recruitment Jill Buccola, ’13, described her own experience with the readings.
“It’s like dumping someone in the deep end of philosophy,” Buccola said of Aristotle. “I definitely did not know enough to really get what I was reading. But for me, since freshman year, I always reached back to those readings. I definitely understand a lot more about them now than I did back then. There was a lot about the reading that you just can’t get until a while later.”
Director of Field Recruitment Jennifer Brewer, ’08, concurred.
“I think it scared me a little bit in a good way, like, ‘Oh wow, we’ll have to read hard books and be expected to talk about them,’” Brewer said. “In setting the tone, it was important to have that assignment.”
Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn emphasized that the freshman readings are an essential part of the beginning of a student’s time at Hillsdale, since the first impression is often the most lasting.
“We’ve got to tell them [what Hillsdale is about], get people who actually want to do what we do here. Don’t disappoint them. Make them choose this,” Arnn said.
He explained that the difficulty of the Aristotle reading serves a very specific purpose, beyond what he called its “powerful deterrent value.”
“They can think they’re real smart, you know, and now they’re going to read this. It tells them that this is serious, and it’s not going to be easy, and it tells them that they better get their boots on,” Arnn said.
Whalen added that the “Ethics” say “profound things about what it means to be human,” modeling the mental habits which a liberal education is intended to cultivate.
“In other words, students become aware that they are in over their heads and are then prepared to wonder, ‘Which is the precondition to all serious learning?’” he said.
Brewer said that having freshmen read the two works before arriving on campus is “laying the groundwork” for the kind of scholarship they are going to pursue in the ensuing four years. Buccola agreed.
“I like the fact that I know that over the summer, after I’ve finally convinced students to commit to Hillsdale, they’re going to be kind of dumped into some really hard reading,” she said.
Most students eventually return to the philosopher, despite his difficulty.
Brewer described how four years after arriving at Hillsdale, she took a class on Aristotle with Arnn, and even began an Aristotle reading group that continued for a year after her graduation, which she called “one of the best book clubs I’ve ever been to.”
“The first year I had no idea what he was talking about, I wasn’t following the argument. And then my senior year, I took the class with Dr. Arnn and I loved it, and I understood it,” Brewer said. “It takes this discipline and this revisiting, and it paves the way for you to appreciate the clarity that professors give, who can give life to something that is so challenging at first.”
For freshmen reading Aristotle the first time, this challenge can be a “real deterrent,” but Arnn said this is a good thing.
“I think C.S. Lewis writes somewhere that you know the strength of a thing if you struggle against it,” Arnn said. “And you know the strength most fully if you almost fail.”