Freshmen phi­los­o­phize over reading Aris­totle prior to freshman year. | The Duran | Courtesy

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.”