Against this rage how shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Sonnet 65, William Shakespeare
That the arts are forced to defend themselves during annual budget talks in Washington, D.C. is nothing new. That the arts are forced to defend themselves at Hillsdale College is shameful.
Every four to six years, the institutional memory of Hillsdale College’s Student Federation draws a blank. An ambitious representative, vice president, or even president sees an opportunity to distinguish himself or herself from the other thousands of applicants seeking post-graduate opportunities: I reduced wasteful spending at Hillsdale College.
And what could be more wasteful than a flower? We see them at funerals and we see them at weddings, but really, does a funeral or a wedding cease to exist if flowers are absent? We don’t really need them, not in any essential way at least.
What else can we live without? Quite a lot, if you think about it.
We can live without honor. We can live without beauty. The Student Federation budget vote last week showed that we can also live without justice or courage: No one ceased to exist after the 11 – 2 vote, nor did an abstention put an end to the budget approval process. Our biology continuously asserts itself: We live and breathe and have our being, albeit passively. Our lungs work involuntarily, our cells operate involuntarily, our hearts beat involuntarily. Just like any animal, we won’t die if we live without honor or beauty or justice or courage.
We won’t truly live, however, without culture.
What we need for survival as an animal is not what we need for survival as a human person. We have always needed the arts. The arts elevate us above our biology, above merely existing, above seeing this liberal-arts college as a training ground for how to become a specialized cog within a specialized machine that we call “making a living.”
The irony is not that I have to defend the liberal arts from within a liberal-arts college. The real irony is that the Tower Light and the Student Federation are involved equally in the business of vocational training, yet no one has ever threatened the budget of the Student Federation.
The Tower Light gives its editors, editorial board members, poets, writers, photographers, artists, and graphic designers the exact same experience that the Student Federation gives to its elected officers and representatives. Future administrators, policymakers, and legislators all get the opportunity to see what it’s like to propose, to debate, to compromise, and to promulgate.
For both groups of students, then, for the Tower Light and for the Student Federation, it’s vocational training. Both groups gain real world experience in applying their Hillsdale education to a real-world situation. Granted, this particular real world experience takes place deep within a bubble, but the experiences here will help Student Federation members face those future times with confidence. Why take away that exact same opportunity from those who labor on the Tower Light? They will write, they will edit, they will design, they will manage, and they will publish.
Officers and Representatives of the Student Federation, you have pledged in front of the entire College that you will devote yourselves to “the active cultivation of intellectual and moral excellence.” Stomping on a flower doesn’t solve the problem it represents, it reveals only the uncultured rage of the stomper.
But, if a flower is allowed to be what it is, its plea can be as strong as culture itself.
The flower that is the Tower Light has already been grown for you; your pledged task of cultivation here is merely to provide some water. The Tower Light will provide beauty if you provide justice. Together, both can provide honor to the foundation that gives each their purpose: Hillsdale College.
Dutton Kearney is an associate professor of English at Hillsdale College.