Russell and Duenes

From the ivory tower: liberty and learning

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In this short little book (75 pages), Hillsdale College President, Larry Arnn, takes the reader on a brief history of “the evolution of American education,” particularly higher education, and Hillsdale’s beginnings and role within that history, summed up in these powerful words:

In 1959 the germ of an idea passed Congress, but it was vetoed in the White House. The idea was that ordinary folk could give their money to colleges instead of to the government. The great asset that government holds today, greater even than its vast holdings of land, is the enormous claim it holds upon the wealth and income of the American people. There is no good reason why the people cannot give that money away themselves. Some way should be found. Of course the powers of modern education will object to this. They will say that this is easy for Hillsdale College to recommend. We have found a way to survive without money from the taxpayer. The answer to that is – yes, with great difficulty we have. What one can do, so can another. These powers will also say that education is so very important, that people must be taxed to pay for it even if they do not want to be. That is a despotic argument, the kind of thing to which our brightest intellectuals are too much given these days. These powers will say finally that we do not care enough about education. The answer to that is that we care about it just as the Founders of America did. It is vital to all that is good and true. Therefore it ought not to be left in the hands of people who believe in neither good nor truth. It is too important for that. Let ordinary people decide, place by place and family by family, what is to be done. This argument cannot be won until it is started. After it is started, it will continue for a long time. Meanwhile, we at Hillsdale College will remember the Founders and continue their work, come what may [emphasis mine].

According to Arnn, this statement sums up what Hillsdale College has been about since her inception back in 1844, when Hillsdale was “the first institution of higher learning founded, anywhere in the world, with an expressed commitment to accept black and white, man and woman, impartially [p.20].” Hillsdale was admitting blacks before the Civil War, without affirmative action programs, mind you; and Hillsdale had welcomed Frederick Douglass to speak on her campus. Arnn carefully explains how Hillsdale has always been committed to the Founder’s vision as set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Hillsdale still teaches a Western Civilization course, much to the chagrin (and likely the embarrassment) of the academic world.

Arnn provides three “snapshots” in time, key years in American educational and Hillsdale history. The first year is 1787 and the document is the Northwest Ordinance. This ordinance contains an exhortation that Arnn takes to be the guiding light for all proper educational philosophy and endeavor: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall ever be encouraged [p.2].” If this statement is true, then Arnn wonders why the Founders did not support and enact federal funding for education as we have today. His answer seems to be that the Founders, understanding the true nature of man and his propensity to act corruptly when holding too much power “knew better than to make education an administrative fiefdom of a central power [p.17].” Thus, oversight of education should be left at the state and local level and should be “the property of individual citizens [p.4].”

The next key year is 1844, the year that Hillsdale was founded. Hillsdale had always intended to open her gates to students of any race, color, and sex, and they founders knew that in order to do that, they would need to get people on board who agreed with the vision and would put their money behind it. This was not easy. Arnn tells the story of how a man named Ransom Dunn “moved his family to Wisconsin and traveled the area month after month, from town to town and from farm to farm. He talked to individuals. He preached at church services. He asked whoever he met to give whatever they could. Receiving gifts of a dollar or two at a time, or $5 or $10 from the more generous or affluent [p.21].” All told Dunn was able to raise $22,000, no small feat in those days by such tiresome methods. But the hand of Providence was with them and has been ever since. Yet Arnn’s desire is to convey WHY the school was founded. What was her purpose? The purpose was, in contrast to almost all higher education today, to provide a liberal education so that “the discussion of ordinary citizens…reflects and reveals the ‘laws of nature and of nature’s God’ that distinguish good action from bad, justice from injustice, liberty from license, and freedom from tyranny [p.24].” Private education based on local government was the way to make this happen, and according to those at Hillsdale, still is.

Arnn notes that educational philosphy in this country changed over the course of the next hundred years, but Hillsdale’s commitments didn’t. The 1950s – 70s become another lynch pin in the story because in these years the federal government began to put the squeeze on the college, hoping to force her to abandon her commitment to a truly liberal education. Hillsdale was attacked for continuing to teach Western Civilization in a manner that wasn’t almost wholly critical of it and for not keeping track of the race and gender of her students. ¬†For Arnn, two lessons come out of this: First, most students in government-funded schools are impoverished because they must follow the strictures of PC multiculturalism, the idea that there is nothing better in Western Civilization than in any other culture. Second, keeping track of student color and sex degrades and destroys the educational enterprise. Arnn writes, “Neither from the point of view of the nature of the human being, nor from the point of view of the highest goal of education, does it make the slightest difference what color someone is [p57].”

The final chapter centers on the year 2004. This is one of the most profound chapters, for in it, Arnn reflects on the true nature and purpose of education, and how Hillsdale continues to cast vision for and educate to such an end. He says that today’s university system is largely bankrupt because it is almost entirely bereft of open academic inquiry (seeing as the overwhelming number of professors and administrators, “stakeholders” as he calls them, vote for and support one political party). But worse, the current academy does not have a robust notion of “the good,” and this means that our students don’t know why they’re being educated, and they lose heart. He writes, “Training in habit means training for service to the good. Even at the advanced level education requires faith that something good and true can be found. Otherwise the work is itself vain. Vain tasks are not prosecuted with vigor [p.63]…”In other words it is important to education that students learn to love the things that are good and high. To do that, they must believe that there are such things…They will have to think hard. They will not think hard unless they think they have something good to think about [p.67].”

Hillsdale College believes there are “good and high” things to think about, and having thought about them, to apply to one’s life. Thank God there are many who believe in it along with them so that by divine Providence the college lives on. May their tribe increase. I heartily recommend this book to anyone genuinely interested not only in education, but in the things that are true, beautiful, and good.


Written by Michael Duenes

June 14, 2009 at 4:16 am

Posted in Duenes, Education

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