At Hillsdale, a College Education Is Still Possible

At Hillsdale, a College Education Is Still Possible
Hillsdale College's Central Hall. (Courtesy of Hillsdale College)
Jeffrey A. Tucker

The news pouring out of the nation’s colleges and universities is grim. Wokeness pervades every discipline. The non-left is being purged from both students and faculty. The vaccine mandate has been a useful tool in that respect. It gets rid of those willing to think for themselves.

Already long ago, the curriculum seemed ever less to do with anything the West would have called education in the last several hundred years. Then came the lockdowns, dorm quarantines, and bans on even attending college, after which the forced tests, masked lectures, and vaccine mandates, all for which parents pay in the six figures.

The industry as it is seems unsustainable, especially given the sketchy benefits relative to costs. One and a half million students have dropped plans to sign up this fall. Enrollment is down 3.2 percent, which will create a serious financial problem for many institutions. Go woke, go broke is a principle that seems to explain the fate of most of these institutions.

And yet there are some institutions that are thriving precisely because they have been brave enough to offer an alternative: a real education as people understood that term one hundred years ago, or even as recently as 20 years ago.

It was my honor this week to visit as a lecturer at Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, Michigan. I spoke on the economics of the pandemic response. Impressed is an understatement. It is a small institution with a mighty mission. Most important, the institution was tested during the pandemic, and it prevailed. Such tests are meaningful because they reveal whether the mission is for real or show. At Hillsdale, it is for real, and it matters.

It was the right spot for such a talk. This college was one of the few to maintain rationality, science, clarity, and serve its student population faithfully throughout. Even in 2020, when the rest of academia was in meltdown, Hillsdale President Larry Arnn insisted on going ahead with in-person commencement. He rejected the panic and the propaganda. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni backed him.

Of course the media went wild with fury but the students, parents, and faculty had the emotional experience of their lives. They encountered what it is truly like to put principles ahead of expediency. Further, they saw what it means for an institution to serve its stakeholders with a devotion to intellectual integrity and dedication to truth.

It’s tragic how many colleges and universities failed the test, and we could write books on that. But thanks to Hillsdale College, we have at least one case that shows what it means to be brave in the service of learning. The idea of the university, wrote John Henry Cardinal Newman, was to be a sanctuary for truth when the rest of the world is consumed with error, superstition, violence, and frenzy. That was the whole point of the medieval university: protection for ideas, research for truth, teaching for the next generation, and as a light to the world.

Today Hillsdale serves as a light to the country and the world. For years, the college has grown in stature with high-quality faculty, earnest students, and ever more services, including graduate degrees and online education that serves hungry learners the world over. It’s a small college in a tiny town with a global reach. These days, it is rather difficult to get into also, but those students lucky enough to make it are treated to an experience few institutions offer anymore.

I had the chance to meet many members of the illustrious economics faculty, among whom is Professor Ivan Pongracic. I have known him for years but it was great to get caught up. He joined a faculty that said no to the nonsense and went right ahead with the passion of their lives, which is teaching and inspiring a new generation to be well read, disciplined. intellectually curious. They did not relinquish this responsibility when it mattered most.

I sat at length with a number of economics students, and it was rather startling actually. They were all conversant in the deep history of ideas and we casually chatted about centuries of economic controversies and ideas. We shared ideas as colleagues as we discussed Adam Smith, Joseph Schumpeter, J.M. Keynes and his followers, and threw out references to F.A. Hayek’s writings, plus the classical school and so on. I was truly floored by their educational breadth and focus.

As it turns out, these students do the impossible thing these days: they actually read books. This is what makes them different in a time when the preponderance of students have only learned how to pretend to pay attention, pretend to know the material, and otherwise wile away the days, months, and years preparing to become internet influencers before sinking into despair at dashed hopes.

I’ve known many graduates from Hillsdale over the years, and they truly stand out because the striving for excellence is instilled in their coursework and the whole campus environment. The town is tiny with few distractions from study. Even on the evening I spoke, a crowd showed up, listened attentively, asked great questions and then went up to prepare for the next day of classes. No, the town bars were not spilling over with parties, as incredible as that seems in a college town.

During dinner, with a group of students—who, by the way, all had impeccable table manners, which I’ve not seen in many years—not one picked up a cell phone or seemed distracted. They were focused on the conversation, engaged closely, excited to talk about their studies, asking profound questions that I could not answer, and otherwise truly living the life of the mind. What a dream for these kids!

I get that it is not for everyone but that’s fine: college is not for everyone either. That’s a huge mistake that the United States has made in the postwar period: the belief that taking just anyone out of the stream of regular life for four years has some magical effect to bring about success in life. More often than not these days, the opposite is likely true. The typical college experience teaches all the wrong lessons and instills the wrong habits, which is why so many employers are loath to hire anyone with mushy degrees from institutions with reputations for indulging activism rather than insisting on excellence.

It’s because of this shared experience of classical education that the alumni network is so incredibly strong. When I was there, it was a parents’ weekend in which they all gathered to call alumni and talk about the future and encourage support. You see, Hillsdale absolutely refuses government money, which means that it is all up to the donors. But they have come through and continue to build an institution designed to withstand the onslaught and thrive.

My experience reminds me that no matter how dark the times are, there are points of light out there, places that are devoted to the rebuilding of this country and the world. It doesn’t require famous, rich, media-blessed institutions so much as places built by dedication to truth and that are willing to stick to principles regardless. For this reason, Hillsdale College today truly shines as a light in extremely hard times.

Best of all, the students and faculty know this and are confident about it. There is hope after all, even for academia.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute, and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.
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