Liberal arts are alive and well at Hillsdale.
TAMPA — Other than professional training and disciplines like math and the hard sciences — where there are real answers that can be demonstrated — it’s a legitimate question in America and most of the West whether college is worth the time, cost, aggravation, and misdirection that come with it.
Several decades into an era when left indoctrination has replaced education at most universities, students studying anything other than math, physics, or the pre-med cycle emerge from four years at Old Sywash not only not having learned much to help them become intelligent, functioning adults, but having been convinced of a lot of rot that isn’t true. Surely this has been documented sufficiently that I needn’t cite chapter and verse.
True enough a bachelor’s degree is helpful in getting a job. Far too many jobs in America require applicants to have a degree, even though the work in said job has nothing to do with any knowledge or skills the applicant picked up idling in college for four years. A degree can function as a paper qualification, even when the degree holder has learned next to nothing in “earning” that degree from a dumbed-down, politicized contemporary university.
The sort of pillage that has laid intellectual waste to most university campuses has made moot the question of whether it’s worth spending four years attaining a “useless and impractical” degree in the liberal arts. As a liberal arts major (history and literature) from a time before the revolution, when most university professors were merely dotty, I’m a believer. This is why I regret that a liberal arts education is no longer available at most universities.
I know, I know, current college catalogues have page after page of descriptions of courses in anthropology, political science, history, and English (want to have your hair curled? — read some of the course descriptions in this once noble but now most disfigured “discipline”). But look closely and you’ll see that in too many cases Shakespeare has been replaced by comic books or soap operas. Matthew Arnold, that hopeless old Mustache Pete of a dead, white, European male, who deluded generations with such racist, sexist, homophonic, phalocentric nonsense as “Culture is to know the best that has been said and thought in the world,” has been replaced by a procession of left savants. These hustlers retail the latest victimology in the tripartite obsessions of the contemporary humanities professor: race, class, and gender (the last being the vague and fluid word academics now use as a replacement for the clear and solid word “sex”).
Happily, not all colleges and universities are little more than leftist playpens. There are small redoubts where a liberal arts education is still available, and where the general education requirements for pre-professionals are not simply seminars in ways to hate your country, your religion, and every value your parents ever taught you. Hillsdale College in southern Michigan is one of these places.
In a symposium on the future of conservatism in the January edition of Commentary, Hillsdale president Larry Arnn has this to say: “Conservatism regards certain things as abiding. There are laws of nature, and freedom, justice, and civilization depend upon the recognition of those laws.” Exactly so, but how long has it been since we’ve heard this in a faculty lounge without a sneer attached to it?
Arnn goes on: “The politics of the left lead to friction along racial and class lines. They raise up a new political class that governs through privileged influence. This political class, for all its pretensions of science and progress, does and will continue to do what unaccountable rulers do: govern in its own interest.” Spot on again, but say this in class and see how long it is before you get tenure at Left-Wing State.
Arnn concludes: “If conservatism is to live, it must repudiate absolutely this system of limitless government, of class and racial privilege and discrimination, of the overturning of human nature, of the vaunting of the ruling class.” This brings an “amen” from this pew, but causes widespread hyperventilation in the humanities faculty lounge.
It was my pleasure to meet Arnn last week when he made similar points to these before an audience of 200+ at a Tampa hotel. He was not afraid to say that it was a goal of his small liberal arts college (just short of 1,500 students) that graduates leave with a feel “for what it is to be a good man or woman.” (And how retro of him to keep the choices to two.) He stressed that the purpose of education at his college is not just to prepare graduates to find a job, though alert employers could do worse than hiring his graduates.
The liberal arts tradition is alive at Hillsdale, where, Arnn says, students are taught how rather than what to think. Hillsdale is not dumbed-down, and students seeking a degree there will have to work to earn it. “It takes time and effort to know something,” Arnn said.
Arnn pleased his clearly conservative audience of potential donors, and, doubtless, parents of future Hillsdale students, by validating other sentiments many had been yearning to hear from an academic, including: “We’re in the character building business, while we inform the mind. Both go together.” At Hillsdale, he said, there is respect for absolute truth, as well as for liberty and the consent of the governed. This makes a nice distinction between Hillsdale and most of contemporary academe where “there is no absolute truth and they just make it up as they go along.”
Arnn got no blowback from his observations on the current political scene. He said while there is certainly a possibility of a rebirth of the understanding of freedom in America, “The situation now is urgent — we’re on a path to despotism, to a racist and classist society.” Also: “Government is very big and politicians are overwhelmed by it.” He also got a big hand for this advice offered to the Sandra Flukes of the world, who are in a quandary over how ever to sort out their sex lives unless the government steps in to pay for their birth control: “Lord, woman, you should get married.” (Any takers?)
Another eccentricity of Hillsdale, other than that it takes the traditional view of living and learning, is that to maintain its admirable independence, neither the college nor any of its students accepts any subsidies from any level of government. This strings-attached government money makes up a significant fraction of the funding of most universities. This is a fact readers might keep in mind when wondering if they should send a check to Old Sywash or Left-Wing State because they went there before professors were more like Pol Pot than like dowdy old Doctor Dudley in English 301. You can bet your Norton Anthology that there is more conservative bang for the buck to be gotten elsewhere.
The satirist can’t turn an honest buck making fun of the modern university. No matter how absurd a picture he paints, the reality is even weirder and more destructive of the West’s fundamental values. When I hear the term “higher education” these days I can’t help but ask, “higher than what?” It’s a comfort to know there are still a few places, like Hillsdale, where the work of the academic angels is still being done.
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