We are spending the week in rural south-central Michigan in the tiny college town of Hillsdale. We traveled here to attend one of Hillsdale College’s week-long educational experiences for adults called Hillsdale Hostel. We chose the session called Twentieth Century American History and what an education we are getting! Much of what we have learned pre-dated the twentieth century because the professors thought we needed to go back and examine the theses put forth by the likes of Marx, Darwin, Freud, Locke, Rousseau, and Nietzsche before we delve into the twentieth century. Admittedly, our science-focused educations left a gap or two in our liberal arts knowledge and time has not sharpened what little we had in the first place. (Sorry! I should speak for myself. Rick is a much better student of history; I’m the one trying to get up to speed!) We listen enthralled by the depth of knowledge these professors possess and the hour-long lectures just fly by; no one wants to move when the class time is up. I don’t recall college being nearly so interesting back when I was a real college student and, of course, already knew everything anyway. Our professors dine with us and have devoted as much time as we want in the evenings after dinner at freewheeling Q&A sessions which have been quite fun. One of the highlights of the week was a cocktail party at the home of VP John and Susan Cervini attended by our professors.
Hillsdale is a fascinating college. It was founded in 1844 and was the first college in Michigan to grant degrees to women. The college was founded by a group of Freewill Baptists who wanted to establish an institution that would “furnish to all persons who wish, irrespective of nationality, color, or sex, a literary, scientific [and] theological education.” It was the first college in the country to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex or race. There were black students at Hillsdale long before the Civil War while many of the Ivy League schools did not admit blacks until after that war. Additionally, it was the second college in the nation to grant four year liberal arts degrees to women. The average class size at Hillsdale is fourteen students.
When the Civil War broke out, the college essentially closed because so many Hillsdale College men answered the call of duty to the Union. They responded in a higher percentage (80%) than any other western college. Four students were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor; three became generals. Below is a picture of the monument to the students who died of wounds or disease in that war. Fredrick Douglass spoke at the college in 1894. His address was entitled “Popular Error and Unpopular Truth.” There is a statue of the famed abolitionist on campus. It was placed near the statue of Abraham Lincoln.
Hillsdale continued its mission and grew to start the first theological school in Michigan in 1870. The school has a long tradition of excelling in sports and was invited to compete in the Tangerine Bowl in 1955 on the condition that it leave the black players out of the game. Hillsdale refused to compete under these conditions because the school was committed to its principles and would not back down, so the college declined the invitation.
Hillsdale ran afoul of the federal government in the 1970s. Since some students were receiving indirect federal aid through student loans, the federal government demanded that Hillsdale count their students by race and abide by affirmative action rules. Hillsdale maintained that it was racist to even acknowledge race in admissions and that the college had never considered race or sex when admitting students. Hillsdale, along with Grove City College in Pennsylvania, fought the matter all the way to the United States Supreme Court where they lost. The Board of Trustees again held firm to their conviction and decided to go it alone with their policy of nondiscrimination and resolved to refuse all federal funds. It took a decade for the college to return to sound footing, but it did just that and has thrived as an institution independent and unencumbered by constraints of government. In addition, it seems that, without the need for a battalion of compliance officers to deal with federal rules and regulations, the college is able to keep tuition down. Currently, tuition is $43,000 per year and generous benefactors and alumni have stepped up to offer scholarships and endowments to the tune of $38,000,000 in fiscal year 2022 alone, reducing the cost per student to an average of $21,000 per year. Sounds like a bargain to me! The campus is growing and the school hopes to be able to accommodate more students in the near future since demand is high from students around the country. Currently, there are about 1,600 students.
A perfect example of the outreach of Hillsdale is in the area of K-12 education all over the country. The college has a K-12 charter school adjacent to campus and it serves as a model for classical charter schools across the country. There are 100+ Hillsdale Classical Schools or schools in the pipeline currently working with Hillsdale to start new charter schools. At present, almost 15,000 students are being taught in schools using Hillsdale’s model and over 8,000 are on waiting lists. There is an unmistakable hunger by parents in America for their children to receive a classical education. Since 2020, probably because of Covid-19, Hillsdale has been offering a homeschool curriculum called K-12@Home. Hillsdale estimates that it spends upwards of $250,000 to support one school over five years. The schools do not pay Hillsdale anything for their help. The mission of this program is “to promote the founding of classical schools and excellence in their teaching and operations, to the end that American students may be educated in the liberal arts and sciences and receive instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue.”
The hostel program includes tours and activities on campus as well as off. One afternoon, interested participants went to the John A. Halter Shooting Sports Education Center for clay shooting. Those who chose not to participate later joined the group at the center for dinner. The story of how the center came to be is quite interesting. Back around 2008, the school found out that it was named in the will of a man who had never even been to Hillsdale, but had received their newsletter, Imprimis. (Over six million Americans receive Hillsdale’s newsletter.) This man left the college well over $1,000,000 for shooting scholarships. At the time, there was no shooting program, but President Larry Arnn decided it would be a great idea to start one to teach students about their Second Amendment rights. It turns out that about 90-95% of the students coming to the college have never handled a firearm of any type, so starting the program was ambitious but well received by the students. The facility is over-the-top fabulous and tricked out with everything for all types of shooting as well as archery. In just a few short years, Hillsdale has developed its program to the point where it takes top honors and awards in competitions all over the country, even besting teams from schools like West Point; the center is home to an impressive number of large trophies. The students have even scored enviable spots on the Olympic shooting teams.
The schedule included a mid-week trip to Sauder Village, but it sounds like Williamsburg, which we visited years ago, so we decided to pass on the trip and stay closer to campus. We took a long walk down to the Oak Grove Cemetery and wandered around for a while. There was a nice tribute to the Civil War veterans throughout the rolling acreage honoring those killed in battle as well as those who served in the Union forces and made it back home. Later in the morning, we took our box lunches to the Slayton Arboretum and had ourselves a fine picnic. “The Arb,” as it is known around campus, started with fourteen acres donated by Mr. and Mrs. George Slayton in 1922. The Slaytons donated the land to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of their graduation from Hillsdale College. Now the arboretum is forty eight acres and even has a children’s garden. A biology professor, Dr. Bertram Barber, conceived the design and enlisted the help of the Hillsdale students decades ago. Together, the students and faculty created a place for all to enjoy both at college events and on their own.
Hillsdale was founded as a nonsectarian Christian school. It clearly leans to the conservative side politically and it’s quite obviously pro-America. You will hear politicians and government policy debated, but the ideals stated in the constitution upon which this country was founded are not questioned. There is a blessing before dinner and we stand for the Pledge of Allegiance after the blessing. At lunch one day, I asked Dr. Slack, who happened to be dining with us, about students who are atheists. He said that a large proportion of college age young people identify as atheists these days and it’s not a big deal to come to Hillsdale as someone who does not believe in God. However, religion courses are part of the core curriculum for everyone, so I suppose those students know that when they apply. Hillsdale is a thorn in the side of many leftists who continuously try to bring them to heel. The school has a public relations department as well as a law department to deal with the frequent onslaught of entities who want to bring them down. The professors and staff here are really quite happy warriors, though, and seem steadfast in their commitment to quality education. We’ve had such a great experience here; I feel quite sure we will be back for more in the coming years.