Pursuing Truth and Virtue: The Great Tradition at Hillsdale College

Julie Robison

Julie Robison is a 2010 graduate of Hillsdale College and editor-in-chief of The Hillsdale Forum, a quarterly newspaper that strives to uphold Hillsdale’s principles and encourages political and religious debate; [email protected]

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged.

—Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance

Every Friday of this past semester has been called “Founding Friday” by a few of the majors in the Department of American Studies at Hillsdale College, a small liberal arts college nestled in rural southern Michigan. We would meet periodically after our “Founding of the American Republic” class at a local restaurant to drink beer, talk about our lives, discuss ideas, and challenge each other in our common pursuit of truth. Our studies have led to friendship, and we learn as much about ourselves as we do each other. We are fortunate to go to a college that fosters diversity without exploiting it, allowing for fruitful debate in and out of the classroom.

The first thing I learned at Hillsdale is that the pursuit of truth is the highest calling of a student, and here truth is taught as an absolute, not as a revolving door of ideas. I do not find this intellectually crippling; on the contrary, through the reading of the primary documents that are the crux of the college’s curriculum, and accompanied by lively dialogue in the classroom, I feel myself prepared to broach the universal.

Starting in freshman year with Genesis, the Code of Hammurabi, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, we can see ideas that are common among disparate cultures. By emphasizing the Great Tradition, Hillsdale teaches students to understand the organic nature of knowledge. Furthermore, unlike many universities, we study the sciences and the humanities together and therefore see how they interconnect.

I find that diagramming the syntax of Latin grammar, for instance, prepares me for more attention to detail, as does balancing chemical equations. I find it difficult to separate the laws of nature from physics or philosophy any more than one could discuss the state of nature without mentioning Locke, or government without Montesquieu. Humanity animates history similar to the way enzymes catalyze substrates into products. Art is not only the survey of beauty, but of civilizations, mathematics, and religions.

Studying the same core forges camaraderie among the student body, and campus life cements the bonds. Greek life thrives with 40 percent campus participation, and the fraternities and sororities sponsor most of the school’s philanthropy programs, alongside student-run GOAL programs. Athletic events at home are well-attended and the athletes are encouraged through the “Adopt-a-Charger” program. Academic honoraries and clubs host speakers and organize activities that allow the faculty and students to interact frequently. Although Hillsdale is a non-denominational school, religious services are held regularly on campus, with Christian worship services held monthly, Mass twice a week, and noontime prayer and rosary daily. It is not unusual for people to have a serious conversion experience during their college career, or at least a deepening of their faith.

Since the student body is roughly 1300, it is easy to do all-school events, such as dances and holiday festivals. The campus boasts many musically-inclined students (myself not included), and there is a monthly opportunity for student bands and individual talents to perform for their peers at an event called Coffee House, in addition to the annual Battle of the Bands.

A downside to the quaint campus is its distance from major cities, which possess a greater number of cultural and civic attractions. This is actively combated by campus groups that organize excursions to Ann Arbor for the University of Michigan’s libraries and concert scene, Detroit and Chicago for the art museums and missions (to volunteer), and Washington, D.C., for political rallies and conferences.

My classmates, teachers, and sorority sisters, in addition to the many people I have gotten to know outside the college, encourage intellectual pursuit and spiritual growth. My academic adviser and his wife, for example, have become respected mentors. I coached their daughter in soccer for two years and continue to babysit their five children. They have become a second family on campus, sharing with me more than the occasional meal. Within the student body, I have met women and men alike with whom to share Christian fellowship, as well as snarky comments, moral guidance, late-night walks, friendly support, killer dance moves, and plenty of laughs.

Hillsdale students are not different from most of our peers at other schools: we travel abroad, train athletically and musically, intern with companies, and work a conglomerate of jobs to help pay tuition. After graduation, Hillsdalians traditionally pursue doctorates, law degrees, or medical school, dedicate a few years to missionary or overseas work, or hold positions in politics, journalism, or business. A respectable number of students join the military, even though Hillsdale does not have an ROTC program due to the college’s refusal to accept federal funding. Hillsdale students seek a vocation, not just a job, which is why a high percentage of graduates go into teaching as well, filling a void in the country for good teachers. Hillsdale affirms familial and religious values, so students do not leave college disenchanted with the world but rather more determined to do their share perfectly.

A substantial number of Hillsdale students marry after college—if not within months after graduation, then certainly in the five-year grace period afterwards. Students do date on campus, but many do not date lightly. Marriage may not be the ultimate end of the relationship, but it is a consideration taken—to the chagrin of some, and delight of others. Dorms are strictly same-gender, complete with house mothers and visitation hours, not to discourage relationships, but to help them develop in a healthy way. Sex is not a hushed-up affair; many members of the student body willingly admit they are saving themselves until marriage.

Education is not wholly about a career or a grade point average. My college experience has become a Canterbury Tale, my pilgrim soul wandering with my peers and teachers through thoughts and theories for four years, questioning and contemplating, determining and debating, listening and learning.

It is here that I have been taught to understand what it means to be human, and I know my greatest undertaking in life shall be to continue the pursuit of truth and virtue, even if it is over a pint of beer.

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