Hillsdale's Common Reading Program

David Randall

The National Association of Scholars analyzes college common readings throughout the United States in our annual Beach Books reports (nas.org/projects/beachbooks), which we have been publishing since 2010. We criticize the large majority of common reading programs for choosing modern, mediocre books. Hillsdale College’s common reading program, by contrast, chooses classic, excellent works. We thought you’d like to know more about what Hillsdale does.

Hillsdale College’s summer readings are designed to initiate incoming freshmen into its distinctive approach to education. Since its founding in 1844 by Free Will Baptists, Hillsdale has been committed to America’s founding principle of liberty. Fundamentally, Hillsdale believes that a liberal arts education is designed to liberate the human person. Hillsdale’s curriculum teaches a willing acceptance of the discipline and virtue that enables students to live a fully human life and prepares them for self-government and civic participation. The College’s two summer readings introduce students to this life of liberty and virtue.

In the Nicomachean Ethics (ca. 330 BC), Aristotle introduces the famous concept of “the golden mean”—the understanding that virtue is the middle ground between two extremes, such as courage, which lies between recklessness and cowardice. Richard Brookhiser’s 1996 biography of George Washington, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, narrates how Washington’s virtue allowed him to navigate the challenges not only of forging a new nation on the battlefield but also of founding it through laws and leadership.

“At first glance, the selections certainly can seem like a stretch,” said Hillsdale College Provost Dr. David Whalen. “Aristotle’s treatment of virtue and human flourishing is millennia old, and Washington’s example of virtue and statesmanship is centuries old.”

But this, for him, is precisely why these readings are so necessary.

“The beauty of these texts and their topics,” he said, “is that they are perpetually relevant. Virtue is timeless. No matter what classes you take, what major you select, what job you ultimately wind up performing, the habits of virtue are essential for a life lived fully and well.”

Dr. Paul Moreno, Dean of Social Sciences at Hillsdale College, agreed.

“Many books become irrelevant within five or ten years,” he observed. “Our aim at Hillsdale is to introduce students to the richness of the Western tradition. By looking outside our current moment to the ideas of times past, we can develop the resources to grapple with the problems of the present.”

For many of the Hillsdale faculty, one of those problems is the perpetual problem of self-governance. How can a free people pass liberty on to future generations? How can we ensure that America will continue to thrive in the decades to come? These works begin to provide students with a framework to answer these questions.

“The Founding Fathers believed that a sustainable republic was impossible without a virtuous and well- educated citizenry,” said Dr. Moreno. “Unless we are willing to make sacrifices and choose wisely, we cannot truly govern ourselves. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics tell us how, as social and political animals, we can begin this process. Washington, through Brookhiser’s compelling narrative, shows us how.”

All incoming freshmen at Hillsdale have read Nicomachean Ethics and Founding Father since the founding of the common reading program over a decade ago. This gives the entire student body—from freshmen to seniors—a shared foundation for discussion during their time at Hillsdale.

“It’s been fascinating to see how conversations on these books evolve,” said Karissa McCarthy, a rising junior at Hillsdale. “When we come in freshman year, we all have differing opinions on Aristotle and Washington, bringing our unique experiences from home. By the time we’re seniors, we’ve read even more texts together and added even more voices to the conversation. It adds to the complexity—and it also adds to the fun.”

Dylan Strehle, a rising senior, also praised the program.

“It’s a nerve-wracking experience, stepping on campus for the first time,” he said. “You know your peers share your interest in Hillsdale, but you don’t know anything about them apart from that. Knowing that I’d be able to talk to anyone—a roommate, an RA, a teammate or a senior—about the books, and knowing that they’d have read and thought about them as well, was really helpful.”

Faculty also spoke highly of the program, noting how it prepared students for the classical liberal arts core curriculum before they even stepped on campus.

“Our core curriculum focuses heavily on the Western intellectual tradition,” said Dr. Whalen. “From the natural sciences to history, from languages to theology— all of it steeps our students in their intellectual heritage and the deepest realities available to human reflection or understanding. By starting with these readings, out students enter the classroom with a real sense of the gravity and import of the things with which they’ll be grappling for the next four years.”

“George Washington once said, ‘Associate yourself with men of good quality [character] if you esteem your reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company,’” added Dr. Whalen. “At Hillsdale, we want our students to spend their four years in the very best company—with St. Augustine and Austen, Burke and St. Benedict—and the common reading program serves as their introduction to this company.”


Article from the National Association of Scholars newsletter, INPERFECTion.

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