THIS PAST FALL at Hillsdale College, we did something strange, stranger than if we had found a unicorn and built a zoo to show it off. We celebrated, with a whole heart, the founding of our college 175 years ago. Yes, most of our founders were white. Yes, most of them were male. All of them are now dead. What can we be thinking to celebrate people like that in this day and age? There are two reasons, one particular and one general.
The particular one has to do with these founders themselves. They were human, sure enough, but they were very good humans. The earliest of them were classically educated New England preachers. They thought liberal education was the road to good living, good citizenship, and good statesmanship. They thought to get this liberal education it is better to read the classic books in the classic languages, Greek and Latin, and those were prerequisites for admission to the college.
These founders were patriots. The first line of the school's Articles of Association of 1844 commits the college to perpetuating the "inestimable blessings" of "civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety." We obscure the fact these days that the Americans who founded our country were mostly Christians, and they were devoted to both civil and religious liberty with the same intensity that they held their faith. They thought that the Christian religion, the first universal religion not to provide government to the faithful, would therefore have to be practiced in many countries--and that those countries should provide for the right to do so, or else be wrong. Claiming that right for themselves, they also respected it for others. "Do as you would be done by."
These founders thought that liberal education should cultivate the practice of the moral alongside the intellectual virtues. College is about thinking, and the refinement and informing of the intellect is its first purpose. This requires, in turn, the education of the whole human being. Humans not only think, but do. Their doing and their thinking work together to form their characters. If their characters are not courageous, moderate, and just, then not only will they be craven in action, but their thinking will be impaired.
These founders thought that liberal education required thinking about God, known to reason and in philosophy as the perfection of all being, known to these founders' faith as Jesus Christ. They followed the classics in thinking that all of our judgments of good and bad, better and worse, implies some standard that is complete or perfect. In philosophy properly pursued, the subject of God cannot be neglected. Their Christian faith was grounded partly in the fact that the Christian God, of all revealed deities, is the most open to thinking.
These founders believed in freedom. They were grateful, as I say, for the inestimable blessings of civil and religious freedom. These two kinds of freedom were combined and wholly supported for the first time in the U.S. These founders were proud of this fact. They dedicated the oldest building on our campus, still standing, on the Fourth of July with a speech about freedom and learning. They respected both the Declaration of Independence and its partner, the Constitution. In their noble and...