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An American University

Hillsdale College. Credit: CreativeCommons/Flickr/Kingpin1000

One of George Washington’s greatest political ambitions was to found a national university for the education of our nation’s future statesmen. This project was of such importance to our first president that he mentioned it in both his first and last State of the Union Addresses and complained that Alexander Hamilton had excised it from his Farewell Address. While his dream never came to fruition, one ambitious college president has resolved to change that—and Washington, D.C. in the process.

Eight years ago this September, I first sat down in Larry Arnn’s living room with sixteen of my peers—several of whom have gone onto work in coveted positions in the White House, Capitol Hill, and prominent law firms and newspapers—for a semester long seminar on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. According to my notes, the first thing that Arnn told us was that, “You are what you do, and it matters very much what you do.”

Being a man of action, Arnn has spent the past decade laying a foundation at Hillsdale’s Kirby Center to do exactly what he taught us on so many fall afternoons in 2011 —establish an institution to educate statesman in the highest things. For Hillsdale this means ordered liberty, constitutional government, and equality under the law. With the announcement of the college’s new Steve and Amy Van Andel Graduate School of Government at their annual Constitution Day Celebration, Arnn is one-step closer to fulfilling Washington’s vision for a National University by establishing a formidable alternative to other elite finishing schools such as Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Not everyone is crazy about Arnn’s vision by the way. In 2018, Politico published a story pejoratively describing Hillsdale as, “Trump University” for allegedly compromising their principles by accommodating to the president. Two months later, Conor Friedersdorf, wrote an essay in The Atlantic asking, “Is Hillsdale gaining the world and losing its soul?” By gaining the world, Friedersdorf was referring to the many alumni who have gone onto work for the administration, the college’s hiring of former Deputy National Security Advisor Michael Anton, and a commencement address given by Vice President Pence earlier that year. Arnn responded to the hit piece with an article in National Review blasting Friedersdorf for writing a column full of “venom and “rubbish.”

Despite some whining from a few students in a follow-up column, and Friedersdorf recently taking to Twitter to demand that Arnn explain what the American Founders would have thought about Trump’s behavior towards those leading the impeachment inquiry, the college appears to have come out of the dust up on top.Their recent fundraising campaign raised over $500 million according to the campus paper, and they launched a new $686 million campaign earlier this month following a special address given by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at their chapel dedication.   

So what does the college aim to do? Hillsdale is playing the long game. By standing up to the worst excesses of the administrative state, the college hopes to build a cadre of leaders who can restore principles of equality and consent of the governed that have been undermined by decades of administrative rule. While critics might see this as simply carrying water for Trump’s project to dismantle the deep state, the school’s vision is more foundational—to revive the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional structures that support it. 

According to Matthew Spalding, dean of the new graduate school, a love of teaching is really at the heart of the college’s mission as they seek to educate leaders in the art of statecraft with the aim of ordering society towards the good. In America that means preserving the blessings of civil and religious liberty and promoting friendship within the framework of our country’s broader experiment in self-government under law. While friendship may seem like an odd priority, Arnn frequently speaks to his students about how friendship is one of the firmest supports of a just society and the chief target of totalitarian regimes aiming to weaken bonds between citizens.

In a time when the very idea of friendship has been commercialized at the hands of social media behemoths in Silicon Valley and the country risks being torn asunder by impeachment hearings, we should welcome a new institution whose aim is not short-term electoral victories but the long project of reanimating the “mystic chords of memory” that inspired our first president to call for the creation of a National University “as one of the surest means of enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our citizens.”

John A. Burtka IV is executive director of The American Conservative. He has appeared on Fox News and Fox Business and written for The Washington PostRichmond Times-Dispatch, American Theological InquiryFirst ThingsThe American Mind, The Intercollegiate Review, and TouchstoneYou can follow him on Twitter @jburtkaIV.

about the author

John A. Burtka IV, executive director, graduated from Hillsdale College and the Faculté Jean Calvin in Aix-en-Provence, France. He was a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute in 2018. He has appeared on Fox Business and written for The Washington PostRichmond Times-DispatchFirst ThingsThe American Mind, and The Intercollegiate Review, among others. Previously, he worked for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and participated in academic fellowships at Washington College and The Trinity Forum.

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