Home/Promoting Human Dignity Since 1844: Hillsdale College

Promoting Human Dignity Since 1844: Hillsdale College

Hillsdale College. Credit: CreativeCommons/Flickr/Kingpin1000

For all the wrong reasons (and none actually correct), Hillsdale College served as an important part of the debates in the Senate this weekend regarding tax reform.  Taking it upon himself to become the crusader for everything “progressive,” Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon proudly proclaimed on Twitter and Facebook: Hillsdale College wants “to have permission to discriminate in selecting students.”  Of course, Senator Merkley did not mean that the college discriminated in its selection process, as any real university would, to seek and recruit the best and the brightest, but, rather, that  the college discriminates to make sure the college stays racially white. Or, as he not so delicately put it, Hillsdale College “specializes in discrimination.”

I have no ability to judge whether the Senator spoke out of ignorance of  maliciousness, but I can state this definitively: He knows absolutely nothing about Hillsdale College, and, frankly, if he possesses even an ounce of decency, he will formally apologize for his claims.

A group of abolitionist Free-will Baptists founded Hillsdale College in 1844, though they stipulated that the college could not be denominational. Instead, true to their abolitionist beliefs, the founders of the college forbade any discrimination based on the accidents of birth. In other words, Hillsdale—from day one of its existence, as defined by its charter—allowed a person of either sex and of any racial, ethnic, or religious background to study there. The college became, understandably, a hotbed for abolitionist sentiment, and it was the rare prominent abolitionist of the ante-bellum period who did not grace Hillsdale with a visit and a speech. Perhaps, most prominently, Frederick Douglass spoke here. True to our heritage, President Larry Arnn dedicated a statue to the great anti-slavery orator just this past spring. That statue, along with a statue of a Civil War soldier and Abraham Lincoln greet the visitor to Hillsdale’s beautiful campus in southern Michigan.

As noted above, though, Hillsdale was not just color-blind from day one, it was also the first college or university in the United States to allow women the right to earn a liberal arts degree. Others allowed women to study for home economics, but, at Hillsdale, they were treated just as well as men, studying the Great Ideas, the Great Minds, and the Great Books of western civilization.

When Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the Confederate rebellion in the spring of 1861, almost every single male at the college answered that call, making it unique among all northern colleges. Indeed, outside of the military academies, not a single institution of higher learning offered anywhere near the level of participation that Hillsdale offered. Hillsdale men (and, of course, women, though in non-combat positions) served the Union stunningly, especially in the 2nd, 4th, and 24th Michigan regiments. The 24th, the fifth of five regiments to make up the justly famous Iron Brigade, sacrificed themselves in one of the most horrific moments of the Civil War, the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg. Positioning themselves at a bottle neck on the eastern side of the little Lutheran Pennsylvania town, the 24th Michigan, outnumbered nearly 10 to 1, fought so fiercely that the Confederate invaders held back, despite having the superiority in numbers.  When Lee found out about the timidity of his own troops, he was furious. Had his troops broken the 24th Michigan, they could have readily taken the high ground of Little Roundtop and surrounding areas. The Hillsdale men who gave their lives that day in what must have seemed a hopeless cause very well changed the course of American and western civilization. Today, the fourth floor of Delp Hall, which houses the history department, is dedicated to their sacrifice, a seminar room displaying paintings of that hot, humid afternoon in Pennsylvania as one Hillsdale man after another succumbed to enemy fire.

During the 1950s, at the height of the struggle for black civil rights, Hillsdale’s football team, led by the intrepid Muddy Waters, refused to play in the Tangerine Bowl because black players were not allowed on the field. Hillsdale’s team would’ve have gone into the 1955 Bowl game with a 9-0 record. 

Your author—yours truly—has had the privilege of teaching at this college for over eighteen years.  To this very day, I am more than proud to note, Hillsdale remains 100% blind when it comes to the color, race, ethnicity, and religion of its students. Not only do we not ask a student to identify any race or ethnicity on his or her application form to the college, but we keep absolutely no data about such things. We believe in character, not skin color. We love intelligence, not appearance. We love the individual, not the group.

Though I can only speak for myself and not for the college (for I have no such authority to do so) as a whole, I can state that far from “specializing in discrimination,” we might be the single best institution in western civilization that adamantly refuses at every level to “specialize in discrimination.”

Though I do not have the privilege of knowing or even understanding Senator Merkley, I can state with certainty that while he makes a show of calling for “equality,” he really means a drab uniformity and collectivized tapioca. As Dr. Arnn, the single best college president in the world, has reminded us many times, we were anti-discrimination long before the Federal Government was. In fact, he notes, the Federal Government finally adopted OUR position on the issue of race and ethnicity, not the other way around. Hillsdale had to remind the United States over and over again of the Founding intent as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Rather than speaking about that of which he knows nothing, perhaps Senator Merkley would consent to visit our campus. I would happily show him our statues that so beautifully reveal our devotion to liberal education as well as to the dignity and beauty of each human person, each a unique expression of a majestic Creator. I would happily introduce him to my extraordinary colleagues and to my ever-curious students. I would also take him to Oak Grove Cemetery, a sacred site on the northern most part of town that inters over 300 Civil War veterans as well as the first historian of Hillsdale College, Ransom Dunn. In 1854, he became so disgusted with Washington politics and especially the Democratic Party under Stephen Douglas, that he helped form an independent movement that sought to prevent the extension of slavery in the American West. After much deliberation under a grove of oak trees in Jackson, Michigan, they finally decided on the name, the Republican Party.

As a historian at one of the finest institutions of higher learning in existence, I only ask that the Senate neither helps nor hinders us.  Hillsdale College does not take one single penny from the federal government, and our students take not one single penny in loans. Just please leave us alone, and we’ll be fine. Indeed, leave us alone, and we’ll continue to show the world how best to educate and how best to promote the dignity of every single human person regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, etc. 

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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