“I’m going to Michigan,” I tell someone, the day before I leave. “Where?” she asks. “Hillsdale College,” I say. “It’s sort of the conservative Harvard.”
Hillsdale is indeed a conservative school — a college with a conservative faculty and a conservative student body (as I understand it). If I had my way, there would be a mixture pretty much everywhere. A diversity. But if there are going to be 8 million left-wing schools — let there be one Hillsdale, or three.
I grew up in Michigan, and I have never seen the state more frozen — colder, icier, or more snow-laden. Siberia at its wintriest could not be more a winterscape.
I never knew there was a Moscow, Michigan — before driving past it. Moscow, Idaho, yes. The name is not pronounced as we pronounce the Russian capital. In Idaho, you say “Moscoh.”
On the radio, I pick up a station from Kalamazoo — one of my hometowns, actually. Do you know the Glenn Miller hit, “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo”? Once you know it, you have it under your skin.
On the Hillsdale campus, I see a sign, a plaque: “Pursue Truth, Defend Liberty.” Holy smokes — I’m not in Kansas anymore. (Actually, I am in Kansas, in a way.)
The building I stay in is the Dow Center. These are the Dows of Dow Chemical, surely — the company in Midland, Michigan. When I was growing up, in left-wing Ann Arbor, “Dow” was a dirty word. These were the people responsible for the Vietnam War. They were napalming innocent children, or something.
Dow is a wonderful company, and the Dow family is wonderfully philanthropic. They have built a lot, in Michigan. What stupid things I learned long ago . . .
Hillsdale used to be a very good college. Now it has become more like world-beating. It has become elite, exclusive, affluent — sort of a conservative ivy. Far from a regional school, it has students from all over.
The first kid I meet — he is to interview me for the newspaper — is from Long Island.
I have dinner with the George Washington Fellows — bright, polite, fun, serious-minded, inquisitive. These are the kind of people I would have liked to go to college with myself.
Apparently, there aren’t many liberals on campus. Someone tells me that the head of the College Democrats voted for Romney. (Now, there’s my kind of Democrat.)
So, what are the big issues? What are the debates? The conservatives fight the libertarians. (It’s probably the other way around, if my own experience is any guide.) Then there are the theological disputes: The Protestants fight the Catholics. (Great, just what any campus needs: religious wars.) Then there are “natural rights versus duties.”
When pretty much everyone around is conservative, it’s the differences that get magnified. I think of my own world: National Review Online spends much of its time abominating Mitch McConnell and John Boehner — and Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and anyone else who has the gall to hold a position of governmental responsibility.
We fellows — if I may consider myself honorary — talk about changing the world. Making a difference, and all that stuff. I say, “Well, one can start with one’s own family: one’s children or spouse or siblings or parents. And then maybe work on a neighbor or two. That could be enough, for one lifetime.”
Later on, a young woman says, “I’m glad you said that. My ambition is to be a wife and mother. I figure I can make a contribution to the health of the Republic that way.”
What a beautiful and right desire. (The only problem with this desire, however — if problem there is — is that one needs a partner. In the family business, it takes two to tango, or should.)
I have breakfast with Dave Gaebler, a math prof. He is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is ridiculously well educated: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, music, engineering, blah blah blah — the math Ph.D. seems mere icing on the cake. He started out homeschooled, by the way (if I am remembering correctly). Kind of figures.
He says the following about math: “I’m lucky to be good at what I’m interested in, and to be able to make a living at it.” Yes, that’s three-for-three: You’re interested in something; you’re good at it; and you can make a living at it. That is kind of a trifecta of life.
He further makes a point about learning math, and why some are so frustrated in it: You can ill afford to miss any step, along the way. If you miss or don’t get something, the next class or lesson will stymie you. It’s different in other fields. If you miss American history, well, you can do French history or something the next semester, and it’s more or less a clean slate. There are no clean slates in math (or fewer of them).
He also says this, about teaching: Once you grasp something in math, it seems obvious. So, as a teacher, you have to remember what it was like when the matter wasn’t obvious — and lead the student to “Aha!”
Out and about, I see signs for Kroger’s and Peebles. You know you’re home, or in your home state, when the store signs seem so very familiar (even in this age of homogenization, or nationalization, or globalization).
(I have often had occasion to quote an old ad slogan, in various contexts: “A million Kroger shoppers can’t be wrong.”)
On this campus, there are statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and other standard greats (or should-be standard greats). There are also statues of Churchill, Reagan, and Thatcher. There came a time, explains a student guide, when the Thatcher statue had to be turned. She thought it would be rude to have her back to Reagan, who had been newly installed. Someone put up a sign that said, “The lady’s not for turning” (a classic Thatcher line).
The student center is called Grewcock — named for the Grewcock family. In my opinion, it takes a big man to go through life serenely with the name “Grewcock.” And a big campus to plaster the name on its student center.
My guide explains there is an honor code — and the students don’t take other people’s stuff. You can leave your laptop and other belongings around. Which is nice.
In the library, there is a Heritage Room, which is sort of easy to mock, I guess: It has first editions and old coins and other symbols of our “heritage,” American and more broadly Western. But there’s nothing mockable about it, I find. It’s a wonderful room, even an inspiring one.
As we’re leaving, I say to my guide, “Do you notice the Heritage Room smells good?” “Yes,” he says, “that’s because there are girls in here right now. It smells like girl.”
True, true — now that he mentions it, that’s what it is. (Perfume and lotions and such are not a sine qua non, in my opinion. But they can be nice.)
Hillsdale has Ludwig von Mises’s library — his very library. A fine possession. There are many books in English, as well as in the other languages you would expect the great scholar to have known.
A student tells me, “There are some closet liberals here.” Which boggles the mind. Closet conservatives, I’m used to — the world is thick with them, and college campuses are especially thick with them. “Closet liberals” — I don’t think I’ve ever even heard the expression.
What a reversal.
The paper is called The Collegian – and it is the oldest college newspaper in Michigan, or so they claim. Kalamazoo College — known as K College — has a counterclaim.
I am ill equipped to adjudicate . . .
One headline reads, “Winter of discontent embitters campus.” That may be the darkest headline I have ever encountered.
Heading the journalism program is my National Review colleague John Miller — John J. Miller, or “John J.,” or “JJM,” as we call him. He is greatly, greatly admired by students on campus (and by faculty and staff, I’m sure). He is a mentor, a guru. It is a pleasure to see him in his academic environment, and to see him wear it like a glove.
He is not only one of the best journalists in America — an especially good writer of political profiles. He is a natural teacher and campus leader.
He ought to be president of a college one day, or the Heritage Foundation, or some key institution.
In one of his classes, I meet two students who are engaged — engaged to be married. What’s the matter with these weirdos? Don’t they know you’re supposed to “hook up,” with strangers and casual acquaintances, for 30, 40 years?
Young people these days (at least at Hillsdale) . . .
One young woman is named Bailey. I tell her I once liked a woman named Bailey — liked her a lot. She was a character on WKRP in Cincinnati. Turns out that the student’s parents got the name from that show . . .
At lunch, I meet a young man named Jace. If I’ve heard correctly, he was named after a character in The Ballad of Josie, a movie.
The provost here is Dave Whalen, an English prof. I talk to him right after he has taught a class on Hamlet. He tells me a little about it — the play, I mean. Important tidbits about Ophelia.
I wish I could enroll in his classes right now (and many more on this campus).
Another professor, James Holleman, gathers some music students. We talk for about an hour. Hillsdale is a very musical school, as well as a very athletic school. There are new, spiffy, enviable musical facilities, and I believe there are similar athletic facilities, though I don’t have time to tour them.
A Hillsdale student is not just a Federalist Papers-spoutin’ egghead. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
I have a favorite student, I must confess — Jennifer Matthes. She is the daughter of friends of mine, from Nebraska. They are also friends of NR. Some of us refer to the family as “the Matthei” (a pleasant plural). Geoff and Janet have four perfect girls, of whom Jennifer is the oldest.
You’re not supposed to play favorites, but, when it comes to Hillsdale students, I’m afraid I do. (Fortunately, Jennifer is too busy in her schoolwork to read light Web fare, such as this journal.)
Above, I mentioned the name Josie. Well, JJM has a daughter Josie — I think she’s in junior high, or early high school. Not quite sure. And I wouldn’t want to screw that up.
This I do know: Today, she had a basketball game, and she fouled out. Josie looks like an angel — but she must be a total bruiser and goon on the court . . . (She claims bad officiating. And we should all encourage hard, tough defense, it’s true. Same goes for offense, pretty much . . .)
Driving back to the airport, I hear an ad concerning Valentine’s Day: “An assortment of gifts that don’t scream ‘last minute.’” A wonderful ad line, I think.
Whether that station was from Kalamazoo, I’m not sure. But can I do you a favor? Have you ever heard the aforementioned song at its best, and danced to by the Nicholas Brothers? Oh, you’ll thank me. Here.
And I thank Hillsdale. An estimable place, to which the conscientious parent can entrust his offspring.