Education

Mr. Friedersdorf, Hillsdale Is Hale

Hillsdale College campus (Hillsdale/Facebook)
The Atlantic writer’s venomous attack on my school relies on falsehoods.

Conor Friedersdorf, a journalist at The Atlantic, has written an article about Hillsdale College that falls in the category of a relatively new (to me) literary genre called “concern trolling,” where someone wishing you ill pretends to wish you well by offering advice that is not in your interest. The article is full of venom and rubbish, the former weakened by the latter. The venom appears at the end, where the author invites Hillsdale students, alumni, and faculty to write him and agree with him that I am leading the college astray. He will then of course use the responses to try to do harm to Hillsdale. People may respond to Friedersdorf’s call — indeed, I am told that some have — but it will not work, which is where the rubbish comes in.

Friedersdorf’s “concern” rests on four allegations, all of them false.

The first is that I pretend that everyone at Hillsdale College agrees with me, and that I speak for the college when I speak about Donald Trump. I do neither. I make it explicit, frequently, that there are plenty of opinions about Trump at Hillsdale College, and not all of them are like mine. It is not my business to represent the political views of the college on the questions of today. Indeed, the college itself has no such views.

Therefore, when speaking on behalf of the college, I seldom dwell on Trump and most often do not mention him. I usually talk about the Constitution and its connection to liberal education of the best kind. Perhaps my views about these things are in some way in error, but it is surely legitimate for me to speak about them. I have given them considerable thought.

Second, Friedersdorf alleges that the financial well-being of the college was somehow behind my public support for Trump in the 2016 election — that I gambled the reputation of the college on Trump for fundraising purposes. The proof against this allegation is easy to adduce. The college was doing well financially long before Donald Trump began his political career, and it is doing well now. The fact is, people do not tend to give money to an undergraduate college to affect near- or intermediate-term politics.

Almost all of our students are between the ages of 18 and 21. It will be years before they do anything significant in politics, and most of them will not go into politics at all. We hope to equip them to lead fine lives in many fields, and that is what they do. I am proud of them all as they make a success of their lives in these many fields.

It is true, on the other hand, that several of our former students work in the Trump administration. I have a bond with most of them, a bond formed when they were teenagers or a little older, before I or they knew what they would do. I am proud of them. Their mature work stems in part from a devotion to civil and religious liberty that Hillsdale has sought to cultivate as part of its mission since before the Civil War. I did not, however, get them those jobs, nor did I make them the capable and fine people they have become. A lot of people did that, but mostly they did it themselves.

Third, it is alleged that, because I support Donald Trump politically, I am eroding the moral standards of the college and of its students. This is silly. What one teaches the young about morality is a very different thing from choosing whom to support for president of the United States. For the young, a whole life is before them, and it is right and possible to encourage them to build all of the virtues in themselves. The first step is for them to learn what those virtues are. We teach that.

The records of America’s presidents and other politicians going back to the Founding era were often not morally pristine, but some of them did a good job in their offices anyway.

The choice for president is by contrast sharply circumscribed: One opts for the best of two people. I made the choice for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. I thought that was an easy choice to make. I still think so. If one believes as I do that the Constitution is precious and in danger of eclipse by the modern administrative state, then one places a high value on stopping and reversing that. Donald Trump stated the intention to do this, and so far he has done it more than any president excepting, maybe, Ronald Reagan. This seemed and seems to me the decisive thing. I feel this acutely as a citizen, but also because of my station: I am responsible for keeping the college independent in service of its ancient mission, and the extension of the administrative state in recent years has threatened Hillsdale’s independence as surely as it has threatened religious liberty.

In other words, I made the kind of choice that is common: I selected the best among alternatives. Friedersdorf writes of Hugh Hewitt and me: “They talk as if doing what’s politically advantageous is obviously the best way forward.” Call me crazy, but insofar as politics is concerned, I think precisely that. For support, I refer Friedersdorf to the Nicomachean Ethics. I can show him the passages if he wishes. Human life being imperfect, choices often involve forgoing something good for the sake of something better, or accepting something bad to avoid something worse.

Fourth, Friedersdorf makes the extraordinary claim that it was improper to invite the current vice president of the United States to speak at a college commencement. I find it hard to take this seriously. Vice President Pence is a high officer under the very Constitution that Hillsdale is dedicated, in part, to serving. He is loyal to that Constitution. He is a friend of the college going back beyond his two terms as governor of Indiana to his days in Congress. And he is a good and decent man, a fact of which I have personal knowledge.

Friedersdorf makes something of the fact that I have said that there are things I regret about Donald Trump — chiefly, that Donald Trump has written and spoken often in the past, but not lately as far as I know, of his ambitions about women and his conquests of them. He has referred to them in demeaning ways. I wish he had not done that. He says that he wishes that, too. If I had disqualified him for my support on this ground, I would have been left with Hillary Clinton. I do not know her personally any more than I know Donald Trump personally, but she does not seem to me a paragon of the virtues. And however that may be, the records of America’s presidents and other politicians going back to the Founding era were often not morally pristine, but some of them did a good job in their offices anyway.

To those in the Hillsdale College community, and I know there are a few, who object to my endorsement of Donald Trump, I have said to them simply: I have no right to command you in politics, and you have no right to command me. So long as I make it plain that I am speaking in my personal capacity, as I do, then everything should be fine. Above all, I have said, we who are members of the college must cultivate our respect for one another, which lays the ground for the affection that is due to colleagues. It is a college, after all, and a good one. I have promised to do my part.

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