Magazine | March 10, 2014, Issue

A Campus Apart

Thoughts on a visit to a conservative college

Hillsdale, Mich. — ‘There are some closet liberals here,” a student tells me. The phrase makes my blood run a little cold. I have known lots of closet conservatives, on campuses, in orchestras, and elsewhere. But the concept of closet liberals is fairly new to me. Everyone should be comfortable expressing himself, politically! (To a degree.)

I am at Hillsdale College, an extraordinary institution in south-central Michigan. I think of it as the conservative Harvard. Hillsdale has a conservative faculty, basically, and a conservative student body, basically. The college teaches the Judeo-Christian heritage, the American Founding, the Great Books — the good stuff (again, as I think of it). I see a plaque with a slogan: “Pursue Truth, Defend Liberty.” I blink a little.

There are statues of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, which is kind of normal. There is a statue of Churchill, which is a little less normal. There are statues of Reagan and Thatcher — very abnormal. I’m pretty sure I spot Socrates, and there is a robust bust of Beethoven.

In all, this is a conservative educational dream. But I find myself a little uneasy. Ideally, there should be a diversity on campus, I think — a diversity of views and characters. A sprinkling of Marxists, a sprinkling of monarchists, a pinch of this, a pinch of that. Generally speaking, a campus should be neither Left-dominated nor Right-dominated.

Mine was Left-dominated, as yours was too, probably. Conservative views were barely tolerated. Professors used their lecterns as political platforms. They, or, even more likely, their teaching assistants, graded ideologically. Science TAs would spend half the lab period talking up the FMLN in El Salvador. (I exaggerate a little.) (It was maybe a quarter of the lab period.)

Like others, I found some outside reading — not just disfavored books, but National Review, too. NR was exciting to read, almost daring to read. William Safire, the conservative political writer, once quipped, “I have to go down to the corner newsstand to buy a Hustler magazine, in order to have something respectable to hide my National Review in.”

Several years ago, I visited Stetson University, a lovely place in DeLand, Fla. I had lunch with the College Republicans. If my memory is correct, they needed a faculty adviser and could not find a Republican on their faculty. So, the chairman of the political-science department, a veteran professor and a Democrat, agreed to step in as adviser. There’s the democratic spirit, and I bless the memory of that professor.

Here at Hillsdale, there are College Democrats. But, as I understand it, the head of the group voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. I have two main thoughts. First, that’s my kind of Democrat. But second: That’s a little strange, isn’t it?

I think of Princeton, and a remarkable story out of 2012: According to public records, 157 faculty or staff gave money to one of the two major presidential candidates. One hundred fifty-five gave to President Obama; two gave to Romney. As the student newspaper reported, one of those was a visiting lecturer in engineering; the other was a janitor — who had given to Romney out of pro-life convictions.

What would the ratio be at Hillsdale? And does it really matter?

In many settings of my life, I have been in a political minority. Having experienced gross maltreatment by the Left — pardon my whining — I am highly sensitive to those in a minority. I feel their pain (to quote one of my least favorite presidents). I could tell many stories, but will confine myself to one: Not long ago, I was giving a talk to a conservative group. Behind the audience was a man who was there to work the sound equipment. I sensed he was not a conservative — and so altered my remarks a little, forgoing certain gibes, for example. He smiled at some of my jokes.

In a speech to Hillsdale students, I say, “Be nice to liberals, as I’m sure you are! Don’t do unto them as they so often do unto us.”

#page#There is no reason a Hillsdale-style education should not be for everyone. Who doesn’t want, or shouldn’t want, the good stuff (as I have called it)? John J. Miller, my National Review colleague, heads the journalism department here. He is a natural and wonderful teacher. He does not teach conservative journalism — whatever that is — but journalism. He could teach anyone, left, right, or center.

JJM and I serve on the board of the Apgar Foundation, whose primary mission is to — well, support the good stuff, on campuses across the country. We are not trying to make conservative soldiers out of America’s young (though that might be nice). We are simply trying to acquaint them with Locke, Mozart, and the rest of those guys. Even Rousseau! The dollars of our conservative foundation are going to support “normal college,” as I think of it — or what used to be normal college. But there is perpetual, sometimes insurmountable resistance from campus administrations. They think we are trying to undermine their mission, which, if that mission is left-wing indoctrination, we are.

There is plenty of give-and-take at Hillsdale — debates and fights. Conservatives argue with libertarians. Protestants argue with Catholics. “Natural rights” people argue with “duties” people. The same sort of thing happens in my world, the conservative media: Ignoring the Left, and the great, broad world, we factionalize, and tear into one another as untrue.

In any event, it’s refreshing to be among Hillsdale students, for their intelligence, their sincerity, their “traditional values.” In one class, I meet a pair of undergraduates who are engaged — engaged to be married. Don’t they know you’re supposed to “hook up” with strangers and casual acquaintances for 30, 40 years? What weirdos! A long time ago, I knew of a couple who were graduate students on a University of California campus. They were married, but didn’t tell anyone: They pretended they were just living together. They did not want the stigma of marriage.

A student here speaks of “the Hillsdale bubble.” Someone else points out, “Yes, but we know we’re living in a bubble. We know what an island this campus is.” And because so much of our national culture is Left-dominated, what fear is there of insularity? Think of Hillsdale and Princeton — or, to make it starker yet, probably, think of Hillsdale and Bennington. Which of the student bodies is the more insular or sheltered? I’m fairly certain that Bennington kids know less about conservative ideas and modes of living than Hillsdale kids know about the opposite.

Shortly before I got here, I saw a headline in the Daily Caller: “Berkeley prof forces students to tweet pro-Islam views.” Sure. The day after leaving campus, I see a story at National Review Online: “On Wednesday night, the University of Michigan hosted a Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, and Masochism (BDSM) class called ‘Kink for Beginners’ as part of a three-day event, Sexpertise 2014.” Sure. These stories — these reminders — help to erase any guilt I may feel over the existence of one Hillsdale College.

In fact, let there be two, three, many Hillsdales. (In the 1960s, students at Berkeley and Michigan thrilled to Che Guevara’s call for “two, three, many Vietnams.”) Hillsdale can not only provide a haven but set an example. I am all for making inroads into Left-dominated institutions — my impulse is integrationist. But let us keep building our own, as we go.

I wish I had college-age kids to deposit at Hillsdale College. Hell, I wish I could deposit myself there, as a freshman eager to soak up the good stuff.

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