As you will soon discover, if you haven’t already, Dr. Arnn likes to pick on students. So, as he has given me a 7 minute slot on stage, I have to get him back. Just a little bit. I have a sister who’s now a Sophomore here, and when she was visiting the college, we went out to eat, and we ran into Dr. Arnn there. I told him my sister was visiting the college, and he said, “well what other colleges are you looking at.” She listed off the various schools, and he said, “there’s no decision to make, I’ll see you next fall.” She replied, “but it’s going to be hard,” and he said, “yes, if you want it to be easy, go to one of those other schools.” She said, “I’m not as academic as my sister here,” and he replied, “we wouldn’t have let you in if we didn’t think you could do it.”
You see, friends, that’s what Hillsdale’s about—it welcomes those who have embraced the challenge. Over the next few days, you will probably hear this saying often: Virtus Tentamine Gaudet—Strength Rejoices in the Challenge.
But let me tell you, you have already made the most important decision—you signed that acceptance letter, packed up your stuff, and have come to little Hillsdale, Michigan to do this thing we call learning. When people ask you, why Hillsdale, and you don’t want to explain the whole liberal arts thing, just think of your drive into town and tell them, “It’s the People.”
In all honesty, I don’t know of any other place that cultivates both the minds and the hearts of its students so well—it truly is about the people.
To those who embrace the Hillsdale challenge the reward is great. You will begin to understand at least three things: humility, wisdom, and charity.
First, Humility: When I arrived as a freshman, I told myself, I have taken AP classes, accomplished this, and accomplished that. I am ready for anything. I want to be really challenged. Boy, did I get that. It was a happy coincidence that I had one of the terrifyingly brilliant English professors, Dr. Jackson. Let’s just say, I learned a thing or two—First, a “C” paper was average, and Second, I was average. Ouch! But, I also began to treasure the stories more than the grades. Homer’s unending journey, Dante’s steady perseverance, and Oedipus’ blindness began to awaken my own imagination, slowly revealing to me the frailty of mankind, including my own. Just last fall, my class was having lunch with Dr. Arnn, and I was going on about the interdisciplinary nature of the American Studies major, and how it gives students a coherent understanding of the American people. I was feeling pretty smug. The next day, I walk into my American Studies Class and Dr. Sundahl, tells the class, “Dr. Arnn said he had a nice lunch, but I have one question, which one of you had spinach between her teeth?” Every one turned at me and laughed. How’s that for a little dose of humility. Yet in those Flannery O’Connor moments, when we are confronted with the grotesque, we also begin to glimpse the beauty and the complexity of the human heart. And perhaps it is this realization, that despite our weakness we are created in the Image of God, that truly humbles me and brings me to my knees.
The second virtue you will have an opportunity to gain at Hillsdale is wisdom: Wisdom begins with Humility. We must first recognize our own littleness before we can begin to glimpse the wholeness of reality. As professors attempt at the grueling task of pulling us out of Plato’s cave, challenging us to read good books and ask good questions, we gradually come to a fuller understanding of reality. We begin to piece together Aristotle’s definition of the good with the Founder’s framing of the Constitution and with Huck Fin’s trip up the river. Slowly, we ask ourselves, “what is the purpose of life.” As we seek the truth, crawl towards the “good life,” and dwell upon beautiful things, the coherence of the liberal arts reveals the majesty of a divine reality.
Put simply, It takes reading hard books and wrestling with hard questions to grow into a kind of person who sees himself not simply as a chemist or historian or artist, but as a liberally educated person—someone who spends his life dedicated to seeking the true, the good and the beautiful. For, only after living a lifestyle of study, discussion, and thoughtful action do we step back and slowly thread the various subjects to form a greater picture of reality. We then become a person who sees the world with a broad lens. One who recognizes distinctions, but also glimpses the wholeness of our ultimate reality.
This is no easy task, and parents, when your child calls, listing off all their assignments, you just listen and sympathize with them. Phone conversations that start with “Mom, I have to read 80 pages of Homer tonight” never end well when you respond, “oh, I wish I were back at school reading so many great books.” You wish you were, but the truth is, you’re not, so just tell us how hard we’re working and let the professors take care of the rest.
You can rest assured in that fact. The professors really are here to help your child grow. Students, they don’t want to weed you out. You are here because the college believes that you can succeed, just as Dr. Arnn reassured my sister, and the professors want to see that happen. Their guidance, mentorship, and brilliance continually inspire me to seek wisdom through humility and diligence. I am so grateful for all they sacrifice so that we might inch our way towards finding meaning in a darkening world, and, even at our best, seeing it only through a glass dimly.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Hillsdale will teach you the meaning of Charity. Books may shape the world, but it is the human heart that conquers all. As Thomas Aquinas reminds us, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.” Let me underscore that books and love do not contradict one another. In fact, the Western Cannon reveals the human desire to love, and to be loved. And, our liberal arts framework teaches us what it means to be human, and as a consequence, to live in community with others. But I’ll let you in on a little secret, nerdy high-achieving students, take a deep breath, this might be a hard one for you: liberal arts is not just about reading books all the time. It is about developing the whole person-the mind, the body, and the soul, and we are meant to do this together, in association and community. Man was not made to live alone. Embrace this, meet new people, welcome unexpected friendships, be intentional in your relationships.
Hillsdale is rare in many ways, but one thing that makes it a particular gem is the fact that the people are so genuine—they really do want to get to know you! So many activities will grab your interest, but make sure you allow yourself time to develop close friendships. You are entering a singular window of opportunity, for never again will you be surrounded by so many like-minded people. As I enter my senior year, I realize that friendship enables us to live the liberal arts. To learn from each other, pray for each other, and walk with one another—through celebrations and hardships—forms us into people who journey through the darkness together, each rekindling the flame of true community, lighting our corner of the world with unending love.
So, as I conclude, I encourage you to accept the challenge. For the task may seem great, but if we wake up every day, and resolve to grow closer to our Lord, the rest will fall into place: We are humbled through prayer, we grow in wisdom through a recognition of divine order, and we learn to love through our Creator.
Class of 2015, I want to welcome you to this special college, and may you, like the prophet Isaiah, lift up your eyes to the heavens, and catch a glimpse of His majesty.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.