Being Jewish just isn’t an issue on this campus

Hillsdale College in Michigan has never discriminated on grounds of race or sex. Not many colleges can say that...

February 23, 2023 11:55

Greetings from Hillsdale, Michigan, a small town of some 8,000 souls in farm country about two hours west of Detroit. It is also home to Hillsdale College and, for two weeks only, it is also home to me: I’m visiting as this year’s Pulliam Fellow in Journalism.

Hillsdale has around 1,500 students and is a liberal arts college with a difference. It is a Christian college and it teaches the Great Books curriculum. These are two differences, and they both count.

In the mid-20th century, the Great Books (the Bible, the Greeks and Romans, the major works of modern political theory, philosophy and literature) were standard in American universities.

But lately they have fallen from grace; the Great Books, it was noticed, are patriarchal, white and also quite hard to read.

As for the second difference, Hillsdale was founded by Free Will Baptists in 1844, to foster “the inestimable blessings resulting from the prevalence of civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety in the land”.

This is the American creed, too. Its abandonment by almost all of America’s universities may be one reason for the disorder of American society today.

Hillsdale has never discriminated on grounds of race or sex. Not many colleges can say that, either here or in Britain. When “affirmative action” laws forced colleges to register the racial composition of their student body, Hillsdale refused to comply. It remains one of the few American colleges to forgo all federal funding.

Nor does Hillsdale discriminate on grounds of religion or politics. There are Catholics here, but there aren’t many Jews.

There aren’t many Jews in most places in America once you’re outside the big cities, and Hillsdale is committedly Christian in the way that Yeshiva University is committedly Jewish. I may be, like Daffyd in Little Britain, “the only Jew in the village”.

I am not, however, the only Brit on campus. The late Sir Martin Gilbert came here to work on the 23 volumes of The Churchill Documents, which Hillsdale’s press has published. Gilbert’s archive is here too.

There is also a larger-than-life statue of Mrs Thatcher. She is sitting in a chair. Across the quad is Ronald Reagan. He is leaning against a truncated Roman pillar, somewhat more casually than his posture during the Cold War.

These and the other statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass are naturalistic and human, not abstract or gigantic, like most recent public art in America.

This is entirely intentional. I have never felt so welcome on an American campus.
This is a big difference, and again, we are really talking two differences: an absence and a presence.

Absent are the performative radicalisms that form the social scenery in the usual college town. There are no Free Palestine bumper stickers in Hillsdale.

The students are present. They are polite, friendly, energetic, studious, articulate and respectful. They are far and away the most intelligent, well-educated and engaged students I have ever taught.

They know the Bible and Shakespeare, the Greeks and Romans. As many as four in ten play a musical instrument. I don’t see many of them wandering around campus hunched over their phones.

They have, as all young people should, and as young people used to have, what Iggy Pop, who grew up in a trailer park not far from here, called a lust for life.

My being Jewish simply isn’t a big deal here. To my students, the JC is just another “paper of record”. Nor was anyone shocked when I gave a public lecture the other night on my latest book, The Religious Revolution.

I discussed Darwin, Indian religion, the religious origins of democracy and totalitarianism, and a big dose of New Age wackiness. The questions from the audience were smart and — again — respectful. The conversation went on long after the lecture had finished.

February 23, 2023 11:55

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