At the beginning of February, The New York Times published a story about Hillsdale College, calling it “a ‘Shining City on a Hill’ for Conservatives.” The Times report proved to be a very fair and revealing article about this prominent conservative college promoted by Rush Limbaugh (which also happens to be my alma mater). But America’s newspaper of record did find a way to work in some subtle jabs at the school, which required answering.
The Times‘ Erick Eckholm argued that the issue of race “captures the juxtaposition of Hillsdale’s pathbreaking origins with its present-day conservatism.” Hillsdale College claims to have been the first college to admit students regardless of race or sex — in 1844. The college boasts of sending more students (and professors) to fight for the Union than any other school, due to in part to its opposition to slavery. But Eckholm quoted the current president, Dr. Larry Arnn, suggesting that the school’s opposition to “social justice” betrays a racist conservative philosophy.
“My answer to the charge that we do not promote ‘social justice’ is that we don’t and that I am proud that we don’t,” Dr. Paul Rahe, professor of history and Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale, told PJ Media in an email statement. “Justice is owed individuals, not groups. There is no such thing as ‘social justice.’ The phrase is a slogan used by those intent on looting.”
“In any case, Hillsdale is an educational institution. It is improper for such an institution to promote a partisan agenda in the classroom,” Rahe added. “When such an institution does so, it substitutes indoctrination for education. Our aim is to turn out well-informed, intelligent citizens capable of making up their own minds.”
How does Hillsdale educate rather than indoctrinate? The college exposes students “to the great debates that took place in the past,” the history professor wrote. “In treating slavery, for example, we read the arguments made on all sides — advocates of slavery such as John C. Calhoun, opponents such as Frederick Douglass, the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Nothing like this would take place in a course promoting ‘social justice.'”
Nevertheless, Rahe emphasized the school’s pedigree on race. “You have to keep in mind that Hillsdale was antislavery from day one,” he wrote. “We were, I believe, the first institution of higher learning in the country to offer college degrees to women and the first to admit African-Americans. The place was a stop on the underground railroad. Frederick Douglass spoke on the campus.”
The Times‘ Eckholm attacked the school for allegedly minimizing its view of slavery in American history. He noted, rightly, that at Hillsdale “the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are exalted for recognizing the natural rights of man and role of government as protector of those rights.” But then Eckholm contrasted this view with an allegedly more popular one. “The Constitution’s enshrinement of slavery, in this view, was a horrid expediency to win adoption in the South — a malignancy that ultimately had to be excised in blood rather than an indelible original sin.”
To this, Rahe responded that it would be “absurd” to condemn the founders for not abolishing slavery immediately. “They did not know how to do that without ruining themselves, and they feared that straightforward abolition would eventuate in a race war,” the professor explained. “It is easy for twenty-first century Americans to get high and mighty about this. It makes them feel righteous.”
Rahe explained that most Hillsdale professors would agree that slavery was “an evil contrary to the country’s first principles,” and that “the principles of the American Revolution required putting slavery on a course” to extinction. But if the “original sin” view of slavery means the institution was “an indelible stain on the American regime, rendering it illegitimate,” Hillsdale professors would disagree, as any good historian should.
Eckholm’s deepest attack on Hillsdale’s conservative convictions came when he quoted Joseph J. Ellis, author of several books on the founders. “The conservative narrative defies the evolution of the United States into a major industrial superpower that requires federal institutions to regulate corporations and manage a much larger set of interests,” Ellis reportedly said. Eckholm quoted Ellis as saying that the founders intended the Constitution to be “a living document.”
“I suspect that Mr. Eckholm misunderstands Joseph J. Ellis,” Rahe responded. “I cannot imagine him claiming that the founders intended the Constitution to be a ‘living document,'” because “that is the language introduced by Woodrow Wilson.”
What President Wilson had in mind was “that the courts could re-interpret the Constitution in light of the new ideas of his own day and future days,” the Hillsdale professor explained. “There was fear in 1787 and 1788 that the courts would do something of the sort,” Rahe added, citing the Anti-Federalist Brutus and Alexander Hamilton’s response in The Federalist.
Hamilton argued that the courts would interpret the Constitution as it was written, in what today is called Originalism. “Thomas Jefferson later worried that the Constitution would be wax in the hands of the judiciary,” Rahe added. “No one in the founding generation ever suggested that it should be wax” (emphasis his).
These facts should be clear to everyone who studies the revolution, the professor argued, citing his own books Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift. That second book discusses Wilson’s push for a “living Constitution” approach, which the former president prefaced with a critique of the founding principles and the figure who inspired them, the baron de Montesquieu.
Wilson “knew that he was rejecting the Founding, and he was honest about it,” Rahe explained. “Some of the progressives who succeeded him — above all, those in the law schools — have been less honest about this.” The professor noted that the founders wrote an amendment process into the Constitution, so the idea of reinterpreting the document to fit the times is completely unnecessary.
“For the courts to ‘amend’ the Constitution via their jurisprudence is to reject the fundamental principle of popular consent,” Rahe declared. Even if the “living Constitution” is more popular, as Eckholm wrote, it is a betrayal of the founders’ declaration that only a vast majority of Congress or the states can amend the Constitution.
As for regulating corporations (another concern Eckholm quoted Ellis as having with conservative principles), Rahe emphasized that the founders would have opposed the idea that there should be no limits on the federal government’s regulatory reach. Unchecked regulation would lead to despotism, in their view. “Are politicians and bureaucrats not just as likely to abuse unchecked power as corporate executives?”
Despite these fervent disagreements with Eckholm, Rahe said he enjoyed meeting the New York Times journalist and “found him an intelligent man.” The professor noted Eckholm’s history as the Times‘ bureau chief in Beijing, and argued that the journalist “approached Hillsdale much as he would the Chinese regime: as an odd place in distant parts that might be of interest to the highly partisan, highly ideological audience that the Times now caters to.”
Rahe said Eckholm “did a pretty good job” reporting on Hillsdale, noting that “many of the readers of the Times who commented on his article were enraged that he treated us so impartially.”
Nevertheless, the professor thought the journalist missed out on the whole story. “My suspicion is that if Mr. Eckholm were to do a general tour of campuses in this country and then return to Hillsdale, he would find us an island of sanity and academic seriousness in a sea of institutions to an ever increasing degree devoted to indoctrination.”