Jack Trotter has written a most unfortunate article (“Conservative Education: Caveat Emptor!,” Views, September), at least as it concerns Hillsdale College.  I have been here for 40 years, and what he describes has very little to do with the reality of this lovely little school.  I doubt that he has ever been here; in fact, what he writes about “conservative education” makes me wonder if he has ever been on any of the campuses he discusses.  I may be wrong.  I don’t know Professor Trotter, though I have enjoyed several of his essays in Chronicles.  But about Hillsdale, he is, quite simply, wrong.

It is clear that he has picked up his notions about Hillsdale from various of its publications and the internet.  Even those he has given a very selective reading, especially in choosing an offhand paragraph from a president who has not been on this campus for over 14 years to make the ridiculous (and false) point that Hillsdale conflates Christianity and free enterprise.  That Hillsdale “claims” a circulation of Imprimis does happen to be true, and even the most superficial checking with somebody who knows about it would reveal that the mailing list is one of the best protected, and of the highest integrity, in all of direct-mail marketing.

A full refutation of Professor Trotter’s silly and superficial “caveat emptor” criticisms would take more space than his article.  Let me focus on just two points.

He says that Hillsdale’s claim to have incorporated a classical emphasis into its curriculum is “superficial, at best.”  His evidence is that classical languages are not required, that there are two great-books courses and one course in Western civilization before 1600 that are required of all students, and that the rest of the curriculum is essentially cafeteria fluff of the kind inspired by his (rather strange) summary of John Dewey’s influence on American education.  In fact, classical languages and literature flourish at Hillsdale—so much so that I would feel confident in comparing its programs with any other college in the nation.  Hillsdale, in the dark days just after World War II, dumped its classics department and sold a rather substantial classics library.  When we started raising money in the early 1980’s, one of the first major changes we made was to bring back Latin and Greek (in 1986), making Hillsdale, as far as I know, the only college ever to abolish a classics program and then reestablish it.  Furthermore, Hillsdale now has six full-time faculty in that department, more than Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams, or Sewanee, all of which have slightly larger student populations.

Professor Trotter would also benefit from having tried to gain some understanding of the history and English requirements for all freshmen.  They are not just “great books” courses, but well-wrought and very rigorous approaches to our common heritage in the West that are unique and are taught to small classes (rarely over 20 students) entirely from primary readings put together in course readers that are published by our own departments.  Writing and speaking components are heavy.

In the mess that was American higher education shortly after our version of the great patriotic war (not all of it caused by Dewey), there were very few voices even from the greatest generation that were speaking out for the integrity of our traditional culture.  Two of them were Russell Kirk and the great historian from Columbia University, Carlton J.H. Hayes.  In the 1980’s at Hillsdale, when I and a few other traditionalists were trying to rebuild a curriculum, they became chief sources for a history anchor that we hoped would give weight and gravitas to the efforts of like-minded new and older faculty.  Our efforts were aided by much money, brought in by the best fundraising operation in American higher education, but tainted of course in Professor Trotter’s mind because we were aided and abetted by Paul Harvey, whom I am sure he considers just as philistine as Rush Limbaugh.

Hayes, the greatest of the generalist historians of Western civilization in the 20th century, had developed a concept of “Atlantic Civilization” whereby the West had been transmitted in an orderly way to the United States.  Thus, the emphasis on “heritage,” and the arrangement of classes and readings that inform much of the Hillsdale curriculum.  There is not a hint of triumphalism on our campus, except perhaps for the exuberant gushings of an occasional Straussian.  I have said for some time that Hillsdale is among the best of American colleges, and by “best” I mean a clear understanding of who we are and the rigorous attempt of imperfect human beings to deliver just that.  I hold no animus against Professor Trotter; I just wish that he had done his homework.


—John Willson
Professor of History, Emeritus
Hillsdale College


Professor Trotter Replies:

Unless I have misunderstood his letter, Professor Willson’s chief argument appears to be that I am wrong in asserting that the classical emphasis in Hillsdale’s core requirements is “superficial, at best.”  I noted that “Aside from two required ‘great books’ seminars, students are offered a predictable array of humanities options,” and that while Latin and Greek are offered, neither is required.  This is really the gist of the matter, and Professor Willson makes no attempt to deny it.  Of course, we can quibble over the term superficial, but in my view the absence of a classical-language requirement in the core sequence suggests a distinct lack of rigor in a college that professes to be genuinely conservative.  I fail to see how the number of instructors in the classics department is relevant.  I am sure that the Hillsdale students who major in classical languages and culture are well served.  I never suggested otherwise.  Nor do I doubt that the education received by Hillsdale students is superior to what most American students experience these days.  I will remind Professor Willson that, earlier in the article, I made a point of praising Hills­dale’s “challenging academic standards.”

Allow me to add that Professor Willson seems rather defensive about the close connection between Hillsdale and Rush Limbaugh, and states that I probably regard Limbaugh as a “philistine.”  Well, gosh, yes, I do!  Guilty as charged.