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Sue Lani Madsen: Students must learn to figure things out

Hillsdale College is a small liberal arts Christian college in a small town in Michigan with a big presence in educational debates. Founded on the American frontier in 1844 with a revolutionary commitment to educating students regardless of race or gender, Hillsdale in 2023 still has a reach far beyond its rural campus.

Larry Arnn, president of the college, spoke at a luncheon Tuesday to a packed banquet hall at the Centennial Hotel. He defended the value of a liberal arts education rooted in classical knowledge. “School is too important to just be job training,” he said.

As evidenced by hotly contested school board races across the country, education is having a crisis moment. Not just about budgets, buildings and who should be teaching, but what should be taught.

Arnn points to reactions to Hillsdale’s development of a K-12 curriculum and support for a system of nearly 100 charter schools as one way of measuring the crisis in the country. “We’ve become important and so now we have enemies,” Arnn said. “Our motto is, ‘Strength rejoices in the challenge.’ ”

Stretching and challenging students to handle uncomfortable situations is key to preparation for life, Arnn said. He described the knowledge that matters as the essential study of nature through the fields of physics, biology, chemistry and math as well as knowledge of what makes us human.

Hillsdale College has been serious about classical learning, from the beginning focused on freedom and therefore strongly anti-slavery. The college nearly closed during the Civil War when so many students volunteered to fight. After the war ended, according to Arnn, Hillsdale never lost sight of its principles and stayed focused on the classics instead of the progressive educational reform waves of the 20th century.

Founded as a Christian college, Arnn pushes back on those who react thinking “Christian college” means closed avenues of inquiry and an education serving only to indoctrinate. “It doesn’t work that way at Hillsdale,” Arnn said. He pointed to the Latin root of the word education, “to draw out” and the process as one of training the mind with the knowledge and the skills to be a better human.

Arnn reflected that it doesn’t work to teach people your prejudices, but focus must be on teaching people to figure things out. He sees Christianity as a further development of classical thought. According to Aristotle, there is a hierarchy of things and beings. Humans are at the top of the hierarchy but are flawed. Aristotle had a concept of a human with the bad removed and the good enhanced as God. “If there is no concept of God, then there is no concept of the perfect, as all humans are flawed,” Arnn said.

Hillsdale’s notoriety began when it tangled with the federal Department of Education over the strings attached to federal student aid. Hillsdale is one of a handful of small liberal arts colleges whose graduates never have to worry about federal student loan debt. And since the college accepts no federal money, the administrators don’t have to worry about federal fiddling and get to call their own tune. Funding that in other colleges comes from the government has been replaced with private support.

Hillsdale College reports an endowment of over $900 million in 2021. For context, the average endowment at the top-10 most well-endowed universities in the U.S. is $28.4 billion, according to a 2022 U.S. News and World Report article. Harvard’s is the highest at about $53 billion, Yale comes in second at $42 billion.

Hillsdale has used its freedom and its endowment to work outside the liberal arts college boundaries by offering free online courses and a regular publication called Imprimis. But it’s the K-12 curriculum that has caused the most debate.

After pandemic restrictions opened classrooms across the country to parents, curriculum became a hot topic at school board meetings and in school board races across the country. Development of the “Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum” for the teaching of American civics and history was prompted by the progressive push for the Nikole Hannah-Jones “1619 Project.” Both are described as controversial, for different reasons and dependent on the bias of the writer. Both allow a great deal of freedom for individual teachers to adapt and modify in their classrooms.

Which means it matters to parents who sets the standards and the culture of a school, whether it be private or public. In a public school system, accountability lands on the desk of the school board and the administrators.

A hundred years ago, schools were run locally and reflected their community. Now schools must comply with many progressive-driven regulations and attitudes accumulated over decades. Arnn suggested a simple question for all school board candidates who will be facing this massive bureaucracy on behalf of their community. “What do the students need to know and how do we teach them?”

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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