“The first duty of the university is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities. We want a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we do not want a world of engineers.” That quote was uttered by Winston Churchill. But it could have been said just as easily by Larry Arnn.
Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College, a small college focused on the classical liberal arts and western literary cannon, located in rural Michigan.
For a small school located in the nearest thing to the middle of nowhere, Hillsdale has an outsized impact. Its graduates can be found working all over Capitol Hill and in the White House. Its monthly newsletter, Imprimis, has a circulation of 3.7 million, and its free online courses in history, politics, and philosophy have been viewed millions of times. It could reasonably be said that, under Arnn’s leadership, Hillsdale has become a full-blown multimedia company, which just happens to include a college among its many endeavors.
I sat down with Arnn on a recent afternoon at The Kirby Center—Hillsdale’s headquarters in the nation’s capital—where many of its students come to spend a semester taking classes and interning on the hill.
D.C. is an ironic location for our interview, since Hillsdale is one of only a few colleges that does not accept federal funds. Why did Hillsdale plant its flag in D.C.? The answer, in a word, is influence. As Arnn put it, “We didn’t come here to listen; we came to talk.”
Arnn’s ambition is to translate the educational mission of Hillsdale into political action. “I would like to be governed by people who are deeply knowledgeable about the principles and institutions of our country.”
I questioned Arnn about the value of a liberal arts education in an era in which college costs are rising, along with student debt. Are liberal arts truly important when what many students (and parents) really want out of college is simply a high-paying job?
Arnn believes that the purpose of education cannot be reduced to the salary a graduate earns. Instead, he argues, education must equip a student to thoughtfully answer the question, “Why are we here?”
Learning how to write computer code, he points out, does not teach a student what sorts of computer codes ought to be written. For that you need the aid of philosophy or, perhaps even more so, history. Invoking the 19th century philosopher George Santayana, Arnn says it is because “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”
“Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill ruled at the same time,” Arnn says, “and used a lot of the same means. The question is, which one of them was better? And how do you find that out? Do you find that out by learning to code?”
Nevertheless, Hillsdale’s focus on the western literary cannon opens it up to criticism from those who argue that the cultural assumptions contained in that cannon are too narrow. Why, after all, should Arnn be the one to decide what ideas are worth studying?
His answer to that question sums up the maverick attitude that has propelled this small Michigan college to a level of influence so great in proportion to its size.
“It’s a free country,” Arnn says. “We can argue; or we can leave each other alone. If you come to Hillsdale, you are going to spend half of your time on the core curriculum. If you don’t want that, don’t come here.”