- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

To understand why so many Americans are concerned about recent social and political trends that have turned many U.S. colleges into colonies of conformity, you need to understand the relationship between the American form of self-government and the liberal arts tradition. In short, you can't have one without the other.

This realization dates back to the Founding Fathers.

Toward the end of their lives, Thomas Jefferson was 82 and James Madison, 74. They struck up a correspondence about how to teach the law. A generation before, Jefferson had helped pen the Declaration of Independence, and Madison the Constitution. Both had been legislators. Each had been president. Together, they had founded the dominant political party in the land. Now they were thinking of the preservation of what they had built; the discussion of teaching the law expanded into a discussion of preserving the republic itself.

Jefferson proposed that some sort of textbook be created or adopted. Madison replied that this would be difficult. The Declaration of Independence, Madison wrote, says "everything that could be said in the same number of words."

"The Federalist," he said, is the most "authentic exposition of the text of the Constitution." And the Inaugural and Farewell addresses of George Washington, are useful, even essential, readings for any student of law in this free country.

Yet, Madison said, useful as these documents are, it would be hard to define any set of "books that will be both guides & guards for the purpose" of teaching the law and preserving our heritage. After all, he concluded, "the most effectual safeguard against heretical intrusions into the School of Politics, will be an Able & Orthodox Professor, whose course of instruction will be an example to his successors."

From a discussion about a school of law, a school of politics was born. And from a discussion about which books to read, an institution was born: the liberal arts college.

It may seem strange that colleges and other private institutions were seen as vital to the preservation of public institutions, but this is characteristic of the American system, where the government and the people and the public and the private are dependent upon and benefit from the other. This is the tradition and the paradox of the American Revolution.

This tradition is expressed in the founding documents of Hillsdale College, whose articles of incorporation date from March 1855. Their preamble states: "Whereas the denomination of Christians, Known as Free Will Baptists, with other friends of education, grateful to God for the inestimable blessings resulting from the prevalence of civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety in the land, and believing that the diffusion of sound learning is essential to the perpetuity of these blessings, have determined to found and liberally endow a college at Hillsdale."

These Free Will Baptists believed with Jefferson that "Almighty God hath created the mind free." They saw human beings as responsible for their actions responsible for upholding standards that are divine in nature, but perceivable by human reason. Because of this, Hillsdale's founders considered "civil and religious liberty" something to which Americans are entitled by virtue of birth and the blessings of God. They believed the human being capable of "intelligent piety." They considered "sound learning" essential to the perpetuity of human freedom and morality. And they understood that to fully appreciate and comprehend the concept of liberty one must explore the "laws of nature and of nature's God."

In the American tradition, reason and revelation combine to support freedom and morality, which joins freedom and morality together, too. Such thinking, which groups together certain things that today are often considered opposed, was nothing unusual for an American college in 1855. Similar words can be found in the preambles of 46 of the 50 state constitutions and in the religious freedom clauses of all 50. Similarly, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, under which Michigan came into the union, states in Article III: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

Hillsdale College then was founded according to the same principles that gave rise to America itself. Little wonder, with such a beginning, that Hillsdale should be among the first American colleges whose written charter welcomed blacks and women into its student body.

Hillsdale College pursues the liberal arts first and foremost as an academic task. It pursues them with rigor, love and devotion. Because of that, it is something more than an academic institution. It is an institution of freedom and a proud one, the kind Madison and Jefferson believed was necessary to the preservation of freedom.

Larry P. Arnn is president-elect of Hillsdale College, Hillsdale,Mich.

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