No, Hillsdale College Doesn’t Need A Reckoning On Race
John Daniel Davidson
There is a reason Hillsdale College, a tiny liberal arts college in rural Michigan (and my alma mater), has been in the news recently. It is not because anything particularly newsworthy has happened there of late, but because the college, almost alone among education institutions in America, has had the temerity to push back against demands from a handful of alumni that it issue statements “admonishing white supremacy,” as if Hillsdale’s failure to stage a performative struggle session makes it complicit in “systemic racism.”
To its credit, the college responded last month with a brilliantly understated open letter, first published in the school newspaper then in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that everything Hillsdale does, “though its work is not that of an activist or agitator, is for the moral and intellectual uplift of all.” Rather than cheap virtue-signaling, the college pointed to its actual work of educating men and women in the classical liberal arts as evidence of its commitment not just to equity and justice, but to “the great principles that are, second only to divine grace, the solution to the grave ills that beset our times.”
That wasn’t enough for some people, including Liz Essley Whyte, an alumna who took to the pages of The Bulwark recently to proclaim that Hillsdale cannot “hide behind” its abolitionist heritage, that it must “take a good, hard look at its past. It must lament the evil and treasure the good.” Hillsdale, insists Whyte, “has plenty of reasons to join the national reckoning on race.” She goes on to catalogue an allegedly problematic strain of libertarianism at the school coupled with Hillsdale’s rejection of race-based affirmative action.
Whyte’s essay is deeply dishonest and riddled with tendentious claims, but for the sake of argument let us assume for a moment that what is underway in America is in fact a “national reckoning on race,” not a blatant assault on American ideals of equality under the law and individual rights. Let’s also assume that Hillsdale somehow sees good reason to join in this national reckoning.
What should the college actually do? Acquiesce to the specious notion of “systemic racism”? Then what? If the college tried to address its own supposed systemic racism, how would we know when it was fixed, and who would decide?
Whyte does not say, and for good reason. What she calls a national reckoning on race is actually nothing more than a set of demands leveled with a threat: submit or else. It’s the same threat implicit in the alumni petition, and indeed in the entire Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the country: if you do not engage questions of race according to our terms, you are a racist. If you question your own racism, you are a racist. If you resist our demands that you make amends for your past racism, you are a racist. And so on.
Into this intellectual cul-de-sac Whyte and other woke Hillsdale alumni would have the college go. By the inflexible logic of critical race theory, Hillsdale’s abolitionist past does not matter, its efforts to improve private and public schools do not matter, its financial aid to underprivileged students does not matter. All that matters is that the school does not go out of its way to categorize students by race, does not practice affirmative action, does not accept the terms of debate about race set forth by the progressive left, and refuses to repent of all these sins.
Cheap Shots At Hillsdale Fail to Land
The substance of Whyte’s complaints against Hillsdale dissipate upon close inspection, whether because they are anecdotal and unverifiable—a black student claiming, without corroboration or details, to have been called a racial slur by a white student—or because they are intellectually dishonest. Consider the charges she levels against George Roche III, a libertarian scholar who became president of the college in 1971.
Roche had misgivings about federal civil rights laws that expanded the power and reach of the federal government at the expense of states and private enterprises. That this power was in the service of fighting racial discrimination did not, in his view, render it benign.
This is a common concern among libertarians skeptical of federal power and the erosion of federalism. Whatever one makes of Roche’s particular arguments on the subject, it remains true that federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s exposed a tension in our constitutional system that remains with us today. Pointing that out, and exploring its implications, is not racist—then or now.
Whyte’s subsequent claim that “an odd strain of Lost Cause romanticism lingered at Hillsdale” is even more questionable. She cites the inclusion of an 1891 essay by Confederate apologist and classical scholar Basil Gildersleeve in a Hillsdale-published reader for its required American history course. The introduction to the essay explains, to Whyte’s apparent dismay, that Gildersleeve’s view of the South had “universal validity,” which of course it did. Saying so isn’t an endorsement of such a view, it is simply a statement of fact about the South in the late nineteenth-century.
It might seem old-fashioned in contemporary academia, but the entire point of reading primary sources, as all students are required to do at Hillsdale, is to understand what people in the past believed, and why. And of course Whyte mentions this one eccentric entry but omits the college’s entire teaching of the Confederacy in its reader for the U.S. Constitution, which explains in some detail the errors of the Lost Cause “states’ rights” view of the Civil War.
Equally dishonest is Whyte’s claim that Hillsdale “has chosen to publicize voices that make the alt-right feel comfortable.” For evidence she cites a 2018 speech by Roger Kimball published last year by Imprimis, the college’s widely read digest of speeches, that supposedly defends “John C. Calhoun and Confederate monuments.”
It does nothing of the sort. In his remarks, Kimball briefly mentions Calhoun’s historical significance as a reason not to tear down his statues or change the name of Yale’s Calhoun College. It is one of many examples Kimball cites of “puritanical censure” in the Ivy League and corporate America alike, and his obvious point is that the impulse to erase our common history springs from a delusion about our present-day moral superiority.
Hillsdale Ignores Race as a Matter Of Principle
Indeed, the only remotely substantive criticism of Hillsdale Whyte levels is that it refuses to categorize students by race or practice race-based affirmative action in admissions. What Whyte may not realize—or simply refuses to acknowledge—is that Hillsdale eschews racial categorization on purpose as a matter of principle.
Hillsdale’s refusal to comply with federal affirmative action requirements resulted in a series of court cases in the late 1970s and early ‘80s that ended with the college withdrawing from all federal financial assistance programs. Today it is one of the few colleges in America that accepts no federal funds—and no federal mandates.
Indeed, Hillsdale has always considered such mandates tantamount to racial discrimination. In contrast to the race-obsessed thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement, Hillsdale has always hewn to the thinking of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., who understood that race was not the most important thing about a person, and that the promises of the American Founding transcend race and national origin.
If the college’s leaders have “pooh-pooed diversity,” as Whyte says, it is because the diversity she has in mind is utterly hollow. Unlike progressives, classical liberals believe race itself is an incidental feature of the human condition, neither essential nor determinative, and in many ways merely a construct. At a college especially, the only kind of diversity that should matter is intellectual diversity, which is sorely missing from most colleges and universities today but alive and well at Hillsdale.
Precisely because Hillsdale resists the racialized thinking of the progressive left, it will remain a target of those who insist on total submission to the diktats of critical race theory and social justice activism. It will continue to be smeared in the mainstream press as a “Trump-connected college” simply because a handful of alumni work in the Trump administration. It will continue to draw the ire of graduates, like Whyte and the misguided signers of the alumni petition, who were ostensibly educated in the great tradition of classical liberalism but for one reason or another failed to understand its meaning.