If it weren’t for Plato, Larry Arnn would have been a lawyer—though it is difficult to imagine him in a courthouse filing terse procedural briefs. The president of Hillsdale College for 15 years, Mr. Arnn seems like a born professor. Ask about the 2016 election or the state of higher education, and it isn’t long before he’s quoting, in a soft voice with a hint of southern drawl, Winston Churchill, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or the book that changed his life, Plato’s “Republic.”
It was 1974, and Mr. Arnn was a senior in politics at Arkansas State University, down the road from his small hometown. He was required to take a course on political thought taught by a professor with a reputation for toughness. The two got into a philosophical tangle. “He wiped the floor with me—and showed me that the most interesting things in the world were not of interest to me, and I felt terrible about it,” Mr. Arnn says. “I can remember he said to me, ‘By the way, this thing justice, don’t you care about it? Does it not interest you at all?’”
Mr. Arnn says he began thinking about the higher questions—and he wanted more. “Instead of going to law school, I called my dad and I said, ‘Dad I’m going to go to graduate school,’” Mr. Arnn recalls. “He said, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ And I said, ‘I’m going toknow it.’”
That ethos, of seeking knowledge for its own sake, is what has guided Hillsdale College since its founding in 1844. The liberal-arts school has about 1,500 students and is located a couple of hours west of Detroit in Hillsdale, Mich., a town of 8,000. Two things, primarily, brought the college to prominence: its refusal to take any money from the state or federal government, and its classical curriculum based on great books, the Western tradition and the American founding.
There was a time when studying such things was synonymous with a university education. But nowadays they are often shunted aside in favor of technical training, or they are treated as optional, choices no better than any other at the curriculum buffet. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported in April that English majors at many top schools aren’t required to take a class on Shakespeare, though they are often forced to study what the colleges term “diasporic literature” or “non-canonical traditions.” At Hillsdale, every student takes two great-books courses that run from Homer and Aeschylus to Whitman and Frost.
“The overwhelming argument now for education—at all levels and from the government—is that it’s a preparation to make you a better factor of production,” Mr. Arnn says. By way of response, he quotes Churchill, which he can do better than most. From 1977-80, while studying in London, Mr. Arnn assisted Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s authorized biographer, with research, conducting interviews and sorting through official papers. As we sit in Hillsdale’s office in Washington and Mr. Arnn relates Churchill’s thoughts on education, the British statesman glowers down at us from a large painting on the wall.
“Engines were made for men, not men for engines,” Churchill said at the University of Miami in 1946. “Expert knowledge, however indispensable, is no substitute for a generous and comprehending outlook upon the human story with all its sadness and with all its unquenchable hope.”
Yet the humanities have fallen on hard times. Unquenchable hope is all well and good, a critic might say, but it doesn’t pay the electric bill. This spring Sweet Briar College, a century-old liberal-arts school in Virginia with about 700 students, announced that it would soon close its doors for good. The college’s president lamented that financial obstacles couldn’t be overcome, and that too few young people were interested in attending a rural school in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “We are 30 minutes from a Starbucks,” he said.
That’s about 10 minutes closer to a Starbucks than Hillsdale. When I point this out to Mr. Arnn, he replies that students can get their coffee fix at A.J.’s Cafe on campus—but he takes the point. “Hillsdale College is 40 minutes from anywhere,” he says. “And you know, also, it’s cold up there, and small. The town’s small. We think of those as advantages. Because you need to come to college for the right reason. They’re not coming to our place for the beach. We like that—and manage to recruit, better and better.”
Figures provided by the college bear this out: In 1996, Hillsdale had 1,131 students, whose average high-school GPA was 3.5. Slightly over half—56%—hailed from outside Michigan. Last year undergraduates numbered 1,437. Their average high-school GPA was 3.8, and two-thirds came from out of state.
This is all the more impressive considering that Hillsdale students aren’t allowed to receive federal aid, such as Pell grants. In 1966 Hillsdale’s board decided the school wouldn’t accept any money directly from the government. “We thought that direct aid to the colleges was illegitimate,” Mr. Arnn says. “We’re the trainers of citizens and statesman. If the government funds us, it’s controlling that process.”
Then Washington asserted that it could still regulate Hillsdale, since its students accepted federal scholarship money. So in 1984 the school barred that, too, enlisting donors and setting up its own financial-aid program. The average Hillsdale student last year received $17,317 in gifts and loans, according to the college.
Cutting these strings has allowed the college to remain independent. Mr. Arnn says Hillsdale has no direct contact with the army of bureaucrats at the Education Department, whose hulking Lyndon Baines Johnson Building occupies half a city block a mile from where we sit.
For example, Hillsdale, which believes in colorblind admissions, doesn’t have to report to the government statistics on the racial breakdown of its campus, so it doesn’t collect that data. If you ask Mr. Arnn how many, say, Hispanic students are on campus, he will reply that he has no idea. “It’s hugely better if you can just ignore all that stuff,” he says, “and we can.”
But Mr. Arnn says that during the last term of President George W. Bush, creative bureaucrats figured out a new way to assert control: through the independent accrediting agencies that evaluate college programs. “In the ’60s the federal government designated them as the pathway to eligibility for the federal money,” he says. “None of that means beans to us, but now the accrediting agencies are living under standards the Department of Education gives them.”
He says the tone of accreditation has already changed, that what used to be a discrete process every decade or so has turned into frequent requests for snippets of information online. The balance of power has already shifted, he worries. “Now the question,” he says, “is what are they going to do with it?”
When we meet, Mr. Arnn is in Washington to accept a Bradley Prize. The award is one of the most prestigious in the conservative sphere. Mr. Arnn’s citation states that Hillsdale “perpetuates, through liberal education and sound learning, religious liberty and intelligent piety.” (Two Journal editorial-page writers and several contributors have won Bradleys.)
The college’s free monthly publication, Imprimis, which adapts into print speeches delivered on Hillsdale’s campus, now goes to 2.9 million subscribers. In 2011 Hillsdale began offering free 10-week online courses, beginning with one on the Constitution, and more than 750,000 people have now participated. “The college is radiating more than it used to,” Mr. Arnn says.
Before coming to Hillsdale, Mr. Arnn was president of the Claremont Institute, a think tank in California that he founded with three other graduate students in 1979. How do grad students decide to start a think tank? “Drink some wine. And, you know, having conversations about the good. That’s how we did it,” he says. “We were ambitious and stupid, and both helped.”
The institute’s first program, the Publius fellowships, brings together young people for intense study of political philosophy and the American founding. (I was a Publius fellow in 2011.) “We thought, ‘There’s a crisis in the nation, and the answer to the crisis is the Declaration of Independence, and the “Laws of Nature, and Nature’s God,” and the Constitution. And the conservative movement never talks about those things’—which was true, back then,” Mr. Arnn says. “We have something to do with that not being as true now as it used to be.”
He ran for Congress on a lark in 1992, but lost the GOP primary to Ken Calvert, who won the seat and still holds it. Mr. Arnn says he often considered running for office again but doesn’t think politics is for him. “I regard all that as very noble, and I admire people who do that very much, and I don’t look down on them at all,” he says. “I learned how hard that is.”
One might wonder, given all this, whether Hillsdale manages to attract many Democratic-leaning students. “The college is not really about that. We don’t ask anybody about that,” Mr. Arnn says. “They tend to be conservative, but here’s why: If you’re going to read old books as if they might have an abiding value, already you’ve taken a step away from the Daily Beast.” In fact—anxious high schoolers, take note—he says it never works when applicants try to get in by talking about how much they believe in the conservative cause. “I’ll say, ‘OK, what is that?’ And after a little questioning, you can expose the fact that they don’t know,” he says.
But if incoming freshman don’t fully grasp conservative principles when they enter Hillsdale, it’s a good bet they will learn. Walking the 400-acre campus daily, they will pass statues of George Washington, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
It is the last of these, the life-size bronze Iron Lady that seems to have attracted the most attention. A few winters back, students invented a new snow sport called Thatcherball. The rules are simple: Players for the offense rush toward the statue and attempt to hit Mrs. Thatcher with a rugby ball. Players for the defense attempt to stop them by nearly any means necessary. “The only written rule of conduct is that there is no murder allowed,” one of the sport’s founders told the school newspaper. A player who succeeds in thunking the late prime minister earns his team eight points, minus one point for every article of clothing he is wearing.
What, pray tell, did President Arnn make of Thatcherball when he found out about it? He laughs—hard. “I work in a college. I’m used to such things. And I got to tell Lady Thatcher about it,” he says. “She really liked it.”