Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Big Hollywood Visits Hillsdale College

Here's a look at one of our favorite colleges from, of all places, the perspective of Hollywood.

On a related matter, this Thursday we will be posting the Young America's Foundation 2009-2010 listing of the ten best conservative colleges in America. We hope and expect Hillsdale will continue to be among them.


The imposing but elegant Central Hall houses the administrative offices of Hillsdale College.

From Big Hollywood
By Robert J. Avrech

No tattoos. No body piercings.

That’s the first thing that hits me about the students here at Hillsdale College.

This is an environment that is free from self-mutilations, an affliction that seems rampant among America’s young.

Hillsdale prides itself as a place “where an education in the permanent things is a matter of precedent, plan and procedure.”

The educational mission at Hillsdale rests upon two foundational principles: academic excellence and institutional independence. The college does not accept federal or state taxpayer subsidies for any of its operations. All funding come from donors and tuition.

A bastion of conservative thought, Hillsdale is a college where, among other studies, you can major in Latin and Greek. Here, the Constitution is taken seriously and the Western Canon is revered in their core curriculum.


A sculpture of Winston Churchill stands in the entrance of the Hillsdale Library. I was told that the artist was a biology major here at Hillsdale. Larry P. Arnn, president of Hillsdale, worked as Director of Research for Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill.

But this is no dusty, stodgy institution. Hillsdale has vital and active arts programs. There is a wonderful theater department. There are dance and sculpture studios. There are arty kids and nerdy kids. But from what I’ve seen Hillsdale students are refreshingly absent post-modern attitudes and ironic posturing.

The last time I saw so many women in skirts was when I visited my daughters at Yeshiva University Stern College for women.

This afternoon, a group of us met with several theater majors. We discussed career goals and dreams. Those of us with experience in film or theater, offered our advice. The students—incredibly mature and respectful—listened, took notes and asked relevant questions. I’ve met far too many theater students who project a sullen and tragic personae—getting all Stanislavsky—as if playing a romantic role. The Hillsdale students were, in contrast, good-natured, enthusiastic, if a bit nervous, to meet life’s challenges after graduation.

Dan Ford, director John Ford’s grandson, and author of Pappy: The Life of John Ford, offered valuable insights into the thicket of a Hollywood career.

My main advice to the Hillsdale actors and actresses was: talent is important but tenacity is even more important.

Last night we screened Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a wonderful film starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Because the film is modestly helmed—no fancy, attention-grabbing shots—by the fine craftsman Sam Wood, it’s not readily apparent that this is, like Gone With the Wind, a great saga of a particular time, place and people. Wood’s camera is always in the right spot capturing, with admirable restraint, the magnificent drama and vital emotions that need to be laid end to end in order for the film’s complex narrative to cohere.


Greer Garson and Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips, 1939.

Donat’s performance is so finely tuned, so modestly scaled that he was awarded the Oscar for best actor in that overpowering year of 1939 when the other nominees were Clark Gable (GWTW), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Mickey Rooney (Babes in Arms.) Wood, sadly reviled because of his right wing politics, directs with such a sure hand that the narrative, covering over fifty years in a man’s life, moves by with seamless precision.

As the film ended, all around me, there were barely suppressed sniffles and sobs.

This deeply moving film about the life of a teacher and his students in a fine old English school was particularly appropriate because, it seems to me, that Hillsdale is the American version of the film’s Brookfield Public School, where tradition and Western values are paramount.

Film scholar David Thomson delivered a dazzling lecture about the Hollywood of 1939. Speaking of the massive audiences that went to see films in 1939, Thomson memorably noted that going to the movies was not just a communal experience, but a “patriotic gesture.”

The applause that greeted this observation brought tears to my eyes.


A striking statue of Abraham Lincoln on campus. Hillsdale was the first American college to prohibit in its charter discrimination based on race, religion or sex. It was the second college in the nation to grant four-year liberal arts degrees to women.

Click here for Hillsdale’s exceptional website.


E. Lyman Clarke said...

Gag me with a spoon. Sounds like the Stepford students.

I graduated from Hillsdale in December 1976.

I am very familiar with the Arb, at least as it was then, and with the stone gazebo where Lissa Roche killed herself.

George Roche III was a relative new guy in my day. My mom thought he was handsome. I knew his wife; I was hired out by what was then the food service, Saga, to iron her enormous tablecloth.

I had a class with George Roche IV, who was still in high school, but was getting a head start on college by taking a few courses.

Hillsdale had not yet hit the news with its famous stand against government "meddling." In the early 70s, there were Vietnam vets on campus, and a good many of my Michigan classmates were attending Hillsdale on state grants.

We thought of ourselves as a liberal arts college then, not a conservative enclave. Hillsdale had not yet evolved into the last bastion of ultra conservative education.

There was no statue of Margaret Thatcher on campus then, thank gawd, not that any of us had ever heard of such a lady at that time.

We girls did not all dress in skirts, and we had the usual piercings common to the day. We snuck boys into our rooms, we drank at the TKE parties, we smoked pot in the Arb. The drinking age was 18 in Michigan then, so on the weekends we could, legally, indulge as we wished at the Time Tunnel in Jonesville.

Only one of my friends belonged to the John Birch society and she, coincidentally, was the only one I knew who attended church, religiously (sorry!), throughout her four years at Hillsdale.

We weren't terribly interested in politics and we never debated (or studied) the constitution, except as it figured into an American history course.

My tuition, room and board amounted to $4000 a year, which was covered by a Pennsylvania state educational loan. I was able to pay off that loan within a few years after graduation on a salary, in the late 70s, which went from $9000 a year all the way up to a whopping $12,600 a year in 1980.

I have been receiving Imprimis since my graduation 34 years ago, and through that publication I have watched the evolution of my old school into something I am profoundly ashamed of.

Whenever I hear Rush Limbaugh positively gush over my Alma Mater, I want to hide under a blanket. I am nauseated. I cannot believe that despicable excuse for a human being and his female counterpoint, Ann Coulter, have been invited to speak at Hillsdale events.

The likes of James Dickey delivered the CCA lectures that I attended. Are there no more James Dickeys these days?

I am tempted to renounce my degree...can that be done?

I blame George Roche III for what Hillsdale has become, not because he slept with his daughter-in-law, tore his family apart, and stained the reputation of the school he served (although Hillsdale College, like everything on the Right, seems to be coated with Teflon).

I blame George Roche III because it was on his watch and through his efforts that Hillsdale evolved from a fine liberal arts college into the ultra right wing conservative fundamentalist Christian institution that it is today.

You like it like that?!

Anonymous said...

Earth to Ms. Clark:

Like most libs, you are misguided in your grievances. And, like most libs, you don't understand the meaning of the term "liberal arts." (Hint: It doesn't mean cafeteria-style education, whereby callow 18 years are given free rein to study whatever they please.)

Hillsdale is doing today exactly what its founders prescribed that it do in the college's mission statement. At the time of its founding, in the 1840s, Hillsdale was considered a radically liberal place (because it advocated abolition). Today it is considered a conservative school. But its mission hasn't changed. And, today, it distinguishes itself as one of the very few places where students can obtain an authentic liberal arts education.

Looks like you slipped through the cracks, Ms. Clark. Doubtless too much partying with such student luminaries as Chester Marcol.

But the things you decry are the very things that make a Hillsdale degree far more valuable today than the one awarded to you in the '70s. I would venture to say that the vast majority of students who attended Hillsdale in the '70s would be unable to gain admission there today. The competition is much keener, and the calibre of student is much higher. In my opinion, Hillsdale has become one of the top ten liberal arts colleges in the nation.

Like you, Ms. Clark, I attended college in the mid-70s (A.B., University of Chicago). But if I were getting ready to go to college today, Hillsdale would be my first choice. Whereas Chicago has diluted and weakened its once-vaunted common core curriculum, Hillsdale's is first-rate.

So go ahead and denigrate your Hillsdale degree, Ms. Clark. Doing so makes you seem as sensible as the person who finds an old oil painting in the attic, and then discards it -- after having had it authenticated as a Van Gogh!

elc said...

Hi Anonymous...regarding the blog, below, it was somewhat prescient, eh?

Feel free to see what Gustava once had to say regarding Hillsdale College. Odd, she never mentioned Rush Limbaugh.

So the Hillsdale of the 1970s offered a cafeteria-style education far inferior to that being offered at that same school today?

No doubt my former profs--should any of them be still living--including my advisor, Dr. James King, Professor Oetgen, Dr. Quigley, Professor Gilbert, Dr. Pitchford, Dr. Rice, Dr. Juroe, and Professor Cosgrove, would find your opinion interesting.

Who the heck is Chester Marcol?