You’re about to graduate from a most remarkable institution. I first came to Hillsdale 14 years ago. I was meant to visit for four days but ended up staying for eight—I’ll explain that later. Since that first visit I’ve returned several times; I’ve addressed groups of Hillsdale students in England; I’ve become good personal friends with a number of Hillsdale professors and graduates; and even had the privilege of conducting the wedding of a former Hillsdale student. So I think I know Hillsdale well for an outsider.
But I know other colleges in America too. I’ve been to nearly 40 of the 50 states in the Union, where I’ve spoken at the better part of a hundred educational institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, and Stanford, so I’m in a good position to compare. And when in the past I’ve made this comparison, I must say, Hillsdale students have always struck me as having a unique quality to them. And what is this unique quality? I’ve often tried to work out what it is, and writing this Commencement speech has given me a good excuse to consider the question in more depth.
Hillsdale isn’t the oldest college in America; though it lacks not for historical sense and all that’s best in the classical tradition. Hillsdale’s not the biggest college; though its building stock has been considerably enlarged and beautified in the years I’ve been coming, and I look forward to seeing its new chapel in due course. It’s not the richest college; though I understand its capital campaign has been going well. It’s not the most famous college; though perhaps some of you here today will eventually make it so, in a good way.
If it’s not the oldest, the biggest, the richest, or the most famous, where else could Hillsdale’s special quality possibly lie? Only in the most important thing: namely its ability to produce quality of mind. Students here have a quality of mind that I’ve not encountered in the same way so reliably elsewhere.
What do I mean by “quality of mind”? To help answer that, I turn to the writer whom I’ve made a special study of, C.S. Lewis, who in his article “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State” writes this:
I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has “the freeborn mind.” But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticise its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land.
I think we must allow for a certain hyperbole in what Lewis says when he talks of the man in adult life who needs and asks nothing of government. I doubt such a person really exists. All of us need something from government: working sewerage, roads to drive on, armies to defend us. But if we understand Lewis to be talking about education, pure and simple, as I believe he is, then we can see the truth and the importance of what he says.
An education not controlled by government, nor even influenced by government, allows for the freeborn mind. Allows for. Doesn’t automatically and necessarily provide the freeborn mind: One can still be servile or indentured in other ways—shackled by the zeitgeist, for instance, or subject to parti pris. But if a college is economically independent of the government, well, there are just certain things its members needn’t be cowed by. One is liberated from cupboard love. One is no longer conditioned to salivate, like a Pavlovian dog, when a fashionable pedagogical bell is rung. You can make your own mind up. If you think the government’s wrong you can snap your fingers. If you think the government’s right you can tip your hat. But you’re not enthralled. You’ve severed the chain of economic dependence and assumed the high dignity of someone who is educationally freeborn.
In my interactions with Hillsdale students I’ve witnessed this capacity for free thinking in the best sense—thinking that’s free not because it’s anarchic or traditionless, but because it’s untrammelled yet responsible and humane.
I daresay that during the last four years, as you’ve gone about earning the qualifications you’re to receive today, you quite possibly haven’t given a whole lot of thought to the quality of your mind. And if that’s the case I say so much the better. You’ve been exercising your liberty, not thinking about it, and by highlighting it today I don’t mean to turn you all into narcissists. It’s the invalid, the hypochondriac, who’s forever thinking about and fetishizing his health; the healthy person just gets on and lives a healthy life.
So, if you’ve been enjoying the liberty of Hillsdale without often reflecting upon how it gives your mind a certain tone, that is quite right and proper. And it’s a wonderful thing to see students breathing the clean air of intellectual liberty. There’s a dignity, even a nobility about students who’ve been formed in this way. And I hold this mirror up to you today not so you may become vain, but in order that you may catch a glimpse, however brief, of your own intellectual shapeliness and give thanks for it. Whenever you eat mutton or turnips, think of this, and then get straight back on with living your life.
My first charge to you then is simply this: Rejoice! Rejoice in the freedom of Hillsdale College and in what it’s made possible for you and, through you, for others! You’re a shining example of what it can mean to be freeborn. You hold up a light illuminating a whole way of being in the world that’s always been needed, always will be needed, and is perhaps needed now more than ever. If America is a beacon of political freedom to the world, Hillsdale is a beacon of educational freedom to America. It’s a college set on a hill in the “city set on a hill.”