Stories and the “Culture Story”

John Willson
Professor of History, Hillsdale College

John WillsonJohn Willson is the Salvatori Professor of History and Traditional Values at Hillsdale College.

The following is adapted from Mr. Snow's speech at a Hillsdale College seminar on October 15, 2001, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

College students learn wisdom, virtue, courage and the other attributes of morally self-responsible citizens largely by studying what they have inherited from those who pursued these things in the past. This includes both what our forefathers learned (and failed to learn) and how they learned. A major premise of Hillsdale’s curriculum is that they learned much from hearing, reading, and telling stories.

We are convinced that students are no longer taught “who they are,” as the novelist Andrew Lytle put it. Before they can begin to comprehend non-Western cultures, they must first understand their own. Given the state of American education in general, this requires a major act of restoration. Two courses cannot accomplish it, but they can lay a foundation. In the sophomore year, all Hillsdale students must choose courses from other important disciplines housed in the division of social sciences: economics, business, accounting, political science, psychology, and sociology. Focused and refined, the culture study continues at that level.

It should be noted here that academic divisions at Hillsdale are not meant to represent discrete branches of knowledge. A division is merely a convenient way of organizing the faculty for administrative purposes. Hillsdale is a collegium, a university and not a multiversity. The intellectual coherence we seek is college-wide, not divisional. Deans of divisions function much like department chairpersons at larger schools.

We require all students to study political science, economics, psychology, and sociology (at a minimum, two of the four). Social science at Hillsdale assumes that truth exists and is worth pursuing; that reason applied to human affairs can lead to objective principles about human nature and society. With Aristotle, we start with science as respect for common sense, and we ascend from common sense through reason. We reject social science as a rationalist enterprise to contivism and ideology. Homer’s epics and the Old Testament portray fully functioning societies that do not rest upon scientific knowledge or defer to the authority of science. Our social science students confront first principles and the permanent things in the great literature of politics and society.

About a third of all Hillsdale graduates major in one or another of the programs in business administration or accounting. In many schools, business is set apart from the liberal arts, treated as “professional” or “practical” in a way the liberal arts are not. While it is true that business courses, and especially accounting courses, point students toward the “more tangible goals” in their future, at Hillsdale they are also a vital part of our understanding of the liberal arts. They are majors in a liberal arts college, not part of a separate business college or curriculum. Faculty are chosen for their broad learning and commitment to the mission of Hillsdale College, rather than for narrow research expertise in finance or marketing.

Concern for “wisdom, courage, virtue, and more tangible goals” is just as evident as in the other social sciences. The stories they teach are often case studies and are as challenging and as dramatic as the stories of ancient heroes. As a teacher of what is often considered one of the most “irrelevant” subjects in the liberal arts (history), I have been fascinated for many years by how real the culture story eventually becomes for our graduates.

Almost a year ago I received a message via the miracle of electronic mail from Manokotak, Alaska. It was from a 1987 Hillsdale graduate who had been my advisee and student. In his message, he reminded me, “I was not one of your top students,” but learned “more than my transcripts showed.” He added that while in college he was often “confused by the social mix” and sometimes felt out of place, but he was “always aware of the value of the education” Hillsdale provided.

He returned to his native Alaska after graduation, and wound up teaching in rural high schools. A classroom incident prompted him to write. Trying to figure out how to explain the American westward movement to a group of 14 Yup’ik Eskimo students, he came across Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which he had read in my “American Heritage” course. His students were “intrigued” by it, and by the fact that it was from one of his college classes. He went on to tell them about his experience learning history at Hillsdale and how the love his professors showed for the field was one of the main reasons he became a teacher. To me, he concluded, “The way you spoke of American history was as a great story that just needed unraveling.”

That unexpected message from a distant place and a distant past moved me to tears. And it should serve as a metaphor for everything we do.