Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee has announced his intention to bring Hillsdale College in to add to the state's charter school program. If you've been watching the religious right, you already know this name. But if you hadn't previously noticed Hillsdale, here's your explainer.
Hillsdale's history starts in 1844, initially as Michigan Central College. In 1853, they moved to Hillsdale, Michigan and reopened under the new name in 1855. The school was founded by Free Will Baptists. It admitted Black students as soon as it opened and it was the second college in the US to let women earn a four-year degree.
Its first century was marked by growth. The school was no longer affiliated with a specific church, but still declared a strong Christian bent. By the mid-twentieth century, the school had begun to resist federal regulations, including affirmative action, and in 1962 adopted its own Declaration of Independence from the feds, refusing to take any federal money.
On 1971, George Roche III became president of the college. He raised lots of money and brought in plenty of conservative speakers, including Ronald Reagan. Under Roche, the college cut itself entirely loose from federal influence. They stopped reporting student body breakdown by demographics and determined to follow their own non-discrimination policy. After they fought that in court, they stopped allowing students to accept federal student loans, providing private assistance instead.
Roche resigned in 1999 after a truly horrific and heartbreaking episode--he had been conducting a 19-year affair with his daughter-in-law, who killed herself in despair when he remarried.
This was a terrific blow to the college's reputation and fundraising. The college hired as a replacement, Larry Arnn, who still has the job.
Arnn's conservative credentials are impeccable. He's one of the founders of the Claremont Institute, a conservative thinky tank (mission-- "to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life") founded by students of Harry Jaffa (Jaffa was the Goldwater speechwriter who penned the "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice..." line); Hillsdale has a library in named after him. The Institute was quiet for years, but has emerged as a big time Trump booster funded by folks like the DeVos tribe and the Bradleys, and pumping out ideas for selling the Big Lie and the Insurrection. Arnn is also a trustee at the Heritage Foundation, which at one point offered him its presidency.
Arnn has been a Trump supporter, and the college has fallen right into MAGAland as well. Or as Politico Magazine put it in 2018Trump University never died. It’s located in the middle of bucolic southern Michigan, halfway between Lansing and Fort Wayne, 100 miles and a world away from Detroit.
Hillsdale has a free-to-download 1776 curriculum
. Arnn introduces it with "America is an exceptionally good country." And from there... well. Unit I Lesson 1 for K-2 (Se;f-Government or Tyranny) includes memorizing "Paul Revere's Ride" and "No taxation without representation." The lesson comes with a list of "Questions for the American Mind" such as "What is tax? What is it used for?" The story starts after the French and Indian War, and so kind of skips the whole issue of why Britain had accrued a bunch of debt that they wanted the colonies to help with. But that's just one part of 150 years of history that we're going to skip in our determination to assert that US history didn't start in 1619. Another oddity in the unit is that it leans hard on the notion that the colonies declared independence because the British government compelled them to. Throughout all 13 grades, here are only two US history units--one is the Revolution and the other is the Civil War.
By high school, there are many units about politics and civics. A bit of a slant appears here and there-- for instance, the lesson about Reconstruction makes sure to point out that the people trying to give Blacks rights were the Republicans and that the Democrats were the opposition. Their picture of Reconstruction is that it went remarkably well, even though Johnson and Confederate states "resisted" and also "encouraged " bad policy.
If we skip ahead to FDR and LBJ, we get further concerns about how FDR's new ideas contradict the Founders, and how LBJ "attempted to expand once more the purpose of government." In this unit, teachers should "clarify for the students the chief consequence of the New Deal was the expansion and formalization of the administrative state" (and not, say, keeping a bunch of Americans from starving to death).
The slant of the lessons is one thing. There's also a kind of historical flattening, as in talking about the Founders as if they were a unified whole and not a squabbling bunch of men who strongly disagreed over just about every principle and practice that we now view as Holy American Writ. But there's another pattern that emerges in the materials, noticeable in questions like these:
What is the purpose of government?
What are the principles on which America was founded, and what qualities must American citizens and society exhibit in order to sustain such principles of civic life?
Across all three branches of the federal government, what are the most important designs that the Constitution puts in place to ensure the very best governance, i.e., governance that will be effective at protecting natural rights, representing the majority, and avoiding tyranny?
The through line for most of the materials, for all the noise about critical thinking, is that for every aspect of US history, there's really only one right way to view things. Generations of philosophers may have burned up piles of words trying to define the purpose of government, but Hillsdale knows the answer. This whole package is the very essence of good old "learn the preferred answer by rote and spit it out on command" learning.
I taught this stuff for decades, and the typical approach is to talk about viewpoints, e.g. "What did Thomas Jefferson's writing in the Declaration suggest he believed about natural law?" But time after time, Hillsdale's lessons fail to distinguish between an individual's views and The Truth. Directions are loaded with "the student will understand" followed by a singular interpretation of history--only it's not presented as one particular interpretation, but the only correct conclusion that the student is supposed to grasp. Hillsdale's curriculum is not loaded with stunning groaners, but it has big fat ahistorical blinders on, and it approaches the topics not with a variety of views or understandings, not with a desire to prompt discussion and an appreciation for varied viewpoints. Instead it approaches historical and civic topics as if the goal is--dare I say it--indoctrination.
If you want to see Hillsdale really letting its freak flag fly, scan through its newsletter Imprimis,
with articles like "The Disaster at Our Southern Border" (VP Harris's report is "bunk"), "The January 6 Insurrection Hoax" (Donald Trump was awesome and robbed and Jan 6 has been overhyped as part of a vast conspiracy), and an explanation of inflation that rests on Milton Friedman's awesomeness. All of these, it should be noted, are versions of lectures delivered at the college.
They've had a couple of charter initiatives. There was the Barney Charter School Initiative
, started in 2010 to help 20 charter schools based on classical curriculum. The Barney mission statement used to include the goal
"to recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West.” They also turn out to use a religious curriculum
. Hillsdale also offers materials that can be used to supplement education plus a whole raft or resources for home schoolers.
In the words of its modern mission statement, the College “considers itself a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law.”
So this is the organization that has a "number of initiatives that align with our priorities in Tennessee," according to Lee spokesperson Casey Black
. Lee has talked about the importance of teaching "true American history, unbiased and nonpolitical," but Hillsdale promises neither, with a Libertarian, nationalist approach that hews to one narrow interpretation of history. Lee also claims
that "Hillsdale's charter schools in our state will be public secular classical education schools," and while Hillsdale has learned to keep its Christian bent less obvious in its charter schools, there's no question that religion is part of its brand. Per its website:
The section about its K-12 program
also notes that they provide an education "both classical and American in its orientation" and which "offers a firm grounding in civic virtue and cultivates moral character."
For Hillsdale, the Tennessee partnership is a great deal because, if Lee gets his education savings accounts (neo-vouchers) up and running, Hillsdale can expect to hoover up truckloads of taxpayer dollars. Will the taxpayers get their money's worth?
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