The Value of an Education in Classical Studies: A Response to Sophrosyne

Editor’s Note: The following is Hillsdale President Dr. Larry Arnn’s response to Ricochet Member Sophrosyne’s post, “Paging Dr. Larry Arnn,” of Nov. 3. 

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Dear Sophrosyne,

One does not get to read something every day that combines the good, the pleasant, and the useful.

What you wrote is good, because it is prudent and wise. It knows the order of things high and low, and it leaves to each of them the dignity it deserves.

In this as in nature, the good things low and high do not diminish but sustain and elevate each other.

It is pleasant because it is good, and pleasant for me in addition because its author puts me in a position to take some credit for its excellence. I do not deserve this, but that does not mean I do not like it. Thank you.

Finally, it is useful because it saves some time both for me and for Rush Limbaugh.  I will just show him this.  It happens that he and I have discussed topics like this from time to time.  In part because of these conversations (also in part because of his own considerable abilities) he speaks about our college in a very different sense than he speaks about colleges in general.  As you point out, he has some point when he speaks critically of colleges in general, and yet the idea of college is not only vital, it concerns (or maybe it is) the ultimate point.  This will be a chance for us all to learn more.

Rush and people like him help our college to reach those of our fellow citizens who are inclined to think that old things, but more specifically permanent things, are of value.  This is not the standard view in the academic world.  It has always been our view.  Your note will help us to serve it better.

Thank you.

Larry P. ArnnPresidentHillsdale College 

  1. Conor Friedersdorf
    C

    The benefits to Hillsdale of having Rush Limbaugh as a booster are obvious. It seems to me that this is an example of the costs. It is surely the case that he speaks about Hillsdale differently from other colleges. But that doesn’t mean that when he denigrates higher education, or advances ignorant critiques of it, he doesn’t do harm to all colleges, Hillsdale included, and all his listeners, by leading them away from what is true. This would be easier to forgive if Limbaugh didn’t consistently speak about subjects of importance without thinking through the implications of his rhetoric. His object is to entertain, to maintain high ratings, and to advance the conservative movement’s political standing. Whatever you think of those goals, they are very different than the goals of an institution of higher education, and in my humble opinion, it isn’t ideal for such an institution to have its most famous association be with an ideological entertainer.

  2. sophrosyne

    Thank you, Dr. Arnn, for this reply.  My aim in bringing this to your attention and to the attention of the Ricochet community was to contribute to a conversation about first things.   The word “studies” has indeed become a seven letter word for an assault on the cultural content and values inherent in traditional learning.  In light of this, I understand the common-sense impulse to write off any discipline that self-applies that term.  There is every decent reason to be suspicious of the academy in this day and time.  I simply meant to draw a distinction between true learning and pseudo-intellectual rot in order that we should unite in our praise of the former and unanimously condemn the latter.  I’m delighted to see, in reading the comments on my post and in your response, that this purpose was indeed realized. 

  3. Jerry Broaddus
    Conor Friedersdorf: · Nov 7 at 1:57pm

    Rush’s criticisms mostly appear along two fronts; First, that college doesn’t fit the needs or the temperament of many, even of most people. Second, that colleges have abused a rare position of trust by indoctrinating students to a particularly noxious and ineffective political belief system.

    Taken together or separately, arguing with Rush on either of these fronts is an uphill climb. Especially if the conversation actually includes any of the context of his criticism.

    That’s damned inconvenient, don’t you think?

    To avoid this trap, wimpy intellectuals are reduced to suggesting that Hillsdale should shun Rush Limbaugh because he’s an “entertainer”, rejecting his obvious talents as an analyst of and commentator on current news events, or that Rush is “ideological”, ignoring the point that most colleges are at least as ideological as Rush, though in a decidedly less healthy direction.

    Rush’s object, his primary goal in his own spoken words, is “attracting an audience and charging confiscatory advertising rates.” This is not at all incompatible to the goals of many institutions of higher learning, as demonstrated by the healthy state of many of those institutions’ endowments.

  4. Crow

    I started to write a more extensive post on this subject, but for now I think I’ll merely leave it at this:

    Insofar as what he has done is a service to us, Rush has outlined some sound reasons to distrust modern universities, to be skeptical of what liberal arts programs claim to teach, to be critical of the over-credentialization that is rampant in our culture, and to see through much of the political indoctrination that masquerades as knowledge.

    Question–Does Rush have an equally compelling justification as to why a certain sort of person should study the liberal arts? Or, otherwise asked, what is the purpose of the university, according to Mr. Limbaugh?

  5. Charles Gordon
    Conor Friedersdorf: The benefits to Hillsdale of having Rush Limbaugh as a booster are obvious. It seems to me that this is an example of the costs. It is surely the case that he speaks about Hillsdale differently from other colleges. But that doesn’t mean that when he denigrates higher education, or advances ignorant critiques of it, he doesn’t do harm to all colleges, Hillsdale included, and all his listeners, by leading them away from what is true. This would be easier to forgive if Limbaugh didn’t consistently speak about subjects of importance without thinking through the implications of his rhetoric. His object is to entertain, to maintain high ratings, and to advance the conservative movement’s political standing. Whatever you think of those goals, they are very different than the goals of an institution of higher education, and in my humble opinion, it isn’t ideal for such an institution to have its most famous association be with an ideological entertainer.

    We get it: Blame Rush for academia’s wreck and disrepair, Hillsdale College’s faculty of 140 and student body of 1,400 notwithstanding. arizonastate.jpgThe liberal experiment hasn’t failed—just not gone far enough.

  6. Conor Friedersdorf
    C

    Jerry,

    Saying whatever attracts the biggest audience, as opposed to what is true, or the closest approximation an imperfect person can manage, may be compatible with the value system at some colleges. But it is incompatible with the values that a college ought to have.

    I happen to think that Imprimus is a valuable newsletter, and I know first hand that Hillsdale educates some exceptional students — I am engaged to marry someone who attended. If all I knew about Hillsdale was the Rush Limbaugh association, however, I’d think less of it. I know that makes me unlike a lot of people in the demographic they’re trying to attract. I know the vast majority of those people are good and decent, and will be well educated if they work hard at Hillsdale. But reading this, do you honestly think he’s a good spokesperson for a college that offers a major in Classics?

  7. Robert Lux

    A beautiful letter, Dr. Arnn. 

    “…and yet the idea of college is not only vital, it concerns (or maybe it is) the ultimate point.” 

    “…but more specifically permanent things, are of value.”

    I’d urge anyone seeking further understanding of these things to set aside the time for Leo Strauss’s two gem-like essays on liberal education, available here.

  8. Caleb Taylor
    Charles Gordon

    We get it: Blame Rush for academia’s wreck and disrepair, Hillsdale College’s faculty of 140 and student body of 1,400 notwithstanding.

     Nov 8 at 10:40am

    I missed the part where Conor said that he was blaming Rush for academia’s wreck and disrepair.

  9. Charles Gordon
    Conor Friedersdorf: [...] that doesn’t mean that when he denigrates higher education [...]

    Caleb Taylor

    I missed the part where Conor said that he was blaming Rush for academia’s wreck and disrepair. · Nov 8 at 12:59pm

    “that doesn’t mean… when he denigrates… doesn’t do harm to all colleges” reads as: that does mean… when he denigrate… does do harm to all colleges…

    So the statement, double-negative, or not, says that when Rush denigrates colleges he harms them, Hillsdale included. If Rush is harming all colleges, does that repair them? No. Does harming them wreck them? Yes.

    There may be a difference of opinion with respect to the state of academia today. Compared to its pre-politically correct, pre-speech code intolerant, pre-Dead White European Male intolerant multicultural relativism era, no one thought it wise to promise, as our historic first Islamic apostate president just did, to “about 1.6 million students studentloan.jpgthe ability to cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their income starting next year” by means of retroactively taking control of the education loan market by government diktat, and superseding terms and conditions of existing contracts between banks and borrowers.

  10. Jerry Broaddus

    Conor,

    Your link leads to Rush’s example of a young woman complaining about the enormous debt she has incurred in persuit of a degree in Classical Studies. As she has come to understand, her choice of degree has not made her especially attractive to employers.

    Are you suggesting that no consideration should be given to how the choice of a given degree influences one’s prospects of employment after graduation? Certainly, the world needs to sustain an understanding of every subject taught, though probably not with all of the students who would choose some major based only on intellectual interest.

    The criticism is not so much of higher education, as it is higher education as it currently exists – including features such as predatory universities, anxious for unsuspecting students to put futures in hock towards an expensive degree of questionable value. And many of these are students that will spend the first two years of college climbing to the intellectual level they should have attained in high school.

    Students are going into too much debt to acquire overpriced college degrees for which they aren’t well suited, and from which they’ll derive little benefit.

  11. Jerry Broaddus

    And in the process, they’re driving up the cost of an effective education for others, and increasing the supply of educated workers, driving down the wages for which they will eventually compete.

    I’m really sorry if Rush said it in a way that made this simple truth so hard for you to accept. But the fact remains, it is a truth. Attempting to convince others to shame Rush away from blaspheming the gods of education won’t make it any less true.