I wrote this in mid-May and posted it on Facebook. I received some good feedback, some of which made some legitimate criticism. I will repost here and now, perhaps take more criticism, and revise or work into something larger later on.
In reflecting on my experience in attending the 2009 commencement, I had to think back to another, very different ceremony—the memorial service for Alexandras Shtromas about ten years before. I thought about how George Roche III, in one of his last public acts ere his fall, reading the Gospel lesson in an explicitly Christian memorial service staged in the college theatre auditorium on behalf of a Jew who did not profess Christianity yet who was clearly beloved by Roche and whomever else was responsible for coming up with the idea to put on the service.
Anyways, the juxtaposition was very striking. In the 2009 ceremony, Larry Arnn introduced a student of Leo Strauss, Hadley Arkes, to give the commencement address. Many Straussian political formulations ensued. There were several crucial references to the Old Testament—to Isaiah and to Decalogue. There were more to Aristotle. The claims of political science to be the ruling science and architectonic art were registered, with the gentle foil of a joke about cutting grass. Theology could not really be mentioned, either as a field of study or as providing any propositional content that might guide the students. Again, and then again, we were instructed in what they call like to call “classical political rationalism.” I was forcefully struck by the sheer secularity of it all. That the whole presentation was, in effect, totalitarian, was brought home to me in the succeeding address of the student body president, who provided a tie-in the grass-cutting joke, and went on to speak not of faith or even of a crusade but of having his life changed by reading Kirk, and who then went on to be spoken of by Arnn, in thanks, as wanting to be assured that “We really are going to save the world, aren’t we?”
No one read Aquinas, but perhaps someone ought to have, as the very large class was about to be mustered out the door. “Man is not ordained to the body politic, according to all that he is and has; and so it does not follow that every action of his acquires merit or demerit in relation to the body politic. But all that man is, and can, and has, must be referred to God . . .” (Summa, I-II.21.4.rep3).
Somehow, I feel that the people who worship liberty are being crowded out by the people who worship virtue. Back in early 2000, when the whole selection process was underway, a friend told me that the great problem was for Hillsdale was how to select a leader who would be able to bring together the libertarian and Austrian crowd with the non-libertarian conservative tradition represented in Kirk. What I sense now, in going back (and also in looking over at recent Imprimis topics or looking at the guest list for the CCAs), is that such an intellectual meeting place is no longer being maintained. In time, my alma mater looks to become something of a Straussian seminary. I hope that I am wrong. Perhaps I just miss the Man with the Golden Voice—a man who, although he couldn’t tell you how he read the Bible or what passages were important to him, and could only echo a lot of Emerson—would nonetheless recite the Gospel in public.