05 January 2005

Hillsdale Academy

As I wrote earlier, Nancy and I visited the Hillsdale Academy in Hillsdale, Michigan, four days ago. It was started in 1990 and is associated with Hillsdale College.

We were favourably impressed by the facilities, which were built as recently as 1998 and still have something of a new feel to them. The curriculum is, however, utterly traditional, focussing on three objectives:

one, to teach children the skills to be productive citizens; two, to nurture in them the moral qualities and habits of mind to be good citizens; and three, to provide America with an educational model that can be useful nationwide.

The academy is devoted to passing down to students the best in western civilization, a commitment to which underlies the mission of the school:

The time-honored liberal arts curriculum and pedagogy direct student achievement toward mastery of the basics, exploration of the arts and sciences, and understanding of the foundational tenets of our Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman heritage. The curriculum by purpose and design is a survey of the best spiritual, intellectual, and cultural traditions of the West as they have been developed and refined over countless generations.

Notably, each classroom has a large copy of the Ten Commandments posted on the wall by the door. A chapel is held every wednesday, and its contents are christian, we were told. The Hillsdale Academy has become something of a model for similar schools which have sprung up across primarily the United States. A map in my brother-in-law's office shows hundreds of such institutions -- most seemingly in the so-called "blue" states, remarkably enough. There are even two in Canada and one in the Bahamas.

The Academy's approach certainly has much to recommend it. I rather like the fact that all children learn Latin, once a staple of a solid education. More generally, and in contrast to the contemporary focus on building self-esteem for its own sake, teachers at the school do not fear to assign low grades for poor work and to reward concrete academic achievements, however inegalitarian this may seem.

Of course, some questions might also be raised. Christianity's origins are, of course, nonwestern, although it certainly contributed to the subsequent formation of the west. Yet the worldviews underlying the "Judeo-Christian" and "Greco-Roman" elements are quite different, even if they were brought into a kind of unstable synthesis by subsequent generations. How does the Academy sort out the tensions between these two when they arise? Which heritage takes priority? Does commitment to the kingdom of God come first and order everything else? Or is the Judeo-Christian heritage a cultural artefact which is part of a larger civilizational legacy? My suspicion, based on a perusal of its website, is that the Academy leans towards the latter approach, at least in its official documents. However, as my brother-in-law and his family are serious Christians, his decisive influence over the past few years may in some fashion serve to tip the balance in the other direction. I wish him well in his work there.

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