In a chaotic, politically correct educational environment where universities all over America are cancelling speakers for holding opposing views, restricting free speech to designated areas, and eliminating the study of Western civilization because most of the textbooks are written by white, male Europeans now viewed as racist, Michigan’s Hillsdale College stands out as a truly independent undergraduate institution.
While offering a wide variety of liberal arts courses and encouraging a free exchange of competing ideas, the study of Western and American heritage has been central to their curriculum since its founding in 1844 — a course on the Constitution is mandatory — and “racism” can never be leveled at this school because they have admitted female and black students since before the Civil War. In addition, the College steadfastly refuses to keep race statistics, viewing each person as an individual not profiled into a group.
Several decades ago, the government attempted to regulate the college’s educational mission, citing for an excuse the fact that some Hillsdale students paid tuition with federal grants. Hillsdale would have none of it. Reaffirming its motto — “Pursuing Truth and Defending Liberty” — it mandated that students could no longer use federal funds; the college would raise money from private sources to provide financial aid. So it has. Privately endowed it remains, free of government interference.
The college also offers a free, ten-week online course “Constitution 101” to the public plus a pocket book containing the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Its free-subscription speech digest IMPRIMIS boasts a 3.7 million readership.
Hillsdale is unique in another important way: it has a serious art department teaching the established Western art forms of representationalism in the visual arts, not only untaught in virtually every other college but actively scorned.
An award-winning painter himself (known for his work in egg tempera, watercolor, and oil), Sam Knecht headed this department from 1973 until his retirement in 2013; he now teaches a few courses as Emeritus/Adjunct. Barbara Bushey has taken over his Chair.
The department offers an ambitious art program in which students experience a solid core of anatomy-based life drawing, sculpture, and painting reinforced by an array of art history courses. Along with its state-of-the-art facilities dedicated to studio programs housed in a well appointed, two-story brick and steel building, the Sage Center for the Fine and Performing Arts offers an elaborate venue for gallery exhibits and conferences.*
The usual enrollment in a studio course ranges from six to sixteen students, so each student gets close personal attention from teachers. None of this study procedure is handled in a stylistic vacuum. Each art professor, in both teaching and personal professional work, is absorbed in the human subject as a spiritual, intellectual, and moral being, understanding that these three fundamental aspects of humans constitute the essence of the Enlightenment cultural tradition they seek to pass along.
This brand of teaching takes place in facilities virtually unmatched by other liberal arts colleges of comparable size. In contrast to the understated elegance of the Sage Center, the art department encompasses over 50,000 square feet of working space with large studios stripped-down to create a slightly industrial feeling, which encourages an industrious and disciplined approach by the students themselves. Exposure to professional artwork is reinforced by a continuous calendar of gallery exhibits that emphasize fresh approaches to traditional expression. The Sage’s art gallery is beautifully designed and lit, accommodating shows of both two-and-three-dimensional artworks. All students whose talent lies in the direction of the representational approach to art will find their technical abilities and aesthetic visions nurtured by the art facilities at Hillsdale.
A walk around Sage Center typically reveals a glimpse of an art professor working on a professional project. Even though each teacher maintains a private studio, faculty members are generous in their commitment to involving students in the progress of their own creations. Strolling farther, one comes upon art students grinding paint, sculpting and casting works of figurative sculpture, developing their own black and white or color photographs, and so on. A few steps more, and one sees impressive plaster casts of classical Greek sculpture loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Turn a corner and the scene is a computer graphics lab where an instructor has students working with the latest Macintosh hardware and software for image scanning and manipulation. The emphasis within an art major favors the fine art approach, yet the technical side is represented by computer graphics and photography.
In addition to the challenges of studio art and art history experienced in the art department, and in keeping with its mission to pursue truth and defend liberty, Hillsdale art students round out their grounding in liberal arts curricula with courses in the classics, English and languages, philosophy and religion, and world history, all of which are given in other classroom facilities on campus and none of which pander to the temper tantrums or fragility of “snowflake” students so much in vogue today.
It is this time-proven, value-consistent mixture of mental and artistic attention that makes Hillsdale unique in today’s tempestuous world of education. Independence from government meddling because privately endowed with no federal funding, pride in history, devotion to truth in scholarship, an authentic liberal arts curricula, students who attend to learn not to protest, out-reach programs that educate the general public, a first-rate art department and exhibit space, and (by the way) located on a scenic campus replete with historic architecture in a gorgeous, landscaped setting. All of these elements combined are what make it so exceptional and worthy of note.
* Through my own NYC-based nonprofit arts foundation — American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) — this writer was privileged to produce the inaugural painting and sculpture exhibit, “ROMANTIC REALISM: Visions of Values,” in 1992 for the Sage Center. Catalogue essay and photos of the exhibit’s art can be viewed here under “Art Galleries”: www.Art-21.org.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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