History as a cudgel

I knew I was going to major in history from the first day of college but I was interested in politics long before that. Whenever possible, I like to combine these two interests so I was much intrigued when I saw a Hillsdale College ad for a free online course titled Congress: How it Worked and Why it Doesn’t.

Truth be told, I had never heard of Hillsdale College before I saw the ad but I didn’t consider that to be all that notable. After all, there’s plenty that goes on in the world of online universities that I know nothing about. Moreover, I am always on the hunt for new podcasts so I figured I might as well give Hillsdale College a chance.

I only had to listen for a few minutes before I realized the courses offered by Hillsdale College, those related to Congress at least, aren’t really intended as history classes. Rather, they are intended as an introduction to strict constructionism. As far as judicial philosophies go, strict constructionism can lend itself to some extreme interpretations but it’s very popular with John Birch conservatives and serves as the bedrock for many legal opinions. I personally don’t subscribe to strict constructionism but everybody is entitled to their own world view. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend Hillsdale College’s Congressional history class.

It’s important, of course, to engage with differing view points and I appreciate that Hillsdale College doesn’t charge a listening fee. I don’t appreciate, however, their appreciate their attitude toward history. In all fairness, there is no one way to study history. Personally, I find it helpful to visit historical sites and to acquaint myself with secondary and primary sources. To research the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, I read primary sources like Cortes’ Letters to the King, Diaz Conquest of New Spain, Sahagun’s Florentine Codex, but primary sources come in many forms and styles. Not every primary source has the same impact on history and there are few that can measure up to the Constitution when it comes to American history.

Considering its hallowed place in American history, it’s quite understandable that Americans of various political persuasions hold the Founding Fathers in high esteem. Few can deny that Thomas Jefferson was an eloquent writer or that George Washington was a talented battlefield commander. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember these people lived in a time far removed from our own and that they could not have predicted the rise of the internet any more than they could have predicted the climate-altering consequences of oil dependency. In my mind, this means we have to sort things out for ourself and draw upon the advice of cyber experts and climate scientists when drafting legislation pertinent to those issues.

The lecturers at Hillsdale College, however, hold a different opinion and mention in their lectures that we ought to oppose the Clean Water Act, and similar types of progressive legislation, to stay true to the wishes of the Founding Fathers. Nevermind that we are not given any hard evidence to back up the idea that the Founding Fathers would be opposed to legislation intended to protect the environment and preserve our health–we are simply expected to trust that the Founding Fathers were monolithic in their thinking and their goals. After all, the lecturers wear fancy suits and have gray in their beards so we ought to trust them when it comes to matters like history and law. 

But what about the environmental scientists and the public health experts who must have some thoughts on the Clean Water Act? If we are to believe the lecturers at Hillsdale College, their input is not germane. Instead, we must enact legislation only if we are absolutely certain the Founding Fathers would have done the same. If we subscribe to this world view, history is little more than a cudgel that we use to beat back progressive impulses. It’s all too easy to imagine how such a philosophy straightjackets government and nullifies some of the most consequential legislation of the 20th century. After all, the Clean Water Act and Social Security and the Civil Rights Act are all equally invalid should legislation be bound by the dead hand of the past.

I see little good in this but I was curious to learn why the lecturers at Hillsdale College believe otherwise. I figured I would start off by learning a bit more about the qualifications of the professors so I went to the home page and navigated to the faculty section. To my surprise, it was not clickable. I figured it was maybe just some issue with Chrome so I tried on Safari. Safari didn’t work either and while I figure the information will eventually be provided to the public, I decided to do some digging. What I found was very interesting and very illuminating. 

Located in Michigan, Hillsdale College is not a nationally accredited college and does not receive federal funds. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Hillsdale College lacks for money though as it receives generous support from wealthy donors. To be fair, pretty much every university in America accepts charitable contributions. But whereas most universities rely on a robust alumni network, Hillsdale College relies upon a very different group: wealthy conservatives who have never set foot on campus. To convince these donors to open up their checkbooks, Hillsdale College advertises on Fox News and courts contributions from the Koch network. The Center for Public Integrity, Politico, and the Chronicle for Higher Education all have some great reporting on the subject and I encourage anybody interested in the school and its connection to Trump world to delve deeper into the issue.

All in all, I wouldn’t call the Hillsdale College classes bad. I just don’t think they are particularly informative. Maybe I just need to listen to more of the episodes, I listened to about an hour worth of content before I had to throw the towel in, but I can’t say it’s a high priority for me. There are so many better educational resources out there, not to mention more entertaining ones, and it will probably be a while until I get around to checking out more of the courses offered by Hillsdale College. Fingers crossed they have better content by then.

One thought on “History as a cudgel

  1. I believe if we could go back in time and have conversations with the founding fathers, that they would absolutely expect those who came after them to continue amending our laws and growing and changing along with the times. The idea that the way we set things centuries ago was perfection and need never change is a fiction created by people who fear change.
    The founding fathers knew that growth and change were an inevitability. After all, isn’t that what our fight for independence was all about?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s