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Why education must be conservative

This week Florida Gov.
Ron DeSantis
took aim at higher education by appointing six known conservatives to the board of trustees of New College, Florida’s state-funded liberal arts college. DeSantis’s stated aim is to turn New College into a southern version of Hillsdale College (my employer).

While varying degrees of ideological creep are present in a variety of colleges and universities across the country, liberal arts colleges have been especially prone to what, in some cases, amount to a lack of viewpoint diversity and a failure to maintain a substantive commitment to free inquiry. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune noted, for example, that New College’s “
student body and faculty have a reputation for leaning left politically
.” It should come as no surprise, then, that DeSantis’s desire to fundamentally reshape the institution has already angered current faculty and students.

That might not matter much, given the college’s current trajectory under its increasingly activist disposition. The Florida legislature awarded the school $7.6 million dollars in 2017 for the purpose of raising its enrollment by 50%. Yet the college’s enrollment has continued to drop in the ensuing half-decade. More than 900 students in 2017 declined to 720 students in 2019. That’s far below the college’s
goal
of bringing in 1,200 students by 2022. In 2023, the school’s enrollment is a paltry 670 students.

New College’s spokespeople argued that declining enrollment isn’t unique to New College. “College enrollment in the United States has declined for eight consecutive years. … This is due in part to reaching the tail end of the millennial generation. We really believe New College is well positioned to buck that trend on our campus,” they claimed. This is, of course, a poor excuse. There are plenty of colleges, Hillsdale College included, for whom enrollment is not a problem. Indeed, Hillsdale
continues to see
record enrollment and record applications.

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DeSantis’s move will undoubtedly be seen as an attempt to make New College “conservative” or partisan. While
education
need not be partisan, it must undoubtedly be, by some understanding, conservative. Why else would anyone pursue education if not to pursue knowledge of things that are permanent and worth conserving?

A liberal education is properly a pursuit of truth. “Not,” as Hillsdale College’s website says
notes
, “truth as it is often defined today, by personal preference or popular consensus, but truth as it is … independent from opinions and emotions. And where goodness and truth exist, there you will find beauty.” Humans “were created for a purpose, and that “purpose is to seek truth, in order to discover and to act on what is good and beautiful in this life.”

Liberal arts education is not the end or the finishing of education, but its inauguration, whereby the student is in the company of their friends and made ready to begin the process of how to gain knowledge, not for the sake of a mere vocation or trade , but for the sake of knowledge itself, and what is good, true, and beautiful in itself. In this way, students fulfill the greatest purpose of education: to become more human.

While this may sound strange and new, the belief that
college
was the beginning of a lifetime pursuit of knowledge of the permanent things was historically not limited to a few last bastions in the United States. It was an educational telos celebrated by the US’s oldest and greatest colleges and universities. In 1828, Yale College issued its “Reports on the Course of Instruction,” reiterating the point that a liberal arts education was not meant to teach its students what to do for their jobs — a mason or a mariner, the report noted, would learn their trade somewhere else. What a proper education taught was the grand truths that explained why a house was important to human society and why travel on the high seas was so remarkable and important.

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Because education points to good, truth, and beauty, it gives a person, whatever their vocation, the ability to see how their daily pursuits are a part of the grand and beautiful drama of human life and how they can better serve their fellow man. Education’s purpose is not to guarantee one a vocation or make one an activist. A lifetime of self-education, self-government, and self-knowledge is the human purpose.

Concerns about partisanship have their place, but if New College’s more conservative transformation leads to a true conservative education whereby the timeless truths of liberal arts education are offered to a new generation of students, it is worth hoping more colleges become “conservative” in the coming years.


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Miles Smith is an assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College.

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