Evil Twins, or Just Clones
Blogging has been so light lately because I had to prepare a lecture for a talk I'm giving today at Hillsdale College in Michigan. So far the conference has gone very well, with a variety of interesting talks on C. S. Lewis (I missed one Tolkien talk because my flight came in too late for it), about whom I don't know enough. Today I give a talk on "The Significance of Tolkien's Scholarship" and Tom Shippey presents on Tolkien and his Roman Catholicism (I'm very glad I don't have to follow Tom, who is a tough act to follow).
When I told colleagues that I was off to Hillsdale for a few days, those who knew about Hillsdale looked at me as if I were going into the lion's den. "That's a very conservative school, isn't it?" they asked. And Hillsdale is. They have a picture of George Will up on their website right now and they make a pretty big deal about being traditional, patriotic and friendly to religion (they're not an explicitly religious school like the Wheaton in Illinois). I should add here that I admire Hillsdale's efforts to fight the general academic tide and that I particularly admire their combination Great Books/English 101 program. I would be terrified to try to teach Plato, paragraph organization, Dante and comma splices in the same course (though they do give a full year rather than a semester), but I wish I had had such an education rather than having to create mine ad hoc. I think real, not cosmetic, diversity in higher education is very beneficial and having an explicitly conservative, excellent liberal arts college is a great thing (although it's not a substitute for having a better mix of ideological viewpoints throughout academia).
But you know what? As best I can tell, Hillsdale and Wheaton are as alike as two peas in a pod. The buildings at Hillsdale are more 50's-60's modernist pieces (the room I'm staying in looks like it should have a sign "Nabokov slept here"), and it's got the more spacious layout that comes from being in the midwest rather than the crowded east, but so much is exactly the same. The students are very similar: smart, articulate, individualistic. They dress similarly in all their diversity (the guy at the computer center this morning had black fingernails; last night one of the students I had dinner with looked as proud and uncomfortable in his suit as the students at Wheaton do when they come for a special event). They obviously listen to the same music. The posters on the walls--for the writing center, singing groups, charity events, films on campus--are for the same things. The students have the same love of life and energy.
I don't see real differences in the faculty, either. Faculty here and at Wheaton talk about teaching constantly. They are constantly rushing from one thing to another. They're swarmed by students on their way from one class to the other.
Big differences: There are a lot more pictures of eagles in the Dow Center where I'm staying than there are anywhere at Wheaton. But I like eagles, and other birds of prey, a lot, so that doesn't bother me. There are also about twice as many posters for Christian fellowship organizations at Hillsdale, but that ratio is misleading, as there's one Christian fellowship at Wheaton and, apparently, two at Hillsdale (there may be more; I'm just guessing based on the posters).
My point? For all Wheaton's talk about social justice, etc., etc., and all Hillsdale's talk about preserving tradition, to an anthropologist from Mars, they would be identical places. My lesson: most of what goes on at a college is a function of gathering a lot of bright, motivated 18-22-year-olds in one place. All the rest, all that we do as teachers and administrators, is frosting on the cake: it makes things appear different, but the cake beneath is the same. And that fits with my own experiences, that 80-90 % of what I learned in college, I learned outside the classroom. I don't for a moment think that what I do isn't important to the lives of my students, but seeing how similar Hillsdale and Wheaton are despite the obvious attempts of faculty and administration to make them different is a good reminder that you can only do so much to control your students.
And that is a very salutary thing.