It’s time for us Hillsdale College students to stop apologizing for our college town. We love to boast about Hillsdale College’s first-rate academics, excellent job placement, and award-winning conservative magazines, but we consider the town to have little value beyond being the punch line of our jokes. In fact, Hillsdale College students surveyed by the Princeton Review recently ranked our college town as one of the worst in America. Our displeasure with the town can border upon arrogance toward the townspeople, as evinced by the condescending moniker “townies.” We view ourselves apart from the townspeople, as if the town of Hillsdale is divided into two distinct parts: “the College” and “the community.” But a successful college requires a strong relationship with its hometown. If we want Hillsdale College to be the best it can be, we need to stop viewing the community of Hillsdale as an amusing assortment of backward country folk and view it as a genuine community, of which the College is but a part.
A strong relationship with the community has been indispensable for the college since its establishment. In 1853, when Michigan Central College decided to leave Spring Arbor and look for a new home, it settled upon the growing settlement of Hillsdale, mostly because of the generosity of its citizens. The “townies” donated $15,000 dollars for the establishment of the college, without which it never would have survived. Then to bring in further funds, Ransom Dunn—the “Grand Old Man” of Hillsdale College and one of its first presidents—rode 6,000 miles across the frontier, raising donations from small-town farmers and villagers who believed in the mission of the college. The college owes its existence to the generosity of a community of low-income, rural people, just like the one we live in today.
Hillsdale College has not outgrown the need for a supportive community. By nature, a college is a bubble. It’s an assemblage of like-minded 18-22-year-olds who study the same subjects, live in the same buildings, eat the same food, and enjoy the same recreational activities. There’s really only one place students can go to catch a glimpse of the world beyond the safely-crafted, picture-perfect bubble, and that’s the town. Interaction with the community serves as a safeguard against the trap that has ensnared so many universities throughout the west: becoming so engrossed in the academic world that they lose their grip on reality. The town of Hillsdale is the window that lets us look out from our ivory towers and see the wider world.
We think that being a part of a small community narrows our world, but in reality, it broadens it. A small town increases our opportunities to build lasting connections with people from the community and make a discernible impact personally. As Chesterton wrote, “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world.” We pursue a world-class education not only for its own intrinsic worth but also to gain skills necessary to go out and enrich the world. A detached and aloof attitude will set us on the wrong track for our future lives as leaders of our respective communities. Do you want to be a doctor? Take a stroll downtown to meet some of your future patients. Do you want to be a politician? Next time you go to Wal-Mart, don’t look at the young man restocking shelves as a townie. Think of him as a constituent. Better still, think of him as a person. Townies are not empty “characters” whose telos is to be the object of our jokes. They are humans, rational creatures with eternal souls. They have jobs, families, taxes, bills, friends, struggles, dreams, and regrets. They are real people we can learn from, or, better yet, we can serve. We can’t allow ourselves to become so immersed in our quest to change the world that we forget about those living right next door.
If Hillsdale College is a tree that bears the fruits of profitable study and service, then the town of Hillsdale is the soil that gives the college necessary direction and inspiration. Unfortunately, it’s so easy for us college students to treat the town as nothing more just dirt. But one time, 159 years ago, our tree was just a seed planted in that same dirt. The taller the tree grows, the more roots it must send down into the dirt. Let us be those roots; the study of the human condition should not be so introspective as to neglect the conditions of the humans in our own community.
Sam Ryskamp is a sophomore studying the liberal Arts