There and Back Again: A Student’s Tale

Hillsdale is not the real world–but it can teach us how to live there.

By Madeline Johnson

The trip from home to college or back is a sort of trauma, the trauma of dying in one world and being born into another. In the portal between the worlds, that single moment of death and birth, you are utterly alone, the unaccountable soul that counts as its own this death and this life.

The first few exits and reentries mark you most deeply. You’re not yet assured of the independent sturdiness of the world you’ve just left; repeated returns haven’t accustomed you to discern what in its life is still yours and what, in the flow of unobserved time, will be lost to you.

Three and a half years of this migrant life have taught me that these worlds are one. In part, they’ve actually begun to merge: graduates of Hillsdale have started teaching at my high school and graduates of my high school have come to Hillsdale; my brother now lives in Chicago, halfway between my hometown of Minneapolis and here; and I’ve accumulated so many memories of travel that the road itself has grown familiar. But further, leaving home to attend this college has changed the way I situate myself in a place. Since our embodied human life is inescapably conditioned by its environment, weaving an integrated identity from disparate environments takes a certain quality of spirit. College particularly challenges us to develop this quality, but it is a vital virtue of the modern soul as such, so frequently called upon to unite fragmentary contexts.

So what are these qualities of spirit? And how does the home-college interchange develop them?

Minneapolis proper has a population of about 410,000. Add its twin and a few rings of suburbs, and you’ve got a metropolis of 3.8 million—fourteenth largest in the U.S. A couple of years ago the governor’s sons, fond of our outstate woods and winters, started stocking their men’s clothing store with knit caps that say “NORTH.” Though I don’t own one, I affirm the ideological motivation: like our Nordic cousins, Minnesotans should own the cold our region is infamous for.

She’s a city of lakes, books, and community gardens, populated by immigrants like my Swedish and Polish ancestors and Mexican and Somali neighbors, spinning with the energy of seventeen Fortune 500s and uncountable clusters of mysteriously prosperous creatives. It’s not all good, of course: pimps and dealers appear in due proportion, I-394 strangles the west side of downtown like a boa constrictor, and it is objectively easier to find an Arby’s than a quality hole-in-the-wall. But it’s all in all a colorful world, one articulated in right-angled glass, in spray-painted letter-lobes, in the scribble of reedy lakeshores and in the typewriter shuffle and sequence of man en masse and en route.


It was the first drive to Hillsdale that felt the longest. My memory of nearing campus that first time is vivid: family van, family-laden, clatters over the railroad tracks. My field of vision invaded by aggressive August green, I can see only a wooden bridge over a six-foot creek. To my left a sidewalk writhes violently at the ticklish touch of roots on its underbelly. To my right it’s swamped by a tide of earth and grass. Where are the curators of the infrastructure? Who is here to keep straight the streets?

Fall Break freshman year I took the Amtrak to Union Station, Chicago. Through the window of the chrome train car I watched countryside and small towns give way to the industrial jungles and palaces of Lake Michigan’s southern shore, and finally to miles of low row houses until the tracks dipped beneath the city’s towers and my train pulled into one of a dozen parallel, steaming bays, their empty tracks lit with unearthly green light—a dizzy, placeless space. Stepping down to the platform I inhaled the energy with which the iron horse trembled. The station was a populated globe unto itself. I perched on my suitcase, a little dazed but feeding on the ambient human buzz, until a familiar face sorted itself out from among the vivid strangers—a high school friend who was a freshman at a university in the city. We climbed the steps to the light of street level and emerged newborn into a new world.

When I returned three days later to the dorm room whose window looked out to the Arb and whose back door led me through the Barber House Garden, every detail of my urban excursion glittered in my head like the spokes and furls of window frost. I felt for the first time the bracing power of the Dale’s quiet ascesis at work on my soul, granting me new sensitivity to reality. Still, the curbs and traffic lights of 26th Street back home, the airy rush of night traffic on wet asphalt outside my bedroom window, the weight of light reflected from glass towers downtown lingered at the edge of my consciousness during Great Books. Twined with the pain of Odysseus’ nostos was the ache for my own.

The difficulty of getting back to Minnesota for the first time, for Thanksgiving break, underscored just how far from home I was. A friend and I carpooled with an upperclassman to the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin, where my brother was a student. We waited in a McDonald’s for a few hours with our suitcases until my brother could borrow his roommate’s car to get us. We slept in the holiday-vacated home of unknown college girls, ecstatic to be in a house, and rode a charter bus the next morning to a mall on the edge of Minneapolis where my parents picked us up and fed us Chipotle, and then drove to the outstate town they’d moved to that summer and pulled up at a house that wasn’t yet home.

When, a few weeks later, I limped back to my parents’ couch after my first finals week, something had changed. I wasn’t mid-semester, with a college friend in tow. I was cut free of the pressing obligations of each of my five classes, with no pending assignments until mid-January. Snow covered the frozen river behind the new house, as quiet as my mind. Back in the real world, I found myself an exile. My life was in Hillsdale, where each day I made additions to my lists of words, books, and authors; where I weathered weekly catastrophes of discovery, doubt, and delight; where I had been born into a brand new world, taken my first steps, begun to speak. Now the downtown lights and the ordinary lives of my parents and younger siblings seemed the illusions. Don’t you care what the good is? Have you any idea of the heights of articulacy to which a human being can attain?

I saw now that the problem had two sides.


Thinking through the relationship of home (Minneapolis, in my case) and school (Hillsdale College), the first thing to realize is that they aren’t the same sort of thing. One’s a “-polis,” one’s a “College.” As individual students, we experience each in turn as a backdrop for the drama of our daily lives; our habits, needs, and dispositions give us a way to compare the two settings, to reckon their advantages and drawbacks. But if we evaluate the worlds of home and school only in reference to what we want out of an environment—if we see them merely as stages for the essentially solo performance of our individual lives—we’re missing the distinctive realities of these two places. They aren’t indifferent backdrops. They’re communities of practice aimed at distinct goods. Each has something to tell us about what it means to go back and forth well.

Aristotle says of the polis that it comes into existence in response to the bare necessities of life, but continues in existence for the sake of living well (Politics, Book I). At a college, we’re gathered for the sake of becoming capable of living well. This means that however disconnected it may seem to be from the world of the childhood home, student life at Hillsdale College finds its sense and meaning in being directed toward that world. Because if we buy Aristotle’s characterization of the human being as a political animal, then the political community in which we were children—that milieu of familial interdependence, economic necessity, and vocational diversity—is where we’ll ultimately find scope for the virtues that actualize our humanity. As we learn about the virtues in our classes and form ourselves in accordance with them, we’re becoming citizens.

Home and school complement each other in teaching us how to make use of the cultural and intellectual resources the world offers us. On one hand, Minneapolis has a far richer cultural life than our region of south-central Michigan: museums, orchestras, theaters, and the myriad casual perks of population density. On the other, college admits us to possibilities unattainable in a city, from daily access to friendly PhDs to the chance to have our own radio shows. In good ways and bad, it’s not the “real world.” Alternating between the cultural wealth of a city and the intellectual wealth of a college can teach us to make use of existing resources, and, further, to create them when they’re lacking.

This development follows the collegiate life cycle. Freshman year you learn for the first time what a magical thing a house is, because now you live in a dorm like an egg in a carton. You begin to form your own habits, routines, rituals, rhythms. When you go home, either you crumple back into the parental embrace, relieved, or you face the clash of these rhythms. Sophomore year, you relish the freedom of dorm and cafeteria life, involving yourself in the various associations your peers form, with a wild abandon, the security of careless independence. You are the prime consumer of and contributor to extracurricular life, willing to try things you’ll later abandon, to show up for things that widen your horizons. At home, now, you sense the lack of these things; you miss this vibrant life. The next year, when you move off campus, you realize that as much as you thought you were roughing it in the dorms, other people still cleaned your bathroom for you. Now you take out the trash, learn when recycling day is, and have to call the landlord when something breaks and be there to let the plumber in. Having taken on leadership roles in your campus involvements, you learn how to fake your way through putting on official events. When you’re home, you unconsciously do the dishes; you offer to cook.

What you realize senior year is that the person who lives the life in the real world that you want is the person who’s learned all the things this materially artificial world taught you to do. You know how to make yourself feel at home, how to make your own fun, how to make use of institutional resources, how to strike a balance between the cultivation of your various interests. When you turn your eyes to that promised land, the real world, it’s clear the only way you could have entered it after all is by this circuitous path of exile.

Considering the ends of the two communities enables us to relate them clearly: school prepares us to live well in political community, whether our native cities or the places we make our homes as adults. However, this description risks entirely subordinating our life at Hillsdale to a scarcely imaginable future. College life remains merely preparatory unless we consider the relationship that both places have to another place: the Kingdom of God. The latter is worth considering in this context because we’re seeking not just a theoretical synthesis but a sense of the sort of life that traverses disparate geographical settings with integrity. Beyond the natural human destiny of life in a polis lies the call to the supernatural destiny of loving communion with God and neighbor. Study and political life find their ends here, as study can invite us to contemplation of God and political life can provide scope for His service. But the life of study and political life each have an intrinsic spiritual dimension as well, because they immerse us in webs of personal relationships. Despite their other differences, home and school are quite similar in this respect. In both, the fundamental goal is to learn to love.

In this common project, the differences between places like Minneapolis and Hillsdale become relevant as well. The heterogeneity of Minneapolis, on the one hand, has burned into me this truth about human beings: they’re surprising. They don’t live according to your categories, and you don’t have them figured out. That’s why I miss the bicycling skeleton murals, halal markets, graffitied public transit stops, community theaters, glass towers, hippie co-ops, crowded turf soccer fields, and Mexican panaderias of my hometown. The untameable variety of human experience and expression on display there moves me to wonder.

The apparent homogeneity of Hillsdale’s student body, by contrast, can breed the expectation of predictability. Each new class appears on campus like a platoon of conscripts abstracted from their native contexts, with each individual functionally equivalent to the rest. A flat collective, we strive for definition by taking on the available forms of life modeled to us by our elders. And so a culture takes shape, a variegated whole made up of related parts, a culture of subcultures each carrying on the traditions of a particular team or club, or of a line of magnetic personalities who have passed the spiritual torch from year to year. Since our pasts are unknown to one another, we understand one another according to this differentiation that takes place during our time as students: we see the theatre kids, the football players, the literati, the smokers, the swing dancers, the sorority girls, the debate team, the cool friend group, the politics majors, the kids who play euchre in the Union. Each of us faced the choices of embracing some of these activities and eschewing others, and so, standing back after a few semesters, we may think we have a handle on the whole. Swing? Went freshman year, stopped going for these reasons. Greek life? Considered it, opted out for these reasons. Our shared history gives us a hermeneutic for reading the people who made different choices. They begin to live according to our categories.

It’s good that we have a culture, shared practices, a coherent context in which our individuality can be expressed intelligibly. But this good is not without its perils. Like stereotypical small-townsfolk whose strong sense of history makes them intolerant of non-conformity, we run the risk of substituting our expectations of each other for the reality. The appearance on campus last semester of a pseudonymous publication (Bricolage) provides a good case in point. If you didn’t snag one of the few copies distributed, a brief sketch from (perhaps faulty) memory: densely inked black-and-white printer paper folded and stapled, containing provocative personal narratives (drugs! sex!), and also an incisive portrayal of both the stereotypical Hillsdale student (a white, Catholic, male politics major, if I recall) and the (much different) statistical average of the Hillsdale student population. It may read as pc-speak to say that “not everyone feels represented” in our general sense of ourselves, but I think it’s a simple human fact. I didn’t care to read most of the entries (mea culpa), but the thing’s appearance struck me as salutary—at the very least, familiar. It was a rebuke of the tendency to flatten out our experience of each other and ourselves with convention and stereotype rather than forging a shared identity through genuine encounters. Alongside all the precious things we share as members of this community, we shouldn’t lose our capacity to be surprised and challenged by what is other.

Conversely, being a part of a community that, while not homogenous, is animated by a profound common purpose has helped me figure out how to love my Minneapolitan neighbors, about whom individually I generally know so little. Our life here has taught me that there is a lot you can know about any human being you encounter, and that believing that you can, far from being prejudice or stereotype, is vital to real community. What unites us in this place—what, if we’re not careful, passes into unthinking cliché—is our habit of asking questions like, “What does it mean to be human? What is real? What does it mean to live well?” and coming to grips with answers like, “Bearing the image of God. Truth, beauty, goodness. To develop and exercise one’s capacities in concert with others.” Even if I don’t comprehend these things, pursuing them orients me as I interact with strangers whose ways of life, political convictions, and moral sensibilities are often at such variance with my own. It gives me common ground with anyone I walk past on Nicollet Mall—homeless heroin addict or sharp-suited lawyer.

My sense of who I am and who they are and where we all find ourselves couldn’t come out of the mere sensory stimulation of our shared urban atmosphere. Contrasted with civilian life in a metropolis, the life of study is one of privation: long hours in which one’s total sensory data intake consists of an apparently interminable series of black-ink glyphs on white paper, or of the articulate sounds that stream from the mouth of a solitary man or woman standing in front of a room. But this relative privation makes space for the reflection that draws all the sense data of experience into the form of a meaningful whole. It shapes my imagination, intellect, and affections such that when I return to the colorful, noisy rush of life at home, I perceive souls in search of the realmy own among them.

I was in northern Indiana driving to my brother’s Chicago apartment en route home for Thanksgiving this year when it hit me that my sense of space had shifted—that rather than traveling between worlds, I saw myself moving within a single one, larger and more intricately woven than any I’d known before. The realization at the same time elated and deflated me. The terror and disconsolation of world-hopping, I realized, had also been a thrill. Nothing ever stays the same.

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