How a Michigan college is leaning into culture wars to reshape education
- Hillsdale College has been at the forefront of education fights in Florida and Tennessee
- Its president criticizes the education establishment and wants to restore civic virtue in classrooms
- Hillsdale’s conservative teachings could reshape Michigan education if a Republican becomes governor
In a raging nationwide culture war over how schools teach history and race, Michigan’s tiny Hillsdale College is increasingly on the frontlines.
A Christian school 15 miles from the Ohio border, Hillsdale has long been known for its conservative principles. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called Hillsdale a “shining city on a hill” in a 2016 commencement address. His wife Ginni Thomas has helped spread its political influence in Washington, D.C. At least four graduates were hired for key roles in the Trump administration. And statues of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher line the campus.
But in the past year, Hillsdale, and its pugnacious president Larry Arnn, have been at the intellectual center of a conservative insurgency to transform U.S. public education.
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Arnn went from promoting “patriotic education” in the last days of the Trump administration to fights this year in how history, social studies and even math are being taught in Florida and the value of trained teachers in Tennessee.
Last month, at a private event in Tennessee, where Hillsdale plans to open 50 charter schools, Arnn was recorded comparing modern education to “a plague” and argued that teachers are trained “in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country," remarks that produced blowback both in Tennessee and nationwide. He has since doubled down.
With elections in Michigan this fall that could restore a Republican in the governor’s office, Hillsdale — which has 15 affiliated schools (charter and private) in the state and may add a 16th — could soon take a larger and far more powerful role in revamping Michigan education.
Arnn’s recent work is being noticed by at least one GOP candidate hoping to unseat Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Larry Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College. Arnn was the chair of then-President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which attacked what it called “identity politics” in education. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)
"I couldn't agree more with Larry,” Garrett Soldano, a Mattawan chiropractor, told Bridge Michigan in a statement.
“We need to make sure our schools don't turn into Leftist indoctrination centers. A school's curriculum should be focused on teaching children critical skills such as math and reading, not racist or woke gender ideologies."
Given its record, a Hillsdale-led curriculum fight in Michigan would likely hit several themes, including some already percolating in Lansing: Loosening teacher training standards. Bans on teaching critical race theory. Reframing the role of the nation’s founders in perpetuating the slave trade. Restrictions around discussions of race or gender identity. And a more Western and Classical focus in reading material.
Brendan Cantwell, an associate professor at Michigan State University with a specialty in educational administration, said private colleges typically “don’t have a great deal of direct influence over K-12 education or education policy-making in general.”
“I think that what differs with Hillsdale here is that it's weighing into a sort of national culture-war-type question,” Cantwell said. The college is “engaging states directly to reshape the curricular standards of the public education in those states.”
Who decides what’s taught
Michigan is not immune from heated debates over classroom teachings. Before local school board meetings turned into screaming matches about critical race theory, the state’s periodically updated teaching standards faced scrutiny from Democrats and Republicans.
As Bridge first reported in 2018, a conservative group, led by a state senator, helped influence an early draft of revised social studies standards by eliminating references to climate change and gay rights and cutting the word “democratic” from the phrase “core democratic values.” Those deletions were eventually restored, over objections from Republicans on the State Board of Education.
Similar battles are now waged in other states, with Hillsdale in the lead.
In Florida, Hillsdale is working with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to restore a focus on civics education and it is one of four groups that helped develop an optional training program for teachers.
Teachers receive a stipend if they complete the Florida training but several educators expressed concern about the messaging. They said training often lacked important context, attempted to downplay America’s role in slavery and promoted a monolithic framing of Christianity’s influence on the U.S.
People linked to Hillsdale also helped weed out Florida math textbooks they argued pushed the tenets of “critical race theory.” Of 125 experts selected by the state to review math textbooks, three found issues with the material. Two of the three were affiliated with Hillsdale College, a Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times investigation found.
Jordan Adams, a Hillsdale 2013 graduate, and currently a civic education specialist at the college’s department of K-12 education, was one of the textbook reviewers.
Bridge reached out to Adams, who directed Bridge to the college’s public relations person. That person did not respond to Bridge requests to speak with Adams or Arnn, the college president.
Who decides who can teach
Arnn’s views could influence K-12 education in areas beyond social studies if he can reduce teacher training requirements, said Annie Whitlock, associate professor of history and social studies at Grand Valley State University.
Whitlock noted in particular Arnn’s comments on teachers at the Tennessee event, where the Hillsdale leader also argued “you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.”
There are 33 education preparation programs and 10 alternate path programs in Michigan. Hillsdale is not one of these programs.
“This idea that you can kind of eliminate teacher preparation is scary and concerning for sure,” Whitlock said. “Because I think the temptation would be to follow it. I hope not. I don't think our state superintendent of education would do that in Michigan right now, but we'll see.”
Currently, Michigan’s state school superintendent is appointed by the state board of education. There are now six Democrats and two Republicans on the board.
Earlier this month, Arizona’s governor signed a law that allows public schools to hire classroom teachers before they obtain a bachelor’s degree. Education experts critiqued the measure, saying that it would leave students with a less rigorous academic experience.
Michigan, which has a teacher shortage, has already taken steps intended to make it easier to get teachers in classrooms, though the state still requires teachers to be certified.
State education officials have eased the path for retired teachers to return to the classroom. Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah, has proposed a bill that would make it easier to hire out-of-state teachers in Michigan. State Superintendent Michael Rice supports the bill, saying it is “all upside, no downside.”
And Gov. Whitmer recently signed a bipartisan education budget that includes funding for school support staff to get a teaching license; scholarships for prospective teachers willing to teach in Michigan for up to five years, and stipends for student teachers, making it easier for them to pay for their degrees.
Paula Lancaster, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Central Michigan University, said lowering standards for teachers will have long-term costs.
Teachers with “lower levels of training” have a higher turnover rate, she said, “which means that students and schools and communities have that steady churn of brand new, inexperienced teachers coming into the classroom.”
“It's fair to say that newer teachers may bring new ideas to the classroom,” Lancaster said. “That's absolutely a fair argument to make. However, (if) you think about any of us entering a new position, a new job, a new work, it takes time to kind of figure things out, to settle in, to really find yourself and your strengths in that work.”
The future of charter schools
Hillsdale College has also extended its reach through a national expansion of charter schools, including in Michigan, where 15 charter and private schools are affiliated with the college.
The program leads “students towards intellectual, moral, and civic virtue in a traditional education setting,” according to the Hillsdale College website.
Hillsdale does not run the schools directly but provides resources to K-12 charter schools for free.
While charters are often developed locally, plans for Hillsdale-affiliated schools in Tennessee have been largely driven by Gov. Bill Lee, the state’s Republican governor.
Sean Corcoran, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University who studies school choice, said Tennessee’s courtship of the Christian college’s charter model is unusual.
“(T)he whole theory of charter schools is it's sort of a bottom up reform where, you know, local educators or charter management organizations or others will get together and put together (an) application to start a charter school in the state,” he said.
Corcoran said Tennessee’s top-down efforts to spread Hillsdale’s teachings take on added importance following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a case from Maine, in which the court held that when states offer funding to some private schools they must also include religious schools.
The Michigan Constitution bans public funding for all private schools. But legal experts have debated whether the ruling could pave the path for ways to publicly fund religious charter schools down the road.
Race in the classroom
Hillsdale was founded in 1844 by Free Will Baptists whose mission was to end slavery. Its 1850 charter banned racial discrimination and Hillsdale sent more than 500 students to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass twice spoke on campus.
Hillsdale still celebrates Douglass (he, too, has a statue on campus) and its abolitionist roots. But it has long opposed affirmative action and is currently leading conservative opposition to school-based diversity measures, teaching of critical race theory and what it views as racial identity teachings.
In his op-ed in USA Today, Arnn argued that training future teachers in diversity, equity and inclusion can “often steer educators away from the subject matter and toward a political agenda.”
Arnn — who led efforts to ban affirmative action in California in the 1990s — found himself in hot water a decade ago in explaining the college’s refusal to accept federal aid which, among other things, allows Hillsdale to ignore federal demands to tally the demographics of its student body.
At a state legislative hearing in 2013, Arnn recalled an instance in 2000 when government officials visited the campus with clipboards to, in his words, "look at the colors of people's faces and write down what they saw."
Arnn said the college doesn’t keep such records. "What were they looking for besides dark ones?" Arnn said, a remark that drew rebukes from lawmakers.
The commission’s 45-page report attacks “identity politics” and argued that, contrary to the findings of The 1619 Project, which is used in many school classrooms over conservative objections, the nation’s founders largely were opposed to slavery but had to compromise on their values in order to preserve the union.
“Is it reasonable to believe that slavery could have been abolished sooner had the slave states not been in a union with the free? Perhaps,” the report said. “But what is momentous is that a people that included slaveholders founded their nation on the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’”
Conservatives have amped up criticism of how race and history are taught in schools, including in Lansing.
Michigan’s Republican Legislature is considering two bills that would limit how schools teach race and history. One bill would explicitly ban teaching the “critical race theory” and The 1619 Project. Tennessee and Florida passed similar bills in 2021.
Jane C. Lo, an associate professor of teacher education at MSU, said it is not uncommon for there to be disagreement over what should be taught in schools. She said changes do not happen overnight but the system is built to have some flexibility. If one political side pushes, the other side pushes back.
“And one of the reasons that education tends to be at the state or local level — and for years and decades, it happened at the local level — is because communities then should be able to decide what makes the most sense for their family, their children, as they live together as they work together.”
Lo noted that there are groups across the country working to improve civic education. It isn’t just a binary choice between the competing visions of The 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission.
Cantwell, her MSU colleague, said Hillsdale has gained extra credibility in conservative circles for its independence in rejecting federal education funds as one means of holding to its principles.
If conservatives believe the education bureaucracy favors liberals and their goals, it’s helpful to have Hillsdale showing it can succeed without bowing to the education bureaucracy, Cantwell said.
If a Republican is elected governor and the GOP maintains its grip on the legislature, changes are likely in Michigan’s K-12 landscape.
The culture war arguments will continue to receive play, Cantwell said, but the larger question is: Who gets to determine what is taught — elected officials or educators?
“[T]hat is the battle, the political battle that Hillsdale is really weighing into,” he said. “And they have sort of cultural currency…to advance this sort of dismantling of the professional education establishment.”
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