A monthly publication of Hillsdale College

From the Editor's Desk

In a speech in Baltimore during the Civil War, President Lincoln said: "We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name…."

Today America is in a similar quandary about the meaning of liberty, and the surest way out is the kind of liberal education that Thomas Jefferson prescribed for rendering Americans "worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens." Unfortunately, this model of education has been on a steep decline. America's colleges and universities have become dominated by the ideology of moral relativism, which denies any correlation between facts and what it calls "values."

The term "values" is itself morally neutral. The late Michigan educator Russell Kirk, a famous friend of Hillsdale College, once contrasted this term to what he called norms, but what could also be called moral principles. A norm, he wrote, "is a law of nature…. It is a rule of human conduct and a measure of public virtue…. A value is the quality of worth…. When most writers nowadays employ the word 'value,' moreover, they mean 'subjective value'-that is, the utility of…giving pleasure or satisfaction to individuals, without judgment upon the intrinsic, absolute, essential merit of the sensation or action in question…. [G]oing to church is a value for some persons, and taking one's ease in a brothel is a value for others…. A norm endures in its own right, whether or not it gives pleasure to particular individuals. A norm is the standard against which any alleged value must be measured objectively."

Almost two decades ago during the Cold War, a national survey suggested that the more years of higher learning Americans had, the less likely they were to agree with President Reagan that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." This was a clear indication of the prevalence and power of moral relativism in the academy. "Evil" had become an embarrassing adjective for "the best and the brightest" in our country. Even tyranny didn't qualify. The "self-evident truths" at the heart of America's founding-equality, unalienable rights, limited government-had become merely "our values."

Hillsdale College opposes this mind-numbing relativism with every ounce of its energy. Here, as they have for 156 years, students learn what liberty means, and the moral conditions of its preservation. They develop the skills to be useful citizens, and the moral character to be good ones.

Hillsdale is justly famous for refusing the huge federal subsidies that go to support other colleges and universities. But even more important is what it accomplishes with the independence this policy ensures. For 28 years, Imprimis has been a vehicle for sharing something of Hillsdale's mission with a nationwide audience, and for promoting widely the principles of civil and religious liberty that are central to that mission and to America.

These principles will continue to guide us as we head toward our fourth decade of publication.

Douglas A. Jeffrey
November 2000
vol 29, number 11

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