Hegel and Early Progressivism


Dr. West and Dr. Grant join Hugh Hewitt to discuss Hegel and his influence on early American Progressives.


HH: It’s the last radio hour of the week, and that means it’s time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. Each time this week, I talk to one or more members of the faculty at Hillsdale College in Michigan about one of the great classics of the Western canon, or one of the great philosophers of the Western tradition. And today, against my will, dragged up a hill broken and battered, we’re tackling Hegel. And thank goodness Arnn’s not around to humble me in the course of that. Larry Arnn is gone today, so instead I have two professors who actually care about their students, and we have Professor Thomas West, who is the Paul Ermine Potter and Dawn Tibbetts Potter professor of politics at Hillsdale, and John Grant is the assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College. And together, they are going to help me get through Hegel, because I think actually I broke out in hives on this, Tom West, when Hegel showed up on the list that we had to do. Is that an uncommon reaction among your students?

TW: No, the students have to, it usually takes a while to get used to, but honestly, Hugh, I do not feel your pain. This is actually a pretty bright guy, and he’s got a lot to say to us.

HH: A pretty bright guy? It’s almost, John Grant, impossible to read. And I got this nice set of selections sent to me by Tom West from the Hillsdale Reader, and he sent me the progressive treatment on it, and I’m reading all this stuff, and I said this is going to be very hard radio. Are you feeling my pain more than Dr. West?

JG: Well, when I first read Hegel, I felt your pain more. Hegel’s one of those thinkers that once you penetrate the jargon, he’s actually pretty easy. So compared to somebody like Plato, who looks easy and is actually very hard, Hegel looks hard and after you’ve studied him a while, gets easier.

HH: Okay, once you penetrate the jargon is everything. Let me begin with the brief biographical note. Born in 1770, dies in 1831, he is the German’s German. And Dr. West, what’s his place in the pantheon? When you have to give the quick two minute on Hegel, what do you say to people who have never heard of Hegel?

TW: Well, Hegel’s the great inventor of the idea of a historical approach to politics, where history gives us meaning. He’s the guy who first, who comes up with the idea of reason in history. The whole story of human history is the story of mankind as a whole becoming more and more rational. So he, in a way, he’s the first progressive in that sense.

HH: And Dr. Grant, in the Hillsdale Reader, he declares, “Reason is the sovereign of the world.” In another excerpt, you have, “The German nations were the first to achieve consciousness.” This is a little bit why Hegel creeps some people out, is he does seem to be a forerunner of master race theory, and of all that is suspicious about the German project. Is that unfair to him?

JG: Well, not totally unfair, because Hegel is, as Dr. West mentioned, he is the first progressive thinker. And progress manifests itself in certain peoples or races, and so he does come up, he does have the argument that say the Germans are the most free, most rational and hence, superior people.

HH: Up until 18…until his death, of course, that might be true. But thereafter, it spiraled. Dr. West, would you go back, and you use the word historicism, and that’s a big $10 word. We’ve got a lot of Steelers fans and others. Explain what historicism means.

TW: That doesn’t mean anything fancy. It just means the idea that you don’t really have transcendent truth. If you’re a historicist, you think that all truth is historically relative. Hegel’s fame, one of Hegel’s favorite terms is the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time. And his point is all philosophy is a product of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time. No philosopher ever gets beyond his own time. Everybody’s always using Platonic language locked into the cave, and there’s no exit from the cave.

HH: So you and I are doing that right now in Hegel’s world. You and I, and Dr. Grant, are all trapped in a conversation which is determined by the fact that we’re talking originally in February of 2015. And no matter when you play this, it will always reflect 2015 February.

TW: Yeah, in America, and the way we’ve been brought up, what kind of a country this is. But what’s really important for Hegel is that every nation that exists within the continuum of history is always the product of all the previous. So we, in a way, are fortunate by being late, because we’re the ones who in a sense are at the peak of human history. We’re coming towards the end, at the completion of the process.

HH: Well, didn’t Francis Fukuyama say pretty much the same thing when he wrote his famous book of 20 years ago, Dr. West?

TW: The End of History?

HH: Yeah.

TW: Yeah, he had a book on that, sure. And he was thinking of Hegel, the idea that we’ve achieved the peak of human freedom and of liberalism. And you know, you brought up the race theory thing. Hegel did say that the Germanic peoples are the vehicle of reason in the modern world, in his world, say of the 1820s and 30s. But he didn’t mean by that that if you happen to be born German you were going to be smarter or something. He just meant that that was the nation that happened to have achieved the greatest fulfillment of rationality in their political and social order.

HH: Now Dr. Grant, this is an interesting week to be talking about Hegel and historicism, because on Wednesday of this week, the President gave a long speech on why we don’t have to worry about Islam. On Tuesday of this week, the cover story of the Atlantic Monthly is on What Does ISIS Really Want. They want their 7th Century back, and they’re very explicit about that. So what would Hegel say about postmodern current, zeitgeisty appeals to texts and traditions that are 1,400 years old?

JG: Well, I think Hegel would admit that’s possible, but he would say it’s unreasonable. You’re going against what’s reasonable, what’s actually, genuinely progressive, the genuine manifestations of freedom in one’s time. And Hegel had very harsh comments on Islam as a destructive, irrational force.

HH: But would he not, doesn’t he have to, wouldn’t a Hegelian say it was inevitable that we would have the resurfacing of fundamentalist sects in all of the traditions, because that’s just the way that history works its way out?

JG: Well, Hegel’s ambiguous on that. He sort of falls back into metaphors and things like that. After you have The End Of History, where you have the pinnacle of history, what Fukuyama was talking about, the birth of the rational, modern state, can you fall back into history in the irrational sense? And he fudges on that.

HH: Dr. West, what do you think? Can you fall back? And if you’re a Hegelian, would you argue you fall back?’

TW: Well, John said correctly that Hegel likes to use metaphors. And one of his favorite metaphors was history is like the day. The dawn is in the east, in China and India, the early part of the day is in Greece and Rome, that’s when they discover that some human beings are free, and then we reach the end of history in the evening, and where we’ve learned that all men are free. But that metaphor implies after the evening comes, the sun sets. And after the sunset comes the darkness. So if you follow that metaphor out, and take it literally, Hegel seems to be implying that once you achieve the peak of history, then we’re going to lapse back into the initial barbarism and irrationality. I don’t know if that’s his view. It wasn’t something he talked about. It’s something for us to think about.

HH: Did, is there an explanation of why embedded in his philosophy that would happen? Does reason inevitably collapse on itself, because it’s awfully painful to deal with?

TW: No, I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about it in the way he presents it. I mean, he does present, his point about history is it’s a difficult think for human life to achieve rationality. I mean, his argument is that all these terrible things that had to happen, through Greece, through Rome, the Alexandrian conquest, through Caesar’s takeover of Rome and the transformation through Christianity and its transformation, all these things had to happen in order for us to achieve the peak that we did achieve, say, in the 1820s when he was around. And that kind, that hard work, that has to be sustained in order to maintain the achievement of freedom, it seems to me, that’s what he’s implying.

HH: Dr. Grant, he is also the man who came up with the dialectic, the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. And a lot of people will find that to be surprising. Was it a radical innovation at that point?

JG: Well, it was radical insofar as it was applied to the historical process, that it’s that working out in that dialectical manner where you have the transcendence of, succeeding epochs transcend the previous epochs while incorporation what was best in them. That was a radical innovation. Somebody like Kant didn’t have that notion, for instance, where history was not dialectical in that way.

HH: And the Marxists picked this up. And so Dr. West, what does Marx take from Hegel, and what’s he leave behind on the table?

TW: Well, I’m glad you brought Marx up, because Hegel, in one way, looks like a super conservative guy. And in another way, he looks like an extreme radical revolutionary. And what Marx picked up on was the radical side of Hegel, because if you take, Marx’ point was this. If you take seriously the idea that history is about the movement from irrationality to rationality, then you can’t help but be impressed by the fact that in our more, in the modern world, there is still plenty of irrationality around. So that’s what Marx, Marx’ takeaway was Hegel stopped too soon. Hegel proclaimed the German state to be the end of history. Marx said oh, no, you don’t get it. We haven’t reached the end of history. We’ve got a long way to go. The end of history will only be when we completely abolish all limitations on the human will, collectively and individually.

HH: When we come back from break with Dr. West and Dr. Grant of Hillsdale College, I’m going to ask what’s super conservative about Hegel. Don’t go anywhere, America. I know you were thinking that, and I’ll ask the question. It will be answered when we return.

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HH: I go back with Dr. Thomas West, Dr. John Grant of Hillsdale College this week. We’re talking about the German philosopher, Hegel. And before we went to break, Dr. West, you said in some respects, Hegel is a revolutionary. And then you talked about Marx. And then you also said in some respects, he’s super conservative, which is super surprising to me. What are those respects?

TW: Well, what Marx was doing was saying that Hegel wasn’t being true to his own logic, that is you know, Hegel is pro-freedom, but he’s willing to accept a world that has lots of unfreedom in it, and call that perfection. And so Marx’ point was Hegel needs to be corrected and expanded by pushing a political agenda that’s far more radical, at least that would lead to communism and no longer accept private property rights, which Hegel is in favor of. So the reason why I say Hegel can also be viewed as a conservative, and even a super conservative, is because if you believe, as Hegel does, that you can’t step out of your own time, you’re always stuck in your own time and you’re a product of your time, then in a way, there’s no point in trying to change anything. You always are at the peak of human history, in that sense. So one of the things that Hegel’s argument led to was a kind of complacency on the part of his admirers about the fact that we’re living at the peak of modern civilization, Western civilization, and we should all feel really good about ourselves.

HH: Well, what did he think about the future? What did he expect would happen, post-Hegel?

JG: Well, then you’re back to the question of the sun metaphor. Will you have an expansion of rationality? So the modern state, according to Hegel, has been born in Germany. And will that spread across the globe? And Hegel has a qualified endorsement of imperialism that would indicate that might be possible. Or will you have that relapse into barbarism? And you mentioned the Fukuyama book earlier, Hugh. That’s why the End of History and the Last Men, there’s an ambiguity there. Do you have rationality, or do you have degradation?

HH: Yeah, the End of History is a book that is not often taken off shelves now, because it was so obviously wrong in its call that the world was done, and we were into an era of peace and prosperity. Let me go back, one of the descriptions of Hegel I read, the Protestant, Aquinas, in his first book is the Life of Jesus. What does he believe, actually believe, Dr. West, about divinity?

TW: Well, I think this is one of the areas where Hegel’s teaching is both shocking and at the same time was incredibly influential on later theological developments. Hegel’s basic idea was that God is spirit, and spirit is ultimately the human mind. And so Hegel said basically Christianity is true, not literally, but as a metaphor for the human condition. So in Christianity, God becomes man in the form of Jesus Christ. Hegel is basically saying right, God becomes man. That’s a metaphor for the human mind becomes increasingly rational until finally at the end of history, it becomes purely and perfectly rational.

HH: So he does not actually…

TW: So at the end of history, man, in effect, becomes God.

HH: He does not actually believe in the divinity of Christ, and Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father. He believes that’s a great metaphor for man sitting at the right hand of man?

TW: Right. Rational man is the true god, whereas non-rational man is merely man. And so the agenda of human history, one could even say, is the apotheosis of man, turning man into a god. And that is in fact what progressive John Burgess said in his writings. He was a very influential progressive era political science professor at Columbia University.

HH: Yeah, you sent me the excerpt, and I’m kind of stunned by it, actually, because I didn’t realize that the progressives latched onto Hegel. I’ve always sort of associated Hegel with, okay, there’s Marx, and there are the Nazis. I didn’t realize he infiltrated the American water system as well.

TW: Yeah, well, he, Hegel, not all the American progressives early on were Hegelians. Burgess definitely was. Others, there were many, many influenced by Burgess. One of the things about the article I showed you was a guy, the author tried to bring out how amazingly influential this guy was. He had thousands and thousands of students who directly or indirectly went out and really transformed the whole field of political science in America. And so we’re still, in a way, living with the legacy of all that, although political science has, I guess I would say, and from the point of view of our time, I would regard it as a great progress of political sciences we’re as sensible as Hegel is, in comparison to what we have now.

HH: Amen. Now I’ve got to ask as well, the Tubingen School is well-known, at least to Protestant theologians. It ought to be known to Catholic theologians as well, because that’s where Benedict did his work, John Grant. Did Hegel also unmoor theology as well as political science from everything that had gone before? Is he the founder of the so-called German school in theology?

JG: I know more about the American manifestation of that where Hegelian theology was definitely an influence on the social gospel movement in American.

HH: Oh, tell me about that. How so?

JG: Well, the whole idea of the apotheosis of man that Professor West just mentioned, a lot of American theologians took that very seriously. And so for instance, what that means or meant for progressive theologian Richard T. Ely, who was a very prominent, a University of Wisconsin professor of economics, and a social gospel theologian, argued for what he called the ethical ideal, which he interpreted the Hegelian apotheosis of man to mean we need to perfect ourselves. Government needs to help us perfect ourselves, and then go forth and perfect others, to uplift them.

HH: Okay…

JG: And so Christianity becomes this worldly, oriented towards the perfection, removal of material obstacles to spiritual and mental perfection.

HH: Spend a moment on the apotheosis of man, again, for the average person, what does that mean?

JG: I think the American progressives took that to mean something like what Hegel meant – man becoming as rational and perfect as man can become. They didn’t literally think we would become gods with the traditional attributes of divinity, you know, that we would no longer be mortal or omnipotent or omniscient, but that insofar as human beings can become perfect, they will become perfect.

HH: You know, I spent a few weeks ago some time with your colleague, Stephen Smith, about More’s Utopia. And did the Hegelians sit around and imagine what the world would look like, like Marx did, after this highest mountain was climbed?

TW: Well, I think that what you have to keep in mind here is that the conservative side of Hegel, in the preface of one of his books, Philosophy Of Right, he said the rational is the actual, and the actual is the rational, meaning whatever is, is rational at any given period of human history. So he didn’t expect any kind of magical transformation of the human condition in the way that Marx did. I mean, Marx really thought of communism as a condition in which man would lose all selfishness…

HH: Yeah.

TW: …and be transformed into a totally communal being. Hegel was not that crazy.

HH: And as a train…(laughing) And as a train that was on the tracks and coming our way.

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HH: This Dialogue’s having the impact on me that I hope many of the Hillsdale Dialogues have had on you, the audience, which is to make you more curious about a particular person or passage, so that you’ll investigate more. And I think maybe I’ve been giving Hegel short shrift all these years. I’ll start with you, John Grant. I’ve always kind of put him aside as being a starting point from which others jumped off. But it appears as though he’s also a place to which others will eventually get back to.

JG: I think that’s right, Hugh. I think, I don’t agree with Hegel, and particularly his historicism, as Professor West was talking about, and describing what that means earlier. But Hegel’s a thinker of the first rate, and definitely worthy of serious study.

HH: Does he believe that the moral truth can actually be had? If it’s all that’s true, if the actual is the real, is the true and the true is the actual, does he actually believe that there’s anything that transcends?

JG: For Hegel at the end of history, you do have rational truth, and the objective, real, say, moral truth embodied in the state and its laws, which are a type of freedom combined with morality where the people through the mediation of the state will laws with genuine ethical content that they give themselves.

HH: So that brings us to America. In the excerpt in the Hillsdale Reader, he’s pretty high on America. He thinks that we’re doing a good thing here when he looks back at the framing. Why does he think that? And what does he prognosticate in the pages not included in the Hillsdale Reader about what will happen to us?

TW: Well look, Hugh, what I would say is he, what he’s especially impressed by in America, and again, thinking, he’s talking about America in the 1820s and 30s. He talks about America as a country that doesn’t really yet have a state, because there’s so much free land, there’s a frontier, people can do what they want, you don’t have class struggle. He says basically, America’s not really a true nation, yet. And it won’t be a true nation until they’re compressed, until they run out of land and they’re forced to have a class struggle, and therefore a strong government. And he looks at America’s weak government as a defect. And he thinks of the strong government of the Germans of that day as one of their positive features. So and then the other thing he doesn’t like about early America is he thinks there’s way too much individual liberty. He says there’s too much freedom for property rights and making money, and going out and having your own life. He says no, government needs to take charge of that, and direct people in the way they ought to live. That’s one of the reasons why the progressive era thinkers like John Burgess and others were enamored of Hegel. They liked the idea that America is, that there’s something wrong with a country that allows you too much individual self-reliance and self-indulgence in private passions instead of communal dedication to the higher things.

HH: It’s a very interesting time to raise Hegel, because there’s a new world right now. It’s a virtual world. It as absolutely ungoverned. It is without any limits. It’s full of freedom. And yet the government wants to invade it this week, last week, this week. They want to invade it. They want to control it. They want to limit what people can do on it. And other governments want to get involved. Would Hegel say that that’s necessary, Dr. West?

JG: I’ll take a stab at that, Hugh.

TW: Let’s let John talk about this.

HH: Okay.

JG: Yeah, I think the model for this is the FCC…

HH: Yeah.

JG: …of which you’re probably very familiar with, and that comes out of Hegelian, the progressives following the Hegelian train of thought, which you can’t have, we can’t let the airwaves be ungoverned. God only knows what these rubes will do if experts aren’t supervising them.

HH: You see, and that’s what’s going to happen now that the FCC gets its hands on the virtual world, isn’t it, because it is ungoverned. So the Hegelian imperative would be get in there and get control of it, so what? So that the best and the brightest can achieve the most?

JG: Well, that would be the Hegelian ideal in our contemporary situation. It’s not going to be the cultivation of the best and the brightest, but the imposition of contemporary liberal ideals, which this brings us to an important point. Hegel’s moralism, I mean, Hegel’s to the right of any prominent American political figure known to me…

HH: How so?

JG: …in terms of his views of the family and things like that, you know, very strict moralist. And of course, that’s not what we’re really interested in, our politicians, our ruling class, interested in our time.

HH: By strict moralist, you mean you get married once forever and you take care of your children and you provide for the poor, that kind of moralism?

JG: That kind, exactly, Hugh.

HH: Well, that’s a good thing.

JG: Sure, yeah.

HH: So was…

TW: Yeah, I think one of the things, Hugh, I think that needs to be emphasized is Hegel, insofar as Hegel is the father of earlier American progressivism, he’s very different from what we’re used to day when we think of progressivism or liberalism now.

HH: Okay, hold onto that. When we come back from break, we’ll talk about how Hegel got unmoored by the progressives and run off, because it is, it’s astonishing, actually, to think of Hegel as a moralist.

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HH: And many of you, I know, you’re saying Dr. West and Dr. Grant sound the same. I know you’re saying that, and I don’t know if you two understand that. They’re my two Hillsdale scholars, and we’re talking about the German philosopher, Hegel. And Dr. West and Dr. Grant, you do have very similar voices. Did you know that?

TW: No, Dr. Grant’s a big mouth, and he’s way taller than I am.

HH: It doesn’t come through on the air. So I think it was Dr. West who was talking at the end of the break about how modern liberalism is not what Hegel would have imagined. Would you expand on that, Dr. West?

TW: Yeah, that’s right, it was me. You’ve got me right, and yeah, Hegel’s idea of freedom is that freedom means that you’re completely independent. You’re completely in control of yourself. So it means that you’re moral. It means that you are not in any way a slave of your unruly animal passions. And so what it means for a community to be dedicated to Hegelian uplift, as the earlier American progressives were, is that you’re dedicated to making sure that people behave themselves, for example, that they are respectful of other people’s rights, that they are patriotic and support their community, that they view marriage as an institution that’s a positive thing, and it’s a great thing to get married and have children and raise them in a decent and proper way. And that idea, that Hegelian conception of freedom animated early American liberalism, really up until the 1960s.

HH: Like Dewey.

TW: And so that’s one of the reasons why we look back at the 50s and say hey, that was a pretty good time in America.

HH: Because people like Dewey promoted things like that, as well as promoting public education, public sanitation, public health, the general good, right? They were all kind of high-minded, Woodrow Wilsonesque, we’ll get it done and just trust us, people. So what went wrong?

JG: Well, and this is John Grant, Hugh, the later liberals kept the material uplift of the progressives, which we see in the modern welfare state. But for the early progressives following Hegel, that material uplift, the redistribution of material goods to enable people to perfect themselves mentally and spiritually, just that spiritual uplift, mental uplift, that is gone after the 1960s. It’s just redistribution without uplift.

HH: So it’s just materialism.

JG: Materialism, there’s a moralistic direction, but it’s not towards life. Hegel was pro-life, would be another way to put this. His moral philosophy, see what he says about the family and related matters, he’s pro-life. Insofar as there’s a moral view animating our ruling class today, it’s anti-life.

HH: So I’ve got to ask you, another nation that became anti-life was Germany. So how much does the Nazi regime owe to its Hegelian roots, Dr. West? I’ll go back to you on this. Is that the perversion of Hegel? Or is that the almost necessary conclusion of Hegel?

TW: No, the Nazis conceived of themselves as being in revolt against Hegel. They viewed Hegel as liberal. He represents liberalism. And liberalism means freedom, it means individual rights, means the idea that you can’t have, you can have, there’s a legitimate place for the private in Hegel, although he wants it to be ultimately subordinated to and ordered by the public. What the Nazis, the Nazis, their attitude was we need to get away from this idea of the bourgeois ideal – preservation and comfort and that sort of thing, and let’s have a life that’s hard, that’s challenging, where meaning comes in the facing, being up front and being willing to face death at any moment. That’s the, that existentialist element, that was very important to the Nazi attitude.

HH: Did they take from him, though, the German triumphalism that is evident in the Reader selection you sent me?

TW: No, because they were German triumphalists, but in a completely different way. For Hegel, the Germans were, the Germans deserved to be praised, because they were rational. For the Nazis, the Germans deserved to be praised, because they had repudiated reason and they embraced their willingness to simply confront death at any price. And that’s a very different orientation. And both of those, of course, are also totally different from what we today call liberalism.

HH: Well, let’s conclude, then, by talking about the very practical. If you were going to pick up Hegel and study him, how would you go about that, Dr. Grant? Where would you begin? With his life of Jesus, or would you being with Phenomenology? What would you start with?

JG: Well, his theological writings are very complicated, so I would recommend somebody, if somebody is interested, start with his Philosophy of History, and particularly the introduction. Those, they were lectures, and he was trying to make himself clear. And it’s a lot easier to read. Phenomenology is a great book, but it’s incredibly complicated. I can’t, if I’d have picked that up when I first got interested in Hegel, I think I would have put it down pretty quickly.

HH: And so how much time do you spend on him? I’m just curious, because I actually don’t think I knew anyone who specialized in Hegel through all the time I’ve been around the campus. Is there a Hegel specialist at Hillsdale? Are you it?

TW: I don’t know if there’s a Hegel specialist around, but it’s, we teach a course on late modern political thought, and it’s a big chunk of the course. It’s, this is an important guy. I mean, for the 19th Century, he’s probably the single most important voice, philosophically, in the entire Western world.

HH: Wow.

TW: And his influence is everywhere. I mean, you see it in Marx, you see it in American progressivism, you see it in Nietzsche, too. Nietzsche, in many ways, borrowed, learned, the fundamentals of Nietzsche come out of Hegel, although Nietzsche in very important ways breaks with Hegel.

HH: And did he understand himself to be that, Dr. West?

TW: Well, he understood himself to be a historicist. I mean, he accepted Hegel’s idea that we are basically immersed in history. We can’t get beyond that. But on the other hand, Nietzsche denied that history has a rational purpose and meaning. And so for Nietzsche, for Hegel, history is something you can look at and feel good about and be optimistic. For Nietzsche, history is something you look at and you realize oh, life has no meaning at all. How are we going to get meaning? It’s a great problem that has to be challenged.

HH: We’re going to go there next week with Nietzsche, but I am curious, though, was he self-aware of Machiavelli-like significance?

JG: Was Nietzsche self-aware?

HH: No, was Hegel? Did he know what he was doing was different and radical?

JG: Oh, I think so. I think he was very aware of that.

HH: And the people around him, the same way?

JG: He had a massive influence. The students, even Americans, some Americans flocked to Hegel’s lectures. And when the American university system, research universities really took off after the Civil War, a lot of the people were either students of Hegel who founded and formed were students of Hegel, or students of students of Hegel. So people could tell there’s something exciting and different and important about this guy.

HH: Dr. Thomas West, Dr. John Grant of Hillsdale College, thanks for introducing us to Hegel today on the Hillsdale Dialogue. All the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at www.hughforhillsdale.com, or go to www.hillsdale.edu for everything Hillsdale, including sign up for your Imprimis. I’ll be back next week with the next Hillsdale Dialogue.