Hillsdale’s graduate program looks to both the theory and the practice of government. This is why its theme is statesmanship. For Aristotle, the art of the statesman was phronesis, or “practical wisdom,” and required two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of right and wrong, of what comprises justice in a political order, and knowledge of the practical—of how one’s political regime works and of what is possible to do given prevailing laws, customs, and opinions.
The predominant view in contemporary political science is that the first kind of knowledge is unattainable. Ethics – the study of right and wrong, of the noble and the base, and of the just end towards which politics ought to aim, is rejected as “unscientific” since it deals with mere “value judgments.” And at the same time practical knowledge is reduced to quantitative analysis, where mathematics and statistics are at least as important as knowing the institutions, laws, and process of government.
The approach of Hillsdale’s graduate program, then, is classical. It begins with the idea that American politics should be understood from the perspective of its first principles. That requires, first, understanding those principles as they were understood by America’s founders. Additionally, it requires understanding the relation of these principles to the Constitution and their fate in the development of modern American political institutions and practice.
The first principles of American politics are rooted in what Jefferson called the “elementary books of public right,” the classic works of the Western tradition from Plato to John Locke. Students in Hillsdale’s graduate program begin by reading these, and continue by reading more modern writers, such as Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, to understand the roots of contemporary political thought.
America’s first principles are the very principles upon which Hillsdale College was founded nearly two decades before the Civil War. These principles, and the College’s commitment to them, are the reason the College exists and the reason it has been of service both to the pursuit of truth and to the defense of liberty throughout its history.
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