With the rapidly increasing student enrollment in various K-12 classical education avenues, a growing number of families are seeking postsecondary education options that maintain the classical approach. Recently, I spoke with Dr. Matthew Smith, founder and president of Hildegard College, an innovative new private, Christian, classical liberal arts school located in Costa Mesa, California, focusing on the Great Books and entrepreneurship.
Smith describes how modern colleges have separated the practical aspects of learning from their moral and spiritual underpinnings and are turning out a generation of graduates who lack the knowledge, conviction, and adaptability they will need to lead in a society looking for answers in a rapidly changing economy. The Hildegard College program instead prepares students for a changing world through a curriculum steeped in the greatest literature, through which they delve into some of life’s most important questions. As they do, Hildegard students also learn to understand systems, tackle complex problems, communicate effectively, launch initiatives, and exercise wisdom in the face of adversity.
The name of the college comes from Saint Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century author, composer, and natural philosopher, who, as Smith notes, “was remarkable for her ability to see the things that connect the different parts of the world to each.” Hildegard College, according to Smith, seeks to train young leaders to be polymaths like Saint Hildegard: people who aren’t satisfied merely with understanding their own role, but who see the whole picture. Hildegard is looking for students who want to create culture – not just consume it.
Smith contends that the academic world is “deeply broken… it is floundering to effectively teach and launch people into the world after college.” He especially blames the drive to publish, which has little to do with teaching or training young people in mind and virtue. Most Americans, notes Smith, share a bleak view of higher education: it’s too expensive and not very effective, too “big and bloated,” and “too intermingled with the government and different administrative agendas” (which is why Hildegard does not accept federally funded loans or grants). Since a college education is still deemed by many to provide a good return on investment, Hildegard emerged to answer the question, “What does it mean to renew higher education for the traditional liberal arts student?”
The difference at Hildegard, according to Smith, is that students gain entrepreneurial experience by directly interacting with partner organizations such as businesses, nonprofits, and ministries, by doing real work for them. So, for example, instead of taking a test that measures whether students conceptually understand how to create a marketing campaign, they actually create a marketing campaign for a real organization. Students are then evaluated based on the success of the campaign they built for that real organization.
Hildegard currently offers a single Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts and Entrepreneurship. Smith notes that the degree name is striking because entrepreneurial and liberal arts subjects are usually pushed as far away as possible from one another in most universities, who already believe the best way to launch a meaningful career and a fulfilling life is to pursue a technical degree to the exclusion of areas that don’t strictly belong. Hildegard does the opposite. Hildegard students study the greatest works from antiquity to the present. Meanwhile, they learn how to apply what they discover about the human condition to entrepreneurial endeavors.
While Hildegard students study the liberal arts, they also study leadership. They study organizations. They study culture and culture creation by learning how things are built. Similarly, when studying the liberal arts in the Great Books tradition, students are not reading a textbook “just to learn what Sir Isaac Newton has to say about physics or Shakespeare has to say about tragedy” – they’re seeking to understand the deeper and broader issues of “how the ideas were built, where did they come from?”
The structure of Hildegard’s educational environment is also different. Instead of sitting in a three hundred student lecture hall, the Hildegard model features a small seminar of ten students, where every student is journeying through the same courses which feature a chronological curriculum focused on fundamental human motivations, the history of ideas, the art of conversation, and civil discourse. Entrepreneurship is taught holistically through cumulative projects which culminate in the fourth year applied thesis “Polymath Project,” where every student builds something new, either from the ground up or as an initiative for an existing organization to launch them into the world of work with practical experience.
Parents especially value Hildegard’s commitment to offering a low-cost college education. While a price tag of $60,000 to $70,000 a year is common at the country’s most elite liberal arts colleges, Hildegard tuition is about $16,000 a year, roughly a quarter of that cost — even with the college’s unparalleled access to faculty, small class size, and active (rather than passive and automated) learning style. Their goal is to sustain that level of affordability through focused stewardship of tuition revenue and donor support, by not succumbing to administrative bloat, not growing too quickly, and avoiding the distraction of amenities and extracurriculars.
Parents and students may wonder if there are specific theological requirements for students. While ascribing to the traditional creeds of the church, the college is an ecumenical institution which is unaffiliated with any specific tradition or denomination within Christian orthodoxy. Students are required to sign an honor code statement rather than a doctrinal statement, through which they express their commitment to the principles that govern a Christian learning community. Hildegard, as a rule, doesn’t see the role of a Christian college, outside of denominational schools, as defining Christianity, but respects the Christian denominations from which students come, within the scope of orthodoxy.
Indeed, Hildegard represents a refreshing postsecondary model of study for parents and students to consider.