Learning from Upperclassmen
Written by Jo Kroeker
Following a campus lecture on esotericism last year, freshman Morgan Brownfield entered into a small-group discussion that involved her roommate, an upperclassman, and a professor. What she learned was that she had no idea what they were talking about. Fortunately, junior Chris McCaffrey turned to her and explained the foreign concepts so that she could participate in the conversation.
Chris describes a certain initial lostness that freshmen feel when they come to Hillsdale. In class, professors expose freshmen to methods of approaching Dante or Shakespeare that are attractive. However, Chris says it’s not always evident to professors that the principles that structure these methods need to be communicated, which creates gaps. For Chris, upperclassmen use peer-to-peer conversations to fill in these gaps for those currently approaching the ideas that his graduating class encountered two or three years earlier.
“As an upperclassman, your learning isn’t really complete until you’re sharing,” Chris says. “One of the things that I say with confidence is fairly unique about Hillsdale is that the intellectual activity is not merely confined to the classroom but is something with social content. Not in an artificial way—”
“It arises very organically,” Morgan interjects. “It’s what people want to talk about.”
“—Yeah, and so you never shut it off. It’s very natural. In an essential sense, it’s primary to learning, because a huge part of learning is not simply being guided through specific things but really training under someone more experienced than you, so that you acquire the habits of intellectual investigation from them. You learn the art of learning from them.”
After learning the art of learning from upperclassmen, underclassmen can perpetuate the conversation, even when their older friends graduate. Chris compared this moment to the Phaedo. When Socrates is dying, and his friends worry that they won’t be able to philosophize when he’s gone, he tries to show them how to keep talking to one another without him.
“There’s a moment where all of the dialogue stops, and it picks up without Socrates. All of his students start talking to each other. And that’s sort of what all teachers want. That’s what upperclassmen want for the underclassmen. That’s really an expression of the liberal arts: you want to become a lifelong learner; you’re learning because it’s good in itself.”
Hillsdale rounds out the academic life in the classroom with open lectures by its professors and by visiting writers, professors, economists, and politicians. These lectures abound at the beginning of the year, which Morgan sees as a perfect opportunity for freshmen to connect with other students with similar interests.
“Hillsdale does a really good job of doing four lectures a week. If you’re interested in what they’re talking about, go and see who else regularly goes to that type of lecture. Those types of people will be more than willing to include you in their friend group, include you in their intellectual conversation, include you in their discussion after the talk about what the speaker talked about. Even within this group of people who are passionate about what Hillsdale does, you can find a subgroup of people who are passionate about how Hillsdale pursues a Hillsdale thing in regards to philosophy, in regards to mathematics, or in regards to history or journalism.”
These conversations lead to closer friendships and help students find the people they want to emulate.
“There’s a lot of self-knowledge, self-searching, that happens freshman year,” Morgan says. “Most people come to Hillsdale for the academic life, for the teachers that we get here, and the opportunity to pursue what we do in such a rich way. Most people don’t come here because their friends are going here. It is really challenging, because you don’t have this formed community. You have to ask, Who am I when I’m not with my friends from high school? Just spend time with the people whom you admire—the ones talking about what you’re interested in—and ask them questions.”
Students of all classes participate in an open and evolving intellectual life at Hillsdale—and become friends as a result. Chris summarizes this well when he says, “There’s no one who’s not welcoming here.”
JoAnna Kroeker (but everyone calls her Jo), ’19, exchanged flip flops and eternal sunshine in Fresno, California, for snow-boots and school at Hillsdale, where she studies French and journalism. Former Opinions and current Features Editor of the Hillsdale Collegian, she gives thanks for the coffee and brown sugar Pop Tarts that make school and a weekly newspaper possible. When she’s not writing, she’s tutoring other writers or thinking about writing while doing yoga, baking, or reading.