Is the United States in Terminal Decline? An Assessment

Is the United States in Terminal Decline? An Assessment
(Larry P. Arnn, October 27, 2022)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Larry P. Arnn is the 12th president of Hillsdale College, where he is also a professor of politics and history. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Government from the Claremont Graduate School. He also studied at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 to 2000, he served as president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. In 1996, he was the founding chairman of the California Civil Rights Initiative, which prohibited racial preferences in state hiring, contracting, and admissions.

Dr. Arnn is on the board of directors of The Heritage Foundation, the Henry Salvatori Center of Claremont McKenna College, the Philadelphia Society, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Claremont Institute. He served on the U.S. Army War College Board of Visitors for two years, for which he earned the Department of the Army’s “Outstanding Civilian Service Medal.” In 2015, he received the Bradley Prize from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Dr. Arnn is the author of three books: Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American EducationThe Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It; and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.



Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. It is a great pleasure today to have as our guest Dr. Larry Arnn, who is the 12th President of Hillsdale College. That is a position he has held for the last 22 years. Dr. Arnn received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to ‘80, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill.

Dr. Arnn’s own book on Churchill was published under the title Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. From October 2020 to January 21, he served as co-chair of the president’s advisory 1776 Commission. He is the author of several books, including the one on Churchill I mentioned, and The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution. Hillsdale and Dr. Arnn are also the publisher of Imprimis, a monthly publication of Hillsdale that goes to far more than 6 million people nationally. So, Larry, welcome to the program.

Larry P. Arnn:

Nice to be with you, Bob.

Robert R. Reilly:

Now, today I think we are going to be discussing the state of America and whether, as so many people worry, is it in a state of terminal decline? If we look across the horizon at crime statistics, violence in the streets, contested elections, the deplorable state of education, particularly the losses of learning during the COVID lockdowns and the hollowing out of the U.S military, there are plenty of things about which to worry. Let me use your own question to kick this off. From one of your own Imprimis essays, you ask this: how would you reduce the greatest free republic in history to despotism in a short time? Is that in fact what we have been experiencing?

The Situation Today

Larry P. Arnn:

Yeah, the situation is very bad. Remember that saying that we are in a state of terminal decline — I know you do not believe that — is a prediction about the future, and Churchill always said, “The future, though imminent, is obscure,” but there are some deep things wrong.

The situation reminds me of the situation in the Revolutionary War when there was a fundamental difference of opinion about what constituted title to govern, and that was a fundamental difference about the nature of people. The King, George III, maintained that he was born to rule us, and we were born to serve him, and he had a charitable understanding of that. He said that he had no choice but to rule us and to rule us well, but we had no choice but to obey him, and that is what the difference of opinion was about.

And in 1860, there was a large faction threatening to become the dominant faction that had the view that — I do not think there was ever a pro-slavery faction that was threatening to dominate, but there was a faction that was threatening to dominate, and that was the faction that slavery does not make any difference in a free country, that was Stephen Douglas’ position. So, both of those things are a fundamental dispute about the nature of people and about the nature of government, and we have that today.

And what is it like today? There are a lot of ways to state it, but an abbreviated way is they think that expertise is the title to rule, expertise as expressed in two things, in the scientific method, which we do not apply very well these days, and it is expressed in bureaucratic processes, and they are the legitimate source of authority, and so that is why, that idea has fueled the government becoming huge and developing a regulatory state that can dominate now.

They now specifically, explicitly disobey orders from elected officials. And in the press, directives of elected officials are treated as intrusions. And you know, the Trump Administration revealed a lot of that, but it has been apparent for a long time, so that is what the crisis is about. And then government that is not responsive to the people is not likely to be very good. Government that is responsive to the people in the wrong way is not likely to be very good. And we have got both problems today, so yeah, you, are right. There is decay everywhere you look.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, Larry, you mentioned that during the time of the American Revolution there were contending views of human nature, in other words what a human being is and how he ought to rule himself or be ruled. How would you describe those different views of human nature today that are in contention?

Larry P. Arnn:

Well, the ‘more advanced,’ in quotes, ‘thinkers among us’ think that humans, humanity and nature, are constructs. They are things that people have developed over time, and that means that if we have developed it over time and now we know that, we can develop them differently if we want to, and so that is one view.

And the other view is every time you plant a pinecone, you get a pine tree, and every time human beings give birth to a baby, they get a human baby, and dogs never do that. And human beings have things about their nature that are abiding, just like dogs do, just like cats do. Human beings are an immaterial soul in a material body, and that is a unique situation in nature, and so that is a fixity. And so, those are the two views, and that means that we think that if we are uncomfortable with anything about human nature, we can change it.

Robert R. Reilly:

Yes, exactly. You have alluded to the attempt of remaking nature.

Larry P. Arnn:

You know, that is an old movement in philosophy. We should reveal to our viewers that we have known each other a long time. And we studied these things beginning about, by my count, 375 years ago. And what do you learn? You learned that there is a strain in modern philosophy — there are other strains, too, thankfully — it means that nature is not a thing to serve, it is a thing to conquer.

Francis Bacon writes that torturing nature is the scientific process. You are not studying it. You are you are not observing it. You are not learning from it. You are altering it. You are learning the mechanisms by which you can change it, and that is a different approach to investigation. And it means that you want to change everything.

You know, I find in my work that it is an extremely valuable thing to establish with young people that things are actually real and stubborn because, you know — I mean we get a very special class of person here at Hillsdale College, I am proud to say, but still, they have heard all the modern doctrines. And they need to think there are some fundamental things, and if they change, then the being that has changed in that way and the world in which they live will not be the same world anymore.

So, you know, it is possible that we could live forever, I guess, but if we did, we would not be the same thing anymore, so to orient yourself by that, liberates you from recognizing both the constraints and the purposes of human life. Young people today, why do they come to Hillsdale College? They do come in droves these days. They come because they want to figure out a very uncertain world. Everybody wants certainty, everybody wants to learn things they can rely on, but they do not necessarily come with any particular view about what that will end up being, but they know that if it is true, it will be something they can rely on. It is real.

Robert R. Reilly:

I think I have told you before, Larry, that my experience with Hillsdale College, both being on the campus and sitting with your students at various Washington events, Constitution Day and so forth, what I observed is that they are happy. And I believe that they are happy because you and your fellow teachers and the whole orientation of the Hillsdale education is to instill in them a love of the good.

Larry P. Arnn:

Yeah, the fundamental rule of management, after my long experience it turns out Winston Churchill was right. He says, “Human beings are easy to lead, and hard to drive,” and translate that a little bit. You do not actually want to be in the position to make anybody do anything because they will never do it very well, and so it is really crucial to get them to agree.

So, we have an honor code here, and we tell all the hard facts when we recruit. And the more we do that, the more apply. But you know, what are the hard facts? Hard facts are it is a little town here and kind of boring, you know, if you come from a big city. It is cold in the winter and drizzly, and I do not mind that so much, but drizzly and damp and gray in February and March.

And then it is hard here. You will get lower grades here than anywhere else you could go, and that makes young people sit up. And I mean they might say I do not want that, I want to play video games, or whatever young people do. Most of them in my experience do not do that. Most of them say oh, here is something to do. Then they have accepted all that, and that means that you do not have any reason to fight with them after that. They know.

And you know, there were more fights here when I first came here. There had been some disorder in the college and a lot of kids wished they were not here. That is just not true anymore, and they have been warned against all the bad stuff, so it is not a surprise to them. In fact, it is a badge of honor to have chosen that to them. And that is what Churchill meant when he said easy to lead and hard to drive.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, when I had the privilege of being on your campus, it was January and there was not a wave of warmth. It was very cold, but again, the students were happy as I mentioned. Now, the character of your students seems to me to be an exception because what you are teaching there so goes against the grain of what has dominated the culture in the United States from other educational institutions, from the media, from the corporate gurus, so it is going very much against the grain.

And occasionally, you come across these startling statistics that are cause for major worry. I am sure you saw that the U.S. Army fell well short of its recruitment requirements by 25 percent, no small amount, and behind that is this even more worrying statistic that of those young people in the age range to serve in the military, say between age 17 and 24, only 25 percent of them are fit enough to qualify for going into the military. The other 75 percent: obese, drug problems, criminal records. That easily invites the question as to how serious our decline is, I think.

Larry P. Arnn:

Oh, yeah. I actually react to statistics like that with thank God they are young because they can turn their life around. And why are they unfit and why are they unwilling to serve? They have been told two things in ascending order of badness. They have been told their life is entirely up to them and they have been told that their country is not worth serving, but of course they, in the end, you know, like if we get attacked, which we will be if we keep on the way we are, that will turn around on a dime. I actually think the Chinese understand that about us, and they are very slow to provoke.

Robert R. Reilly:

I have had a number of top experts on China on this program and I have always asked the same question at some point in the program. The policy under Deng Xiaoping and following him was to just to be quiet and develop your power, you know, mask your power and just continue with your economic growth.

And obviously, President Xi Jinping abandoned that policy, and is showing his muscle, and is intimidating his neighbors, and is ignoring international norms, and militarizing islands in the South China Sea, etc. There is a long litany of that. And I always, always ask them why did he not just keep quiet for another five or ten years, and then it would all be over? And the answer invariably was oh, they already think it is over.

Larry P. Arnn:

Yeah, that is it.

Robert R. Reilly:

They have already judged the United States as having reached a point in its decline that it cannot recover.

Larry P. Arnn:

That is it, they think they have won, but another thing is Xi is the kind of man who wants to dominate before he dies, and so his judgment might be affected by that. Look I do not think it is over. I think that there are vast reserves in America that are untapped and ready to be tapped, and you know, nobody wants to be governed by a despot from China, no Chinese and nobody outside China, nobody wants to be governed by a despot from anywhere.

We have to understand that that is possible, and we do not think it is.

And you know, it is partly colored over with — one of the initial arguments in a bad education is relativism. It is not very strong, and it does not last, but their idea is what is right for you is for you, and that does not mean it is right for anybody else. But that gives rise to a kind of strategic view, right. Chinese like their despotism or anyway they are entitled to it. I think they are entitled to it, but I doubt if they like it.

So, in other words, we do not look at a world in which there is good government and bad, they are just different ones, and the only one we are capable of being critical of anymore is our own. And why is that? That is because liberation requires overcoming nature. We have to be dissatisfied with whatever it is about us that is abiding and strong, and that makes us self-destructive, but I do not see that. I mean I do think that this is a very serious situation, and if I think, and I do sometimes think it is like 1776 or 1860, well, we got past those, [which is] reason for hope.

Robert R. Reilly:

But the character of the American people was very different in 1776 and in 1860 than the character of the people today.

Larry P. Arnn:

I am not so sure. I mean sure, extensively it was, it is, and you know, if you want to be gloomy about it, that is a cause. And another cause is those times were influenced by some of the greatest statesmen who ever lived. Do we have that today? The answer is obviously not, but I comfort myself about something, and that is that you learn when you study statesmanship [that] statesmanship is a supreme form of art.

People who are good at ruling in politics are very good at getting things done, and so the opposite of art is chance. But it turns out statesmanship is a kind of symbol of chance, in the classic works it is because you never know when you are going to get it, and that is comforting. And there is a doctrine that where chance turns into Providence that we get great Statesmen when we need them, and we need them now. And I notice the run of political talent rising, as well as declining, and so the story is not over yet.

And you know, I mean there is a bunch of governors who are doing a really good job, and they are facing the same opposition that the country faces nationally, and they seem to be able to win over it. [It is] harder on the national level, but if it proves anything, it proves they might be able to do it.

In one way, I have a very confined job. It is good for me because I have these 1650 young people and they are a pain in the tucus. And how do you educate them and make them grow, help them grow? We do not make anything grow. It grows in itself, but how do you help them grow? Well, I keep at that work and that gives me something to do that is achievable. Saving the country is bigger and vaguer. But also, I think that the key to saving the country is teaching like this program.

You know, what does it mean that more than three and a half million people take online courses with Hillsdale College? And the number grows sharply every year. And what they are doing is watching complicated videos. The numbers about how thoroughly they watched them, how long they watch them [are] just off the charts compared to anybody else. I think the national average for completion of an online course is between one and two percent, and our numbers for the completion of the whole course is over 35 percent, and individual lectures over 85 percent.

So what is that about, right? And that is because people want to know. And you know, the first line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics says the human being stretches itself out to know. You just have to what is valuable because everybody wants to know — like not everybody wants to be a plumber. It is a very noble calling. If you want to be a plumber, you will watch with intention, with attention to videos about how to be a plumber. Everybody wants to be a good human being, and they want to know what their capacity is that make them human, they want to get good at those capacities, and they want to develop the knowledge and character that are possible because of those capacities, so when you dwell on that, it is of natural interest to everyone.

I remember once — I get to tell stories about you. We had an awesome teacher, one of the best teachers I ever saw, and he was a self-professed nihilist. In the early days and still, you were a much more advanced student than I was. And you erupted at this man, Harry Newman, the late lamented Harry Newman, and you said, “You are a solipsistic phenomenologist.” I had no idea what that meant. I remember we were sitting in a in a classroom at Scripps College, and Professor Newman, I remember his attitude or face, and he went, “Oh yeah, I am.” He had to think up what the words meant from the classic languages and when he got it, he said, oh yeah, I am that, right?

Nonetheless, he was a great teacher, and boy, if you wanted to learn Nietzsche, there is no better person that I have ever encountered who could teach that. And Nietzsche is a beautiful and horrible, both, very unique. Modern philosophy is mostly just a chore, I mean especially the late stages of modern philosophy. Our friend, Chris Flannery, said in class one time, “That is almost Hegelian in its profundity.”

People want to know and people want to be free, and that means that you have to think that whatever the forces arrayed now, that time is on your side, maybe not in your lifetime but on your side, fully. And then there is the Christian faith also that gives some hope and confidence.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, you mentioned you are encouraged even by these worrying statistics about young people because they have time to turn their lives around. One institution that I have experienced that does that very well is the U.S military, in which I served for a short period of time. But I have also worked with the Defense Department for some years, and I have seen it, and I have seen what that does to young people, how it turns around and instills in them a sense of discipline, of self-respect, and also a willingness to sacrifice.

However, when we speak of the corruption of American institutions, I am afraid we can now point to the U.S. military as one of them because of how the wokeism, and the LGBT rainbow disorders, and so forth have been imposed upon them. And I remember years ago when I was watching the march of these things through the American institutions, the last one holding out was the U.S military, so it was targeted. They could not let that stand with the kind of integrity that it had and has always had, so the concerted effort to infect the military with the wokeism and this whole agenda of disorders has succeeded. I know from current people in the military how much it has succeeded.

Larry P. Arnn:

The military academies are very bad, but just remember to say the last holdout — that, too, is a prediction about the future. And I can tell you scores, thousands, probably tens of thousands of soldiers, and sailors, and airmen are taking our online courses. Lots of local law enforcement agencies take these online courses and want us to come out and teach them tutorials, so there is a reaction underway. Will it be strong enough? I pray so and I will say I think so.

I have this weird experience. If I had to do it over, I am not sure, knowing what it would take that I would do it again, but I took up the study of Winston Churchill. What is the story of 1940 like, you know? And he was the only one. He is the only one who was prepared to take action, to rally, even after the near final disasters had occurred, and he was the one who got the job to do that.

And he had wanted that job all his life, and he only got it when it was probably too late, but he did save the world. And you know, because it was too late or almost too late, he did something that he hated to do and predicted would happen, he sacrificed the greatness of the British people, of the British nation, over that because they paid a terrible cost for all that. And he had been warning about it all his life.

In June of 1940, he records, we do not have the speech, but he recorded a speech that said you can take one with you. And if you study his life, you find out he is the most reluctant man ever born to say that. The purpose of the government is to protect the British people in peace and prosperity and freedom. He was always an enemy of costly war. And he supported the British Empire because it was almost all voluntary, and he believed would soon be voluntary, and because it was cheap to do, and it made everybody stronger.

Fifty percent of the British war effort, roughly speaking, in both world wars, 50 percent of the casualties, and soldiers, and sailors, and airmen were supplied by imperial nations. And Britain did not have the power to conscript a single one of them. In other words, he looked for the love that makes things work, right? And what is moving President Xi and what is moving the despotic tendencies in our country are not love, they are utopian hopes to be accomplished by power. And see, they are going to run up against that love, I hope, soon, in elections in America.

Here is a hopeful thing. Here is a fact about education. You know I am interested in education. We start charter schools at Hillsdale College, and we are involved with 80 of them right now, and there are eight more next year, and more the year after that probably. And all that comes from local efforts, asking for our help, and we give it for free. Unfortunately, we have become famous enough that our enemies know who we are. It was more comfortable when they did not.

But there is a firestorm in Tennessee because of something I said, which is teachers are compelled to go to the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges to get certified, which is true, demonstrably true by the way, so that caused a mess.

But then I started looking closer at the structure of education, how it has changed, and if you go to the Center for Education Statistics in the U.S Department of Education, you discover that since 2000, students in public schools have grown 7.5 percent, and teachers have grown 8.5 percent, and administrators have grown 87 percent. And that is true to a greater or lesser extent in the Red States, too. And that means that there is a whole class (they now number about the same, a little more than the teachers), and it is a whole class of person who dominate the budgets and the planning of education.

And they never get in a room with students. And their job is to really tell teachers what to do, and if you want to know what that must be like (I do not know what it is like and I do not want to know), but there are various descriptions of bureaucracy in C.S Lewis, and they are borne out by anecdotes that I hear. People in the bureaucracy are not very happy. Teachers, by the way, are very often happy.

My father found his happiness becoming a schoolteacher in Pocahontas, Arkansas. And he was a dignity and a high personage in that town. And when he died, there were a lot of people at his funeral, and they all came up to me with a slight air of contest: am I being faithful to my father?

What does a bureaucrat do? Write rules that nobody can read based on some study, usually in a university, that nobody can read. It is just a power job, that is all it is. My job is to make you do what I say, and then measure what you do with the students, and then decide if I am satisfied or not. Of course, they are never satisfied. If they were, their jobs would stop.

Well, we have built that class. There are what, 23 or 24 million people working for the government of the United States, civilians? And I think that there are three million round numbers at the federal level, and the rest of them are at the state level. And they are a huge class of people whose job is to tell other people what to do, and they get wedded with those jobs.

And then because they are not leading a very happy existence, and I am just surmising here, then their lives are not very happy, but they want to protect them because they understand there is something artificial about that. And so, they give a lot of money in politics. They are the biggest givers, the public employee unions, are the biggest givers in politics in America. And this big government has changed the relationship between the people and the government because the people in the founders’ understanding were going to be very big and the government was going to be small.

And then the next feature, because [according to the] constitutional [understanding of government], the people are not saints and saviors to a person, they are people, they need some controls, too, and so the first control on the people is they have to elect people in staggered times to actually do everything the government does. And so, all the sovereignty is outside the government, and all of the ability to act is inside the government, but if you change the relationship between the size of those things, the government is more than half the economy now, and that means it has an enormous sense of independence, and control, and influence in elections.

And that means that we have built a managerial class that hopes to manage us, and but for the fact that it is ugly and unsatisfying, I would think it was going to go on to ultimate conquest for sure.

Robert R. Reilly:

I have been reading memoirs, autobiographies and histories of Germany in the 30s, always curious as to how that very cultured country got in the grips of a barbaric ideology like Nazism. And one who was very close to Hitler said he was trying to cultivate Hitler, move him away from his anti-Semitism and the recruiter aspects of the ideology. He said he came to realize that the party is the state, and the state is the party.

You have written about totalitarianism, and of course, we know that is the case in President Xi’s China today, the party is the state.

Larry P. Arnn:

It does not make anybody happy. And remember this party that you speak of is actually a class of person, and it is a headless class, but nonetheless it is a coherent class.

And if the government has influence over 52 percent [of the economy the] last time I looked at it if you count the entitlements, and the direct spending, and the regulatory cost, it is a little over half the economy. Well, that means that they have clients all over, everywhere, and in every walk of life. And so, you may wonder why these corporations are going whoa, well, first of all, their leaders are educated in the source of all wokeness, the source of all of these trends, the big universities. And you know, in the 19th century they picked that up from Germany where it started among high thinkers and in universities. And it has worked its way through the society.

But also, there are matters of interest involved because corporations are easy to blackmail. If you offend the right people, they will make you a scandal, and the quickest corporations to respond — and see the media, where do they get their educations? In other words, this ruling class is all over the country, in the high places, in most walks of life.

The reason I think it is right to fight them, there are two reasons. One is I do not think it makes any sense, what they are claiming, but the second is I grew up in Pocahontas, Arkansas in a family that did not have any money, and for some reason I learned from my family, my father’s and his brother’s especially, that I could do anything I wanted to do if I would just work hard enough and be good, right, that thing you said before.

With kids, you just have to teach them to love the good, which by nature they do, we all do. I mean if you listen to these social engineers, in the end, they will try to justify what they do under the claim that it is good, even if they refuse to say that anything by nature is good, because you cannot get away from it, right, and so I am on the side of that argument.

You know, at the college I have become unfortunately well-known, and so The New Yorker is writing a profile of me.

Robert R. Reilly:

I hope they call me.

Larry P. Arnn:

Yeah, well, they called a lot of people. And you know, the lady is very smart, and I hope she writes a good article, and I will not like her if she does not. You know, she pushed me about all kinds of things, and one thing I said was you have just got to remember that there is a hard limit on who you can admit to a college or to any other difficult activity because the doing of it will be in each one. You are not making anything in a college. I have been lately comparing it to gardening. You are helping something grow, but the growth is in them, and so the hard limit is do they want to? If they want to enough that can make up for a world of disadvantages even in a college, even in a difficult college like ours where the standards are very high and it is very hard to get in now, I regret to say.

The ones who work the hardest, do the best, and so you cannot get past that, right? If you raise a child [with the understanding] that the system is everything, all you can do is destroy the character of that child, and so, yeah, there are hard limits and we are up against them now. I have been saying for some years [that] if parents will put up with a government that takes their children from them, then we are finished.

But look at what the recent evidence is. Parents do not like that, and they are in rebellion, and they call the FBI on them, and they do not back down because it is in nature that parents love their children, whatever the establishment in education may say. And you know, I do not even think it is just, you know — first of all, COVID was very bad for the schools, you know, because if you do not go to school, you will not learn as much as if you do, even in a bad school, probably.

But people say they learned what the schools were teaching because the kids were studying at home, that is part of it, but mostly it is however they learn, what is becoming obvious is the things that they are teaching are corrupting, and parents do not want that for their children. And you know, they want them to grow up and be great.

We just had parents’ weekend here, and we have a thousand parents come [to] a little college like this. I have been to other colleges our size where my kids went, and they will get 60 or 100 [parents]. We had a thousand parents. And one of my favorites — I usually give them a big talk at lunch on the last day. They get to meet with every faculty member their kids got for 10 minutes. We put tables all over the gym and we ring little bells when their 10 minutes is up.

And I have done so many of these conversations. I cannot remember them now, but they are all the same. They sit down and say you are great, the college is great. And I say your kid is great, and they say one or two things about their kids, and we agree that the kid is great. And then they say you are great, and the college is great, and I say you are great, and then the conversation is over. It is a big love fest.

And one of my favorite things to say — they now quote it all the time among themselves, these parents. You know, children have to grow up to be tough, right? I have to preface this. We did not close during COVID, and I actually made a very serious effort to find out if the kids were going to die from this thing because after a couple of days in an emergency of thinking about it, I figured out that the ones you cannot isolate are the kids. They live in dormitories.

So I was able to make a rule that if you are a grown-up and you work here, and you are afraid of this thing, I did not want to be in the business of choosing who is vulnerable or not, then you can work from home. We will figure it out. And we had very few did that, but some did.

But with the kids, and I said the same thing for the kids. I said, you know, if you are afraid of this, we will figure it out. You can study by Zoom, but if you are not [afraid], you are welcome. We had one student stay home. There is a certain famous clinic, and a bunch of doctors at that clinic send their kids here, and that clinic favored the lockdowns. And so, a parent in that clinic called me about this.

He said, well, I am very worried about your policies about the pandemic. And I said yeah, me, too. And he said I do not think my own daughter ought to come back. And I said she does not have to. And he said but she thinks she should. And I said, doc, are you calling me for family counseling? He said if I do not let her come back, she is going to hate me for a decade. And I said I imagine that is true, so he is the only one. He managed to keep her out for a semester, and then he broke. She broke him down.

And the point is it is self-government, right? But we made people terrified about this thing, that was our first step. And you do not want to do that, you know. Anyway, the point is after this was over, the parents would ask me, you know, in a room full of 900 or a thousand parents, what would you do if one of them died?

And you know, that would be very bad, of course, but I always say we can get more. And they stand up and cheer, right? Because why? They know I do not mean that, but they know they want their children to grow up to be courageous, you see? And if you do not want that for your child — I mean I told them last Saturday. I said this is a very conflicted time and it is dangerous, and they are learning things that will make them unlikely to go along with the flow, and that can be dangerous for them.

But remember everybody here has got a decision to make, and the decision we are making is we are going to pursue the truth wherever it leads, and that might cost us. And you just look at their faces, right? They are ready for that.

Robert R. Reilly:


Larry P. Arnn:

Yeah, that is it, you know, because nobody wants to be a coward and to bow before an awesome force only because it is an awesome force and because you think it is wrong, that is soul destroying.

Robert R. Reilly:

I just want to share an anecdote with you, Larry, that confirms the effect of these university educations. I was speaking to a very courageous Catholic Archbishop about the employment policy he implemented in his Archdiocese, [which] was that the teachers had to pledge Fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church and adhere to those teachings about the immorality of same-sex behavior, or infidelity, or extramarital relations and so forth.

And of course, I congratulated him because it caused a lot of trouble. And I said where did you get your greatest support and where did you get the greatest opposition? And he said, well, the greatest opposition was from the parents of the kids in the school. And he saw the look on my face, and he said, well, where do you think those parents had gone to school? Bingo! That confirms exactly the point you were making.

Larry P. Arnn:

Yeah, that serious, wow, I am surprised at that.

Robert R. Reilly:

Larry, he had the courage of that, and he is a real Prince of the Church, and he is doing the right thing.

Larry P. Arnn:

After I came here, it might be the single most important thing that has happened here while I have been here, I was trying to figure out when I first got here why 25 percent of the students left after the freshman year.

You know, my favorite sport is eating in the dining hall with the students, and I am the only old guy who sits with them. And I found that a lot were unhappy, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out, for about a year and a half. And I would argue with them. They did not like the rules. They did not like no co-ed dorms. They did not like core curriculum. They did not like lots of things, and I would try to justify those things, and I could not. You know, I would win the argument, I am an old man, but I could see in their eyes, they were not persuaded.

And then one night, I had a breakthrough. It is my favorite story. It is one of the most important events in my professional life. These Frat Boys said [something to me], sitting down at senior dinner, an institution around here that my wife and I have introduced. And you know, there is a fancy dinner, and it is one of their first fancy dinners, and you know, they look forward to it. It is a big institution here now.

And this boy said to me — he is a frat boy, an athlete, a good athlete. And he said, Dr. Arnn, we are all men of the world here. And I said — he is 21 years old. And I said, okay, are we? He said yeah. And he said we want you to know that there are a lot of things you have to do for the donors, and we can accept that. And I was tired that night and I had had this kind of conversation a million times and did not get anywhere with it, and I snapped at him. I said what things? And he said, well, you know, the dormitories, and the core [curriculum], and the da da da.

And I said, what the hell are you doing here? And he said I love it here. And I said what do you love about it? Why didn’t you go to the University of Michigan? They have everything you want. I said could you read when you came here? And he said yes. And I said did you, because you had every reason to know these things and yet you did not? Now you are complaining four years later?

Well, I just noticed in his face and his fraternity brothers all sitting there. Two of them, by the way, are in the Alumni Hall of Fame now. Time passes fast. I was just running them out of town. I was winning that argument, and the way I did it was by impeaching their choice. And the next morning, we wrote the honor code. Now there were a lot of complaints about that when we first wrote it, just like this bishop you are talking about, Archbishop, but if you get it established, people rally to it.

And you know, there are lots of people here who come here not fully in agreement with me, and you know, almost all of them leave not fully in agreement with me, but what they agree on, and it develops over time, they understand when they come, they have to agree. They just have to acknowledge that the college has a right to pursue its principles, those are owed, and they may not obstruct that.

And another thing they have to surrender, and I recommend this argument to your Archbishop, at Hillsdale College, nobody owns anything. I do not own anything, you know, I just work here. And the college is different from us and larger than we, and so that is the thing, right? And accepting something like that does not just make you obedient, it makes it necessary for you to figure out these things for yourself, too, and so yeah, that is why we work. And I think if the archbishop sticks to his guns and if he remembers to ask for volunteers, [he will be successful].

My first step every time I hire anybody else is I find out what they are prepared to volunteer to do. You know, I have interviewed close to 500 people for faculty jobs now, and I find that they are very inspiring people. The ones who get a job here are all like we were when we were students, just getting out of graduate school, say.

We were high-minded. We were pretty smart. [We] could have made a lot more money going to law school, or medical school, or something, but we wanted to do some great thing. And [we were] also aware at the outset, we would never get it all done, and we would never get rich. We knew all that. That is what an excellent faculty member is like.

And you can find out all of that about them by saying why would you want to work here, you know? I usually start with that question or some form of it, and then whatever they say after that, that is their biggest motive. If they say I need a job, that is not a good answer, but just probe a little more. They will have to say something else. Why do you want this job? And when you get the right ones, they understand why they want the job.

Robert R. Reilly:

Whatever you have done, Larry, it has worked, and it is extraordinary, the outsize influence Hillsdale College has in the country. You are a national presence. You have developed a tremendous amount of influence, and you have reached for it through, as you explained, the online courses you offer, which are a rich feast, a great intellectual feast, with your publications, and simply with the quality of what you have offered. You are in the charter schools you sponsor. All of this is really quite amazing.

Now, when I went to Hillsdale to participate in that seminar, I guess it was a year ago in January, one of your students took me on a tour through your new chapel, the beauty of which simply stunned me, and he also played the organ for me. And I, of course, met and talked with other students. And then just the general atmosphere of the place, my reaction was I always liked the 1950s, I just did not know you could go back there.

What I mean by that, Larry, is just that it is the country I remember. It is sort of what the United States used to be, and as you say, what you are turning out in terms of your students, and what we have done with our children, is to prepare them to fight against all those cultural currents, which are undermining both our country and them as individuals, so you equip them to think critically and to develop the character to fight.

Larry P. Arnn:

I think it is different from the 1950s because we know about all this stuff. The alternatives are ever present to us, and I think that adds intensity to the college. You say it is happy. I sometimes myself marvel at how happy it seems to be, and you know, I have good ways of measuring that. I walk around the campus. I go eat in the dining hall. I teach classes, and I deal with the faculty all the time, and we all understand that we have a privilege. And we all understand that it has to be a service, the way we go about this privilege.

I said to the parents the other day, you have invested in this college, but I love to make the point [that] it has invested much more in your children than you have, and so you take on an obligation. You have to learn and be a teacher to everyone you meet for the rest of your life, that is what I say to your kids at senior dinner. Remember that great essay by C.S Lewis, Learning in War-Time. And he was dealing with the fact that lots of students thought they should be off at the war, and he said, well, this is our station, but we have to perform it intensely, and that is helpful to us. If it does not destroy us, it makes us better.

Robert R. Reilly:

Larry, let me go back to something else you have done. I know that you personally in your courses have taught and teach George Orwell’s 1984. And there is the memory hole in which things are eliminated from the past, there is the rewriting of the past and so forth. Now, we are all familiar with the New York Times magazine 1619 project.

You mentioned, by the way, that in schools, students are taught that their country had corrupt beginnings, that it was corrupt in principle, that therefore it is not lovable, it is not inspiring. And of course, the 1619 project played into that by saying they chose that year in which slaves were imported to the colonies, that the United States is founded on slavery, not upon freedom.

Now, you participated and were the vice chairman of this 1776 Council. Can you wrap this up by telling us about that contestation between [the two]? I, myself, in reading it and writing about it, took the 1619 project to be an Orwellian rewrite of history.

Larry P. Arnn:

Well, that is exactly what it is. And see, the country is not lost in part because there is no serious historian, including those of the Left, who say that thing is true. Gordon Wood wrote, ‘No colonist wrote, no colonists wrote’ — and remember the only record we can have of what they thought is what they wrote, ‘no colonists wrote that the purpose of the colony or ultimately the nation was to perpetuate slavery,’ so that is good, right?

But that does not mean they will not persist. They are getting it into the schools all the time. And we have to remember that Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas said in slightly different language, this alone is denied even to God to make what has been not to have been.

And the antidote to the 1619 project is to look at the record, and if you do, you will find that that they believed in freedom for everybody, that they thought slavery was an evil, that they did not get rid of it [so there is] some culpability to them because of that, but they did establish principles that required its demise.

And the Civil War happened because those principles came to be doubted, by the way, on not dissimilar terms from what we have today. They began to understand the human being as a development, not as a natural thing. You know, John C. Calhoun studied at Yale, but the guy named Lessing studied with students of Hegel, so they think that society and people are evolving, and the ones who have evolved less, it is a moral duty to keep them from having influence. Servitude is better for them.

But you will not find that argument anywhere in the American Revolution. And if you find it somewhere there (you will not [find it], but if you do), then you need to print it. But it was not there, and so they pretend that it was. It is like a lot of things they do because, you know, the 1619 project is a journalistic enterprise. What they do in journalism now is they go and find something you have said that can be made to mean what they believe you believe, or want to claim that you believe, and they just run with that.

So the one fact they have in there, these are big facts, was that a slave ship arrived in the colonies in 1619, and then slavery persisted in parts of America until 1865. That is true and that is a mark on our nation. We were not willing, white people were not willing, to live with black people as equal citizens, which was one of the barriers to removing slavery.

And that is why Lincoln was just when he said, you know, in the sublime second inaugural address, he said if every drop of blood drawn by the lash must now be replayed by another drawn by the sword, still it will be said that the ways of God are righteous altogether. And then he says if he is given to this war as a — punishment is not the word he used, but punishment for that offense, we are paying that punishment now, and that is the only way we can put this behind us, see. And so, that is right.

Every human institution has got its failings, and ours did, but that does not mean its principles are not perfect, which they are, and its service to those principles is beyond example, on Earth at least. And if you do not teach the children that, here is what you do, you put them to sleep because if it is true that they were all evil back then and we are all we are all good now, there is nothing for us to do.

And that is what they do. They do not give the children a job, and they need a job within the constraints of nature, and understanding that those are serious constraints, it is our business to be good ourselves and make the word better, and that is hard work. And the fact that great human beings like Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln did not fully succeed at that means there is a challenge for serious people to undertake.

Robert R. Reilly:

Larry, I think you are absolutely right in characterizing the central contestation today between those who believe in the permanence of human nature, and those who think that it is pliable and that it can be turned into something other than it is. That latter school of thought, which is so present in the culture, even in the corporations, certainly in the educational world, has led to this bizarre proliferation of gender designations, of which I believe there are more than 300, and there are always more because it appears that once human nature is not permanent, it is not ordered to any end, which end is the good, which is what we have been talking about, then it is directionless.

Larry P. Arnn:

We think now that we can make boys into girls and vice versa, and the trouble is they are not equipped for that. And maybe you can do it, right, but why would you do it, especially when they are minor children? I mean how can they make a judgment like that?

And you know, it is possible in some future time that we will have treatments that can make us go back and forth week by week if we want to without much penalty, but if that is true, that is like what I said about living forever, that will not be a human life because what nature — you know, that word comes from a Latin word for birth — and how we come to be is one of our trials, and yet we have this rational faculty that makes it possible for us to think outside those trials, and therefore that is something like a test to us. Can we accept the trials?

I mean my wife and I have two grandchildren now, and they are the most important things in the world, and they live nearby. People say that is lucky. I say luck does not have anything to do with that. And we are watching them grow up, and it is just like when our children grew up. Nature is on display every day and nowhere better on display than their learning to talk.

Our 22-month-old granddaughter is a talking fool, and she is, of course, the most beautiful being on Earth. The five-month-old grandson has not done anything interesting yet, so I will get attached to him when he starts doing that. He actually is looking like a little boy now, so I am more interested, but this — Charlotte is her name. She just owns me, exactly as her mother did, and you watch her. The intensity of concentration that produces speech in her.

A great translator of Aristotle, my favorite, Joe Sachs, writes about the human soul. He said nobody ever teaches a child to talk. They could not learn without us, but they are doing all the work, and they are doing it because they want to and because they can.

And you know, we have always had Boxer dogs and we have Boxer puppies that were puppies when these two grandkids were little. And you know, they are growing, but they are not talking, and they never will, you know. And they hear all the same things as the grandkids do, but they do not talk, right? And that there is nature asserting itself. Speech is more fundamental than sex, but sex is also fundamental because it is how we come to be.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, perhaps you would agree, Larry, that mother nature wins in the end, but it can extract a big price.

Larry P. Arnn:

Oh yeah.

Robert R. Reilly:

You are you are speaking of the penalty that this country paid through the bloodbath that was the Civil War. As Lincoln said, we had violated those very laws of nature and nature’s God by allowing slavery in those parts of the country that wish to cling to it. I think there is a penalty to be paid today and perhaps soon for the distortions of what a human being is that is being propagandized and lived out by so many unfortunate human beings who take it to the point of disfiguring their bodies according to the bizarre ideology that they can change their sex. And of course, the indulgence of drugs, all kinds, the dissolution of families.

You provide a point of great hope in the influence of Hillsdale that has so exceeded what anyone could expect of a liberal arts college, but the question still attains are we in such trouble that this time we may not find a way out of it, or will the United States be challenged so overtly and so clear a way, let us say by some crisis with China, that we will have to remember who we are because we will have to have something to defend?

Much in the same way as you were speaking of Churchill’s leadership, I remember the famous Oxford Student Union resolution that they would not fight for king or country, [which] was [in 1933], yet they all did. But Churchill spoke so movingly of what Great Britain meant, what principles it stood for, and those were the things by which the British people could rally and did rally.

Now it seems we are facing one of two things. We will not be able to do that — or, say we are not given a challenge of that magnitude, and therefore we just keep slipping and sliding down the slope of degeneracy, or we are challenged, perhaps do not meet the challenge, but perhaps at least recover that memory of who we are and the character we need to defend those things?

Larry P. Arnn:

Churchill’s last speech in the House of Commons was about nuclear weapons in 1954, and here are the last words in it, “Never flinch, never weary, never despair,” and see that is the spirit. He writes this beautiful essay. I mean when you talk about these ultimate things, we do not know, Churchill did not know ever. He knew he did not know, but he. in Fifty Years Hence, which is one of the greatest things he ever wrote, it is an essay, says imagine a world fifteen or sixteen centuries of men later. I am paraphrasing:

They can live as long as they want. They know pleasures wider than we can ever know. They can possess knowledge of everything in nature. They can go anywhere they want, interplanetary included. What would be the good of all that to them? What would they know more than we know about the answer to the simple questions that every human being faces, what are we here for, what should we do? It is the persistence of those questions that gives the greatest hope that all will be well.

So, if you get thrown into a prison by President Xi, which many, many have, if you can think clearly, and it would probably help you to think clearly, you will not be able to agree with him that he is God. In other words, we do not know the future, but we know the basic facts, and they will sooner or later assert themselves. Will it be soon enough? One prays and is obliged to hope and believe.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, Larry, thank you very much for joining us today to discuss the state of the United States. I greatly appreciate your doing it, and I thank our audience for joining us. I encourage you to go to the Westminster Institute webpage and to our YouTube channel to see what other presentations and lectures we have on offer. Thank you for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly.