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Constitution 101: Free Online Course Available Now


Jon Lewis, Senior Manager of Direct Response Marketing at Hillsdale College, talks about a free opportunity to learn more about the U.S. Constitution and the founding of our nation.

Jon Lewis discusses our nation's founding

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Constitution 101: Free Online Course Available Now

INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Our guest today is Jon Lewis, Senior Manager of Direct Response Marketing at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

Hillsdale has a unique history and mission in higher education, and is extending that mission to students of all ages through a series of free online classes, particularly focused on the Constitution and the historical framework of the United States. Jon is responsible for managing online course enrollment and related initiatives for Hillsdale, and we will be talking with him today about this exciting new offering. Jon is a 2013 graduate of Hillsdale College and also served in the United States Marines Corps from 2005 to 2009.

Jon, thank you, first of all, for your service, and welcome to Family Policy Matters! It’s great to have you on the show.

JON LEWIS: Thanks John! It’s great to be with you.

JOHN RUSTIN: We’re excited to talk about these online course offerings from Hillsdale, but first of all Jon, just wanted to give you an opportunity to tell our listeners a little bit about Hillsdale College. I know that the college has a rather impressive history dating back to 1844. Tell us a little bit about that if you would.

JON LEWIS: Yes that’s right. It’s a great college. It’s got a proud history. It’s always a story that we like to tell. On campus as you walk up to one of the main buildings, one of the first things you’ll see is really impressive kind of monuments around campus. We call it the ‘Liberty Walk.’ And something that impressed me when I was looking at the school is you’ll see these statues. One of them is a civil war statue—The college has a proud tradition: we sent more students to the civil war than I think any other college. And right next to that is the Lincoln statue memorial. And even the way those are put together is really impressive. You see this story being told about America and its history and the Founding principles that have made us great. It’s really what the college was founded to do was to understand those principles, help other students understand them, in order to preserve and protect them. So, we have this great story told through campus and I don’t know if that’s necessary uncommon in other higher ed institutions, especially that were founded at that time, but what is uncommon is that we have stayed true to that. And so, these aren’t old dusty statues. These are things that we keep adding today. We had a new one that’s going to be dedicated soon, Frederick Douglas, which is going to be put right next to that civil war statue. He was a speaker here several times at Hillsdale. We were founded early on with the idea of equality and preserving those principles. So, one of the first colleges to not discriminate based on sex or race or religion. And so that’s something that we’ve been carrying ever since our founding and we’re proud of that.

JOHN RUSTIN: Jon, I know Hillsdale is known for its independent mission to provide a very traditional and robust liberal arts education. But there are some things that really kind of set Hillsdale apart from other liberal arts colleges and universities. Talk about that a little bit if you would. 

JON LEWIS: There’s a lot there. Some of the really exciting things, Dr. Arnn, our president, has really invested a lot in the core curriculum, which is unique to Hillsdale. Where a lot of places think of a core curriculum as something you just try and get through in order to get on to maybe a more specific area of study, it’s something we’ve really invested a lot. It takes quite a bit of time to get through, and we’ve added over time a lot to that. It’s something that students really enjoy. You end up taking these classes together, everyone else is on the same pace taking these classes, talking about the same ideas. And what it is, is a call back to some of the greatest authors, the greatest thinkers of our time and in history, and having those discussions and asking the deepest and hardest questions and trying to come up with those answers. So you know, what’s great is we have freedom in that. We teach our Constitution 101 course. We’re one of the only colleges that does that. It’s required in that core curriculum. And even the things we teach, the way we teach them, we have total freedom, because we don’t accept any funding from the government, whether it be federal, state. That was a big fight whether we could do that or not and we ended up losing the battle with the court. But what happened was instead of just giving up that funding, a lot of private donors have stepped up and provided substitute for that. So while refusing all of that, that extra funding that a lot of schools are working with, a lot of people have with joined us, supported us in that effort. So for students like myself who—I was a Marine Corps Veteran coming to Hillsdale—I wasn’t able to receive the GI Bill, because technically that was one of the issues, they still wanted to count that as federal funding if I wanted to use my GI Bill. So again, private donors stepped up and basically provided a kind of substitute to the GI Bill. So I was able to come here with the same kind of full ride I would have had basically with the GI Bill, but based on private donors. So I think it’s really great. So there are a lot of things like that, you know: the core curriculum that we have; Constitution 101 is just a great course—and really that’s what has kind of catapulted the online courses as we released that course online. So, we’re taking what we do here on campus and it’s really special and now we’re trying to get it out to everyone else as well so they can take part in it too.

JOHN RUSTIN: What started that thought process for Hillsdale to try to make some of its courses available for free online to anyone who would take them? What was some of the process that the school went through to come to that conclusion, and then to decide to be so generous and make these courses available online to the public for free?

JON LEWIS: Dr. Arnn, again our president of the college, he goes around and does events all the time and people would consistently ask him, “Can I come to Hillsdale?” People just wanted to be in the classroom, they wanted to come and have the full experience. And of course, we’re a small campus—there are about 1400 students — so we’re just limited in how many we can accept and actually teach here. But there’s really a large appetite out in the nation for this kind of education and it’s become so rare nowadays that people would teach things like this. Especially Constitution 101, which is more than just a teaching on the different Articles or something like that. It’s really the history of our nation, how we were founded, why we were founded that way, the connection between the Declaration and the Constitution, and those principles and how those principles were secured— freedom and equality—and so how the form of government is a protection on those ideas. And so it’s really this whole story and how that’s been challenged over time and it’s just not something that’s easy to find anymore. And so there was a discussion about filming it and putting it out and you know they did and they thought should we charge for it and the idea is so important, people need to know it. It’s really foundational to the preservation of our freedom even, you know, understanding these things. So, we just felt compelled to give it away. And what we do is we ask, if people sign up, we ask them if they can stand with us and support in that effort. Obviously, it’s not free to do that. And people do and they’ve been very generous in supporting that because I think they see the same thing, and they want to see that those ideas and those principles are preserved as well. And so it’s been great! We’ve had about one million—a little more—1.3 million people sign up for these online courses. Over 800,000 people have signed up for Constitution 101 and we keep putting more out and we’re excited to do that.

JOHN RUSTIN: That is great and it’s such a wonderful offering to the public. It would seem Jon, that this is such an important time in our nation’s history for this information and these opportunities to exist for members of the public to really be able to dig deeper into the true meaning of the Constitution, the history of our nation. Why is this so important as we look to the future direction of our nation?

JON LEWIS: One of the problems we face now is what do people want, right? Do they want big government or do they want limited government? Do they understand these principles and do they fight for them? If you don’t understand them and you don’t understand the consequences, then you’re not likely to fight for them. I think it was Woodrow Wilson who said something to the effect, in education, what they’re trying to do is—he’s an early progressive, right? So, what they’re trying to do is to get sons to be as unlike their fathers as possible. So, they want to change the next generation, they want to continue to change how we think about the world and how we approach it. And I think this recent election, some of the things we saw with Bernie Sanders, and some of the things we saw elsewhere, especially the youth, the Millennials and maybe younger, are really starting to want a much larger government, maybe even going towards socialism. And I think that’s a real problem. And partly because there’s a lack of understanding of those principles and the other view on that: what it means to have limited government, what it means to be free, and what it takes to be free. And so, there does seem to be a real lack, especially in education, of advancing those principles, of teaching those principles. And so, I think that’s why you see things like this happen. Progressives have really kind of made their way into education and have made their way into—you especially see that in K-12, but much more in higher ed now. I mean, you see everything that’s going on there, with all these kind of crazy riots and speakers being ousted and just no tolerance for other ideas. So, I think that’s really had a great effect on the population. And of course, our government is a representation of that. So, if we really want to change the government, there’s a responsibility to people as well. So, we’re trying to do our part in that, in reaching those people with this kind of message and teaching the importance of not only the Constitution but the principles that underlie it.

JOHN RUSTIN: Jon, in addition to the course on the Constitution, what other online courses does Hillsdale offer?

JON LEWIS: We’ve got a lot. There are about 16 courses now. We’re releasing new ones all the time. We just actually re-did a course on the American Heritage, which is just a great history course. We go farther back than that too in Western Heritage so you can kind of get the big picture, the history of the West. And that’s really great. We’ve got courses on Shakespeare. We’ve got courses on C.S. Lewis and Winston Churchill. We’ve got courses on great books, economics…. So there’s a great selection there to go from. And many of these other ones are popular as well. Constitution 101 is our most, but C.S. Lewis—over 100,000 people have signed up for it and really enjoyed that course. We’re filming one right now on theology, actually, so we’re looking at the theology of the West and kind of doing a survey course on that. And we’ll be excited to release that some time probably in April.

JOHN RUSTIN: Jon, who teaches these courses and what are the determining factors for which classes are made available to the public online? 

JON LEWIS: The teachers are almost always professors here at Hillsdale. It’s the same professors you would see if you were to take a class here on campus. They teach the classes. We’re really trying to do a couple of things, we try and put our core curriculum—what every student here is required to go through, try and take at least the core of that—and put it online. We continue to work in that direction. And then, we also survey our audience and say, what are you interested in? What would you like to hear more about? And actually, the Federalist Papers—there’s a great example of that, where a lot of people have taken Constitution 101 had constantly heard the Federalist Papers mentioned and referenced and cited and said we just want to hear more about that. So we did a longer course on the Federalist Papers, a deeper dive into that and people loved it. There’s a little bit of both. There’s what we have here on campus, what we’re already doing, and then there’s some more of what students ask for and want to know more about.

JOHN RUSTIN: Great. Jon, I know that this conversation certainly has peeked the interest of many of our listeners. How can people sign up for these classes and how do the classes work? 

JON LEWIS: It’s a real easy process. If you go to, you can sign up for some of the more current courses. You can also look at all the courses that we have there and go to any one of them and all the lectures are posted online there. So you can navigate through and watch any of them that you want. If you want to take quizzes and get certificates of completion and things like that, you can register for an account there. Otherwise, you’re able to view any of it. It’s all up there for free for anyone to watch.

JOHN RUSTIN: That’s great. Is this something that if someone signs up, they are required to do them do the classes in a continuum or can they sort of pick it up and drop it and pick it up later.

JON LEWIS: We try to encourage people, maybe once a week or something like that, a cadence. It’s a 30-minute lecture—some are a bit shorter, some a bit longer. And so there’s a lecture and then there’s a question and answer with a professor afterwards. It’s really what you have time for, whatever you have appetite for. Again it’s, so you can go there and you can see the full course list and take your pick.

JOHN RUSTIN: Jon, this has been a great conversation. I want to encourage our listeners to go explore this if this is something that does peak your interest. Take some time, look at the different courses, and consider the investment and how valuable that would be for you and also passing it along. It’s so important in our current environment, as Jon has talked about, that we are educated, that we understand the history of our nation, the role of the constitution in the founding and the continuation of our government and our nation. And with that, Jon, unfortunately we’re out of time for the week. But I want to thank you so much for joining us on Family Policy Matters and for your great work at Hillsdale College to promote and preserve liberty and learning in our nation.

JON LEWIS: Great. Thanks a lot John.

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