Sunday, April 18, 2010

Planting another Dogwood

Delta Pi Nu planted their annual Dogwood tree in honor of Dr. Birzer, who was the program's leader from 2004 to December 2009. Matt asked me give a mini-speech about him, so here it is:

“Ballad of the Midwesterner”

Over Easter Break, I went home to discover my room had been taken over and looted by my five siblings. My book shelves were half-empty and little plastic soldiers were stationed around and on my furniture, with numerous forts made of wooden blocks barricading against the Legos advancing by the hundreds. My desk had even been taken by my littlest sister.

My walls were the only part of my room left untouched. They are painted yellow and are mostly decorated with Impressionists’ prints and photographs. On the wall closest to my door, next to a picture of my senior year lacrosse team, is a letter on Hillsdale stationary. The writer congratulated me on my admittance to the college and expressed excitement for my interest in the American Studies program, going on to explain the major and saying he looked forward to meeting me. It was signed Bradley J. Birzer.

I’m not delusional enough to think that letter was written specifically for me, but it still made an impression. It confirmed my prayers that Hillsdale College, a school I should have not even considered, let alone attended, was where God wanted me to go.

I did not meet Dr. Birzer until my sophomore year or get to know him until I was a junior, but as a senior, I am blessed to enjoy a fruitful fellowship with such a brilliant and godly man and teacher. My life has been changed by Dr. Birzer. I do not say this lightly, nor do I say it about many people. Most people impress something upon me, but few challenge and have thus shaped the way I understand the world and my place in it.

I belong to the last class of American Studies majors to have Dr. Birzer preside over the program. Most of my classes with Dr. Birzer have been upper-level history classes. His strength is his very person: his passion to explain history, not just tell it, with a true depth and continuity of the material resonating through his warm voice. His ability to connect history to the present day and teach his students about events, places and people always left a lasting impression. I have loved every research paper topic I’ve written for him and I find I enjoy writing long IDs in blue book exams, if only to prove my worthiness to be his student. But in true Dr. Birzer-fashion, my academic humbling comes in the form of Birzer trivia, the kind I know I will later be answering as penance for sins.

Dr. Birzer does not just teach through his words, as beautiful and well-phrased as they often are. Dr. and Mrs. Birzer’s willingness to have the Dogwood Society over to their house for various gatherings and to involve the majors with their children helped create camaraderie between students not formerly friends, as well as giving all of us an example of what it means to be a man and woman, a husband and a wife, parents, citizens, Christians and humans.

The definition of what it mean to be human was an open question my second-semester junior year in Dr. Birzer’s American Order and Disorder class, the class that ultimately tied all my learning together. To be human is to suffer, to love, to pray, to surrender and to fight, to laugh out loud, to protect and cherish, to learn, to die, to do good unto others, to comfort, to contribute and to carry one’s cross. Dr. Birzer defined self-sacrifice through Willa Cather, faith within A Canticle for Leibowitz, Christendom in Dawson, honor and duty by Chesterton, meaning from Voegelin and the Incarnation with the help of Eliot.

In my studies at Hillsdale, the Incarnation is the reason why we can “rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, [and] persevere in prayer” (Romans 12:12). It is only through Christ that we can know what it means to be human, the acknowledgement of the Logos as a basis for human dignity, and the fullness and power of Christ in the history of man. I understand this because of Dr. Birzer, and it is because I understand this that I am a better person than when I got that letter four years ago.

Thus I will end my thank you to Dr. Birzer by reading the end of “Letter to My Children,” the forward of Whittaker Chamber’s book Witness. Dr. Birzer’s greatest contribution to me is his witness to God as a fallen human being. He helped lead this little platoon through our college experiences, and at the end of it, we are not sad because we know that “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time” ("Little Gidding," Eliot).

If Dr. Birzer has taught us anything, it is that we Dogwoodians—indeed all at Hillsdale College—have a responsibility to our fellow Americans to stand as witnesses for the truth, whether in the public arena or within our own communities. The danger of ideologies, as shown in Chambers and Russell Kirk’s writings, is the replacement of faith in God with faith in Man. We still see this today. We are always at a turning point in history: the question is, which way will we turn?

"My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening. In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha-the place of skulls. This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise."

This week is Senior Week for Kappa. I am so excited! Little was doing arts and crafts in Koon... I walked in on her and then was banished to go out the back door. Currently working on my Flannery O'Connor paper due tomorrow. I'm analyzing "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead" and "Judgment Day." The Tower Light will be released Tuesday and the Forum will (hopefully!) go to press Tuesday or Wednesday. Formal is on Friday and thesis WILL be finalized by then. Defense next Wednesday, and two more papers due the Tuesday before... YAY COLLEGE!!!


  1. Good writing. You are a tribute to Hillsdale, your professors and a good education. Thank you.

  2. An eloquent testimonial to an eminently worthy professor. Congratulations all around, and well done.

  3. Thank you! It was an honor and pleasure to be asked to speak about such a great and noble man and teacher. Dr. Birzer makes me think of Addison's play on Cato the Younger, when he says "Thou truly hast a Roman soul."

    I'm especially glad you got to read it Dr. Otteson (and flattered!), although it is generally not anything you do not already know or can infer from knowing him so well. :)