The move to Hillsdale College

The move to Hillsdale College

For the past 26 years, the American Legion National Oratorical Contest has been held in Indianapolis, home to American Legion National Headquarters. But in 2024, the Legion received an opportunity to relocate the 86-year-old program that educates youth on the U.S. Constitution to the historic campus of Hillsdale College in Michigan. The opportunity will provide participants an even more exceptional program experience and elevating national awareness of the competition.

This year’s 52 high school department oratorical winners will convene in Hillsdale May 18-19 to speak on the U.S. Constitution and compete for more than $203,000 in scholarships.

The American Legion spoke with Dr. Matthew Spalding, vice president of Hillsdale College Washington Operations and dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government, about the exciting move to Hillsdale College for the National Oratorical Contest and how the relationship opened the doors for another Americanism program to be held on its campus. 

The American Legion: What interests do Hillsdale College and The American Legion share that embark on this relationship of moving the National Oratorical Contest from Indianapolis to Michigan?

Spalding: What we realize both from Hillsdale’s point of view, (and The) American Legion point of view is these are two institutions that have a lot in common. We’ve both long been intertwined with the history of our country in different ways, and we both have a long history of wanting to teach about Americanism, as the Legion calls it. Which is you have to teach some history of the country in order to form people who are good citizens and have a proper sense of patriotic allegiance to the nation. And both Hillsdale and The American Legion have long been interested in doing that and design many of their programs for that purpose.

Q: The Oratorical Contest helps high school students develop a deeper understanding of appreciation for the U.S. Constitution. What vested interest in the Constitution does Hillsdale College have?

A: I think the general institutional interest we both have in teaching and advancing this idea of Americanism, which from the college point of view has to do with both its courses on the campus, but also the online courses offered, of which there is one in particular about the teaching of the Constitution. We’re one of few colleges in the country that every student is required to take a course on the Constitution as a student at Hillsdale College. We take the teaching of the Constitution, its developing and its meaning to be centrally important as a curricular matter.

One thing I will point out in reference to the oratorical contest is that we just awarded our 14th annual Edward Everett Oratory Competition. We have an oratory competition among our own students each year. They have to compete for a prize in oratory. And you can, you can major or minor in rhetoric and media and one of our core required courses for every student is a class in classical logic and rhetoric.

So part of it is that Hillsdale is a liberal arts college, it's got this connection to the Constitution, and we want to teach about the Constitution, but also I don't want to overlook the fact that as a liberal arts college, we have always had and continue to have a particular interest in rhetoric and oratory as a component of our teaching.

The fact that the Legion has done this for 86 years, that's amazing. So we actually had an interest not only in the in the Americanism aspect of it, but the fact that it actually is an oratorical competition, which we've think is a great way to teach these ideas.

Q: As a former judge of the National Oratorical Finals, what was your impression and why are you looking forward to hosting the program on Hillsdale campus?

A: One thing was just being overwhelmingly impressed by the finalists. They were high quality. I was struck by the quality.

I think the whole way in which the Legion approaches the program is of a seriousness that we as a college like to see and look forward to having a partnership here that actually helps strengthen and makes the oratorical contest itself better, and having the oratorical contest at Hillsdale helps us. Our common interests here are such that it's a really a natural fit, which I think will be to the benefit of everyone.

Q: Providing an exceptional program experience is important to The American Legion with its youth participants. What can youth program participants expect when they step on the historic campus of Hillsdale College?

A: They should expect the same serious competition that the Legion has sponsored in years past. I think having it on a college campus will bring a certain tone and rigor to it. I think doing it at a college campus that is friendly and supportive and of a like mind when it comes to teaching the Constitution, but also the importance of oratory and rhetoric, are important to that experience.

Also, we see it as an opportunity for these are high school students to come into this atmosphere of a college campus and encourage them to continue their educations, which is an important element of this as well.

Q: How did the opportunity to host the National Oratorical Contest open the door for the Legion’s Junior 3-Position Air Rifle National Championships to be held at Hillsdale College starting this July?

A: As we started developing the relationship with the oratorical competition, we naturally started thinking about other ways in which we could work together. It turns out that we have another common interest in shooting sports. You see it as an educational way to build these students and create this competition championship, and we do as well.

We have the John A. Halter Shooting Sports Center. It's not on the main campus, but it's very close to the main campus. They recently developed an indoor air rifle range. Again, it just made natural sense in terms of what you're doing and the facility we have and what type of environment you're looking for with that competition. And the fact that we all look at it as an educational component to what we do made it all the more important.