Sowing the Seeds of Liberty
A little over a half-century ago, while Russell Kirk was in the midst of researching and writing the first edition of his influential study The Conservative Mind (1953), the libertarian editor and teacher Frank Chodorov published a short, remarkably influential essay of his own.
Originally put forward in the pages of his newsletter, analysis, and then reprinted in Human Events, Chodorov’s essay expressed the need to create a network of clubs for young “individualists”—students who believe in the dignity of man, not in the primacy of the omnicompetent state—on American college campuses. For too long, Chodorov argued, the disciples of beneficent statism had had their own way in America’s cultural and political life. A remnant must be summoned, he believed, to take its stand on humanistic, republican principles, countering the creeping low-grade form of socialism and homogenous leftist thinking that had taken root in the United States. Chodorov’s call to arms against the spirit of the age was titled “For Our Children’s Children.” This single essay, published in a little-known newsletter and then in a small weekly newspaper, led a gathering of interested, like-minded individuals—including Human Events founder Frank Hanighen, Patricia Lutz (Hanighen’s secretary), and an up-and-coming young conservative writer named William F. Buckley, Jr.—to join Chodorov in founding the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists in April 1952. Today that once-small, struggling organization has grown in influence and is known as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). (The organization’s name was changed during the mid 1960s to more accurately reflect the broader spiritual, political, and economic view of man and society that animated ISI’s mission and publications.)
In his founding essay, Chodorov envisioned a “fifty-year project” that would shape the university in particular and American culture in general, gradually molding and affirming the preeminence of order and liberty. ISI would oppose the lockstep collectivist vision that dominated public discourse during the mid twentieth century, when the claims of the public sector expanded into many areas of American life. Instead, ISI would affirm the preeminence of ordered freedom as it has developed in the Western tradition, lived out by men and women—not by “workers” or “the masses.” And now, how fares that fifty-year project? Heritage Foundation Distinguished Fellow Lee Edwards—conservative biographer, cultural historian, and adjunct professor of politics at The Catholic University of America—effectively traces the first half-century of ISI’s history and the organization’s progress in his meticulously researched and well-written Educating for Liberty.
From the beginning, as Edwards notes, the mission of ISI has been to educate college youth in the elements of a society of ordered freedom. The organization steers a middle course between what might be seen as two extremes of cultural thought on many campuses. On the one hand, there is an extreme individualism that might be termed anarchist or libertarian, the realm of the autonomous self, where virtue is entirely an individualized matter, divorced from the vital claims of community, the “little platoons” (in a phrase coined by Edmund Burke, popularized by Russell Kirk, and embraced by ISI). On the other hand, there is that cult of thought and action in which professors and like-minded students long for an enlightened and beneficent State that will liberate them from the bumps and bruises that are part and parcel of life as a free person.
For its part, ISI embraced a handful of unofficial principles drafted in 1961 by the essayist and National Review editor Frank S. Meyer and revised by the political philosopher Gerhart Neimeyer, these being:
- Man’s activities are guided by moral law, founded in the nature of things.
- Political power is legitimate only as it defers to this moral law.
- Government’s functions are the preservation of public peace, the maintenance of justice, and the defense of the Republic.
- Free government presupposes the rule of law; personal separation of political and economic power.
- The right of private property is an essential condition of independence.
To this day these five points reflect ISI’s basic philosophy, which is strongly tied to the Institute’s cultural first principles. These first principles basically view man as a spiritual being, a steward of the earth, gifted by his Creator with freedom to choose his own path in life—and not (in Andrew Lytle’s words) “to receive what is already ours as a boon from authority.”
To fulfill ISI’s mission of cultural and political renewal required from the beginning that the fledgling organization go about the tasks of raising money, enlisting officers and speakers, renting office space, all while operating on a shoestring. Every penny that could be spared was spent printing pamphlets and other short publications, and arranging conferences and lectures at which conservative speakers would appear. This list of speakers has included such prominent conservative figures as Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Jr. (ISI’s first president), Claes G. Ryn, Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, M. Stanton Evans, and Robert P. George, among many others. Edwards is especially good in describing the hardscrabble early days of ISI, when the indefatigable E. Victor Milione—then a young ISI organizer and in time the organization’s president—“was constantly on the go, driving from campus to campus in a car filled with pamphlets and books, trying to cover as much territory as possible as quickly as possible, and always conscious of the Society’s scant funds.”
In the 1950s and ’60s as now, the task of establishing and maintaining a vibrant ISI presence within any university campus was daunting, as there were innumerable campus alternatives—in terms of sports, entertainment, clubs, and varsity rags of every description—that could steer students away from ISI events. But through perseverance, thrift, persuasiveness, and a prudent distancing of ISI from the sometimes rambunctious infighting within the conservative movement at large, Milione and campus organizers gained a beachhead on the American university campus at large and began work in earnest at the task of “educating for liberty.” Over time, under the guidance of Milione and T. Kenneth Cribb, Jr.—ISI’s longest-serving presidents—ISI grew in influence and founded the biannual Intercollegiate Review, established a well-respected publishing arm in ISI Books, and brought a graduate fellowship program into being, the Richard M. Weaver Fellowship Awards Program. Eventually the Weaver Fellows and other students influenced by ISI came to influence American culture at large, becoming university professors, founding publishers, foundation heads, key White House staff, a secretary of the navy, and other positions. Beyond the world of these high-profile callings, from a street-level view, ISI’s achievements are equally impressive. On any given day, on nearly any university campus within the United States, conservative students are today better equipped and far bolder than their counterparts of the 1950s to intelligently and boldly counter liberal shibboleths they encounter in the classroom, and to find or form an ISI chapter for mutual encouragement and enlightenment.
In light of such high achievements, it would be easy for ISI’s leaders to sit complacently in their handsome headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware and preen, but nay, not so; under the leadership of the current president, Ken Cribb, the mission of ISI remains the same: to actively and creatively seek, interest, and inform the men and women on American college campuses today who will influence the nation’s culture tomorrow. “Today,” writes Edwards, “ISI is not only the educational pillar of the conservative movement—one of the Indispensables—but the leading source of information about a free society for the tens of thousands of American students and teachers who reject the post-modernist zeitgeist. Today, as it has for the past fifty years and as it looks ahead to the next fifty years, ISI continues the work of not only preserving but of extending liberty, knowing that such work is never finished because the road to liberty is never ending.”
On the academic campus as in life in general, there are no permanent victories or defeats, only permanent things like wisdom, courage, prudence, and justice. And building upon those mighty rocks is a noble undertaking, not unlike the work of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute: an organization committed (in Edwards’s words) “to educating this and future generations about liberty and restoring the ideals of Western civilization to an honored place in American higher education.”
James E. Person, Jr. is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 1999), and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow (Cumberland House, 2005).
Posted: January 31, 2006