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Towards a Conservatism of the Heart: A Roadmap for ISI’s Future
This essay is adapted from a speech ISI president John A. Burtka, IV, gave to ISI staff at F. M. Kirby Campus on October 27, 2020.
It’s a great day to work at ISI. It’s an important time in our country’s history to be at ISI.
When I speak with former ISI employees from the past twenty years, the theme that I hear over and over again is that the happiest days of their lives were spent working at ISI. They seem to have a sense of nostalgia for this institution in the way that someone reminisces fondly about their time in college. Why is that? What is it about ISI that sets it apart in the eyes of our alumni? I think it has something to do with ISI’s unique mission of educating for liberty within the vibrant community that we have here at ISI’s F. M. Kirby Campus.
Unlike many other worthy conservative organizations, ISI is not here to advance a specific policy agenda, push bills through Congress, or put someone in the White House. Rather, we start from the premise that in order to be free, we must be good. And being good is hard work. It requires the cultivation of certain moral and intellectual habits. It demands an education.
As conservatives, we approach this education differently from others. Unlike the French revolutionaries, we do not begin from abstract principles and work our way backward. Unlike social justice activists, we do not aim to “center” our lives on the outrage of the month or the year. As conservatives in the Kirkian, Burkean, and Washingtonian traditions, we survey the collected wisdom of the ages—as expressed in word, deed, and creed—and apply the insights prudentially to our concrete circumstances in twenty-first-century American life.
This is a daunting task. Ours is a tradition that goes back thousands of years, extending from Jerusalem to Athens to Rome to London to Philadelphia. It is a great and beautiful tradition that has been passed down to us through the centuries. To master it requires certain individual dispositions that I like to call a “conservatism of the heart”—love and humility, piety and duty, goodness and courage—but it cannot be perfected in isolation. Our work is not a solitary exercise. We must be taught it by those with more experience than ourselves, and we must live it out with like-minded peers.
In short, we need teachers and friends. And that is what ISI exists to provide. We do it because the fate of our civilization and the survival of our country depend on it. We do it because our nation’s most prominent universities and professors have abandoned the task. If not us, who?
The result of such negligence on the part of our elites—a dereliction of duty, really—has been catastrophic for the country, the campus, and conservatism.
“We All Live on Campus Now”
What is the state of the country? Andrew Sullivan was right in his prophetic 2018 column when he observed, “We all live on campus now.” The progressive ideology taught in American universities since the 1960s has triumphed in our wider culture. Those in positions of power at nearly every major American institution—whether it’s bureaucrats in Washington, tech giants in Silicon Valley, Hollywood film producers, Wall Street traders, or mainstream newspaper editors—reject almost everything I mentioned above. They reject teachers of the great tradition because they refuse to sit humbly at the feet of our ancestors, preferring to restart history from year zero. They reject friendship—although they might not acknowledge it explicitly—by embracing identity politics, which espouses a reductionist view of the human person that fosters suspicion and mistrust.
Abroad, America is threatened economically, technologically, and militarily by a Communist Chinese regime that seeks to remake the world, or at least the Pacific, in its image.
At home, tech monopolies threaten freedom of speech and association, not to mention the harm they do to young children by hijacking their brains with intentionally addictive products. We have $27 trillion in national debt (and counting), stagnant middle-class wages, declining marriage and fertility rates, crippling student loan debt, a rising cost of living, civil unrest, and the COVID-19 crisis. Our country is unwell. Welcome to America in 2020.
How about the state of the campus? Well, it’s kind of like the state of our newsrooms. As a rule of thumb, whatever is going wrong in the country is amplified tenfold on college campuses. Many of us have been waiting for years for the college bubble to pop. The material being taught at most universities neither provides a holistic education in the permanent things nor equips students for well-paying jobs. Rather, colleges saddle young people and middle-class families with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt and send them out to be baristas and Uber drivers. Looked at this way, many universities deserve to close, and the COVID lockdowns have hastened a crisis that is long overdue. Frankly, it would be far better for the next generation if corporations simply hired students directly out of college and provided them a year of training in exchange for a contract to work for a minimum number of years. Alternatively, many young people could pursue trade school and apprenticeship opportunities during their high school years. They could graduate making more than fifty thousand dollars per year doing the dignified work of mastering a trade. What on earth are we doing to our young people?
Although many small liberal-arts colleges will not survive our present crisis, the citadels of liberalism—the Ivy League colleges and major research universities—are impenetrable. Armed with an endless supply of grant monies from the federal government and billion-dollar endowments, their monopolistic control of higher education will only expand.
When I talk with ISI’s young program officers, they tell me that conservative students hold their tongues in and out of the classroom, not primarily out of fear of getting bad grades or concern over getting a job after college, but rather because they worry what their peers might think of their views. After all, young people are social creatures, and who wants to go through college alone? As campus cancel culture and the climate of fear are on the rise, an ISI education is more valuable today than at any other point in our organization’s sixty-seven-year history.
What is the state of conservatism today? Prior to 2016, things were a bit boring, actually. Many conservatives mistook policies for principles and contented themselves with a playbook that made sense during the Cold War but had diminishing returns after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was also an overemphasis on universals at the expense of particulars, which minimized the cultural soil and roots necessary for a free society to flourish. Rather than applying conservative principles to the unique challenges of the day, the large field of Republican presidential candidates in 2016 stuck with talking points more and more detached from the concerns of ordinary Americans. And they paid the price at the ballot box: Donald Trump rode to victory by calling to “Make America Great Again” and speaking to a populace that felt left behind by elites in Washington.
Now we must assess the state of conservatism at two levels. On the surface, things do not look good. In recent years, talking heads in the “pro-Trump” camp often downplayed vital issues like China, deindustrialization, and military interventionism that led to Trump’s election in 2016 and instead attempted to imitate Trump’s “fighter persona” by belittling their political foes in the crudest terms possible. In practice, this amounted to nothing more than dressing up the same old failed establishment policies in the garb of populism, hoping that rhetoric and memes alone would win the day. Although it’s important, and indeed urgent, that conservatives learn to fight on issues such as confirming judges like Amy Coney Barrett, or standing up to cancel culture, many “Trumpers” needed a reminder that we fight to save the place we call home, not simply because we love to brawl.
The “Never Trumpers” suffered from an opposite extreme. Their dislike of Trump the man led them to a total repudiation of any policy decision that his administration made, regardless of its merits. This often led them to double down on the worst, most discredited policies of previous Democratic and Republican administrations as they led a resistance movement bent on ousting Trump from the White House at any cost.
Under the surface, however, things are much healthier. In fact, the conservative intellectual movement is more exciting than it’s been in a generation. There has been a flowering of new and improved conservative publications, journals, conferences, and organizations over the past four years. We also have entrepreneurial politicians exploring new paradigms for addressing our country’s greatest challenges, including China abroad and Big Tech at home.
All this means that there has never been a better time to be at ISI. Our students, faculty, staff, and alumni will play a vital role in shaping the future of the American right.
Educating for Liberty
What is ISI’s response to the state of the country, the campus, and conservatism?
As far as the state of the country is concerned, ISI’s principal task is to raise up a new generation of political, cultural, academic, business, and religious leaders who are both educated in the foundations of Western and American thought and sensitive to the interests of the Great American Middle.
How do we do it? Intellectual and activist W. E. B. Dubois put it best in a 1903 essay when he coined the concept of the “Talented Tenth.” He was speaking specifically about elevating the status of black Americans through the education of black leaders, but his message is evergreen for conservatives in America today:
The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then . . . must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth. . . . Was there ever a nation on God’s fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters. . . . How then shall the leaders of a struggling people be trained and the hands of the risen few strengthened? There can only be one answer. The best and most capable of their youth must be schooled. . . . All men cannot go to college but some men must; every isolated group or nation must have its yeast, must have for the talented few centers of training where men are not so mystified and befuddled by the hard and necessary toil of earning a living, as to have no aims higher than their bellies, and no God greater than gold. . . . Can such training of group leaders be neglected? Can we afford to ignore it? Do you think that if the leaders of thought among Negroes are not trained and educated thinkers, that they will have no leaders? On the contrary a hundred half-trained demagogues will still hold the places they so largely occupy now, and hundreds of vociferous busy-bodies will multiply. You have no choice; either you must help furnish this race from within its own ranks with thoughtful men of trained leadership, or you must suffer the evil consequences of a headless misguided rabble.
In many respects, America is currently being led by a headless, misguided rabble, and it’s up to ISI to change that through our core educational programs. Although some might claim that educating the “Talented Tenth” is elitist, our aim is not to empower unaccountable bureaucrats or crony capitalists but rather to ensure that our country’s best and brightest are equipped with the moral and intellectual framework needed to secure the safety and happiness of the whole people. I call this approach “aristopopulism.” It focuses on developing a new leadership class who actually have a stake in the welfare of the middle and working classes. By encouraging a Benjamin Disraeli–inspired solidarity among all constituents in American society, we can preserve our constitutional order by ensuring that our country avoids the pitfalls of technocracy and democratic socialism.
As relates to the campus, ISI’s response it simple: Be the university. Simply put, ISI is the Oxford of American conservatism. No other organization on the right does what we do. Many other campus groups focus on political activism or public policy, but ISI alone exists to fill the void in higher education serving as a counter-university capable of providing a Hillsdale- or Grove City– or Patrick Henry–quality education to students at campuses where they are unable to find conservative professors or friends.
As far as conservatism is concerned, ISI is the Camp David of the conservative movement. On the grounds of F. M. Kirby Campus—specifically, in the halls of our soon-to-be-built Linda Bean Conference Center—and on the pages of our books and publications, we will supply the ideas and friendships needed to rebuild the right from a remnant into a governing majority in American life.
Conservatism of the Heart
What kind of conservatism does ISI seek to instill in its students and alumni?
We aim to promote a conservatism of the heart. We love our country not primarily as an abstract idea but as a rooted, living, breathing experiment in liberty in a particular place and time.
We love our country the way we love our spouse or child. We do not fetishize an ideological conception of “marriage,” or “husband,” or “wife,” or “child,” but instead we love particular persons who play those specific roles in our lives.
There are at least six qualities that embody a conservatism of the heart and provide examples to us throughout American history: love and humility, piety and duty, goodness and courage.
The first set of virtues, love and humility, is best embodied by the father of our country, George Washington. His affection for America was on full display in his Farewell Address, which I consider to be the most important and enduring speech in American history. He begins by offering his advice as “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend.” The core theme, which he repeats over and over again, is simple: Love this place, our union. He speaks with such a profound tenderness about his love for America that his words could very well warm the hearts of our contemporaries whose patriotism has gone cold:
Cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to [our country]. . . . Think and speak of it as the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts. For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections.
As Washington looks forward to his retirement, he describes it as nothing more than a love of and participation in the country he built:
I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.
Love and humility. If our students can take away that Washingtonian approach to conservatism, we will have done our job.
For the second set of virtues, piety and duty, let us turn our attention to the example of Major Sullivan Ballou. Ballou was an officer in the Union Army from Rhode Island who died at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.
Several days before he died in battle, he was lying alone in bed at camp and decided to write a parting letter to his wife, Sarah. It is one of the saddest letters I have ever encountered, but also one of the most inspiring. Addressing his “very dear Sarah,” Ballou writes:
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps before that of death—and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.
I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and could not find one. A pure love of my Country and the principles I have often advocated before the people, and “the name of honor that I love more than I fear death” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
Ballou was killed a few days later. To see him write with such calmness in the last days of his life is profound. If his love of country and conservatism were merely an intellectual thing, he would have packed up his bags that night and headed back to his wife. But instead he exhibited a whole-souled and whole-hearted love of this place and a belief that sometimes you must sacrifice yourself for the sake of your children’s children and for this experiment in liberty to be preserved. If we can live up to this example and our students can put their principles into practice like Sullivan Ballou, ISI will be doing its job.
And for the last set of virtues, goodness and courage, I couldn’t help but turn to Teddy Roosevelt. He is an interesting blend of being conservative in some respects and progressive in others, but nonetheless, his love of country is something for us to aspire to as a people. Roosevelt writes:
This country cannot afford to have its sons less than men; but neither can it afford to have them other than good men. . . . If the strong man has not in him the lift toward lofty things his strength makes him only a curse to himself and to his neighbor. All this is true in private life, and it is no less true in public life. If Washington and Lincoln had not had in them the whipcord fiber of moral and mental strength, the soul that steels itself to endure disaster unshaken and with grim resolve to wrest victory from defeat, then the one could not have founded, nor the other preserved, our mighty federal Union. The least touch of flabbiness, of unhealthy softness, in either would have meant ruin for this nation, and therefore the downfall of the proudest hope of mankind. But no less is it true that had either been influenced by self-seeking ambition, by callous disregard of others, by contempt for the moral law, he would have dashed us down into the black gulf of failure. Woe to all of us if ever as a people we grow to condone evil because it is successful. We can no more afford to lose social and civic decency and honesty than we can afford to lose the qualities of courage and strength. It is the merest truism to say that the nation rests upon the individual, upon the family—upon individual manliness and womanliness, using the words in their fullest meaning. . . . We cannot retain the full measure of our self-respect if we cannot retain pride in our citizenship. For the sake not only of ourselves but of our children and our children’s children we must see that this nation stands for strength and honesty both at home and abroad.
Courage and goodness. What an inspiring example to hold up before our students as they aspire to be the next generation of American leaders.
The Opportunity Ahead
So why should ISI champion a conservatism of the heart as opposed to ideology-based conservatism? Isn’t ISI an ideas-oriented organization?
The reason is that we are stuck with America. What do I mean by that? Consider that many people have religious conversions. Some of you perhaps were Protestants at one point and now are Roman Catholic, or vice versa. When you make a journey like that, you can simply move to the church down the road. But you cannot do that with America.
You can theoretically move to Canada or Mexico, or another country, but then you are stuck with their unique histories and traditions. We are stuck with America. And if your conservatism is based only on an ideology, then when your ideology shifts, as it’s bound to do at some point, your whole system and your whole faith in the country come crashing to the ground. I was talking with one employee who said they went through an integralist phase in college but now they are a fusionist. Others have described being more libertarian at one point but more populist or nationalist now. And who knows, in ten years they might change a little bit. Although people tend to develop a more consistent approach as they grow older, some shifting is normal, especially given changing political circumstances.
But if every single time your ideology shifts on account of the natural course of events, you lose faith in the country or conservatism, that’s not a healthy way to go through life. It doesn’t matter what intellectual phase we’re in; we all have duties to this place as citizens, and those duties don’t go away just because our ideology shifts. So if ISI can build a conservatism that takes to heart the fullness of our great tradition, then we’ll be graduating students whose conservatism is far more durable than if it were based on ideological propositions alone.
In conclusion, it’s a great day to work at ISI. It’s an important time to be at ISI. And I couldn’t be more honored to serve as your president, and to have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something together with you that has the opportunity to change the trajectory of the campus, conservatism, America, and Western civilization for the better.
I’d like to conclude with a quote from Dr. Lee Edwards’s wonderful history of ISI, Educating for Liberty, which succinctly sums up the message that I want us to take away:
It is the duty of ISI to remind conservatives that in politics there are no permanent victories or defeats, only permanent things like wisdom, courage, prudence, and justice. The Institute must continue to serve, in George Nash’s words, as an institution of reinforcement and recruitment—to sustain “the morale and intellectual foundations” of conservative students and to recruit the best of them “for intellectual leadership after graduation.” Such a rising generation will lift all hearts.
John A. Burtka, IV, is the president and CEO of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
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