Benjamin Gee - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Benjamin Gee

WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY, Class of 2018

Things to know about Benjamin

Ben is a senior at Washington and Lee University, where he majors in English literature, European history, and medieval and renaissance studies. He is founder and president of the Shakespeare Society and has served as editor-in-chief for the Spectator magazine for two years, and as advisory member of the Futch Forum, Washington and Lee’s Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) Society. He is a passionate student of English drama and nineteenth century Russian prose, and enjoys training for ultramarathons through the trails of southwest Virginia. Ben was a 2016 ISI Honors Scholar, and he intends to pursue an academic career in English literature to share his joy in Shakespeare and Milton with future generations.

“I am grateful for our vibrant community of scholars, and ISI for bringing us together.”

How did you find out about ISI?

My first year, I met a group of students who had recently re-founded a conservative political magazine on campus as a participant in ISI’s Collegiate Network. I worked for the publication as a contributing writer, and at the end of the year, the staff selected me to succeed their outgoing editor-in-chief, an offer I was not expecting but gladly accepted. Through my ongoing involvement with conservative journalism at Washington and Lee, I grew more familiar with ISI through Collegiate Network conferences, and soon regarded their Honors program as a high priority among my collegiate aspirations.

If you had to choose one highlight of your undergraduate experience, what would it be?

Singing in a campus production of Mozart’s Requiem last year marked one of the highlights of not only of my college career, but my life as well. After stubbornly refusing to join our campus choir for three years, a persistent friend finally persuaded me to experience Mozart’s great valediction as a participant, not an observer. Entering the Requiem’s fathomless world of swirling anger, heartrending sadness, and relentless, even agnostic, questioning of God infused me with an enthusiasm I have rarely felt before or since or expect to feel again. Here, I felt, was a human soul, perfectly seared into notes I had been somehow entrusted to sing. Eventually honoring the Requiem at concert was one of the most electrifying, spiritually resonant moments I have ever known, and endowed me with an abiding love—and memorization—of the piece that I will gratefully carry for the rest of my life.

What have you valued most about your ISI experience?

Washington and Lee University is reputed to be a conservative bastion, but in my experience, its reputation rarely extends into daily life on campus. The administration and faculty lean left, and a dwindling majority of Republican students take refuge from politics, often leaving the field entirely to more-motivated progressives. This dissonance sometimes proves dispiriting, as working to offer animated conservatism on campus in the face of ingrained apathy can be frustrating and even unrewarding. However, the resources given to us steadfastly by ISI dispel college conservatism’s seeming isolation by connecting students like myself with others from around the country who know and appreciate the special challenges, struggles, and triumphs of defending liberty at institutions of higher learning. I am grateful for our vibrant community of scholars, and to ISI for bringing us together.

How have you spent your summers while in college?

My summers have served my hope to someday teach and defend the legacy of William Shakespeare, one of Western civilization’s essential pillars. My freshman year, I remained on campus to study the divergent afterlives of the Elizabethan nobleman Robert Devereux, part of a project led by one of my Professors. My sophomore year, my faculty advisor asked me to accompany her to the World Shakespeare Congress in London, subsequently assisting in her research on religion and sensory perception in early modern England. My third summer was at Oxford, participating in English-style tutorials on seventeenth century history and literature. Each year, I have served as a Counselor at the American Legion’s Boy’s State Program in my home state of Connecticut, an experience that like ISI’s Honors program, impacted me deeply and inspired me to defend liberty in my daily life.

Whom do you admire most, and why?

Admiration can be difficult to qualify, but I have always deeply respected George Orwell, who tops my list of favorite socialists (a small and ironic list of mine). Unlike most left-leaning political writers, Orwell aimed his most insightful criticism towards his fellow progressives, admonishing their utopian pretensions and creeping authoritarianism. Orwell saw with preternatural clarity how easily the socialist project, when marred by ambition or elevated above democracy, would morph into the savage totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia or the dissent-extinguishing corridors of Oceanian London. It must have taken enormous courage and intellectual integrity of the highest order to regulate the excesses of one’s own “side” of political disagreement, and Orwell’s brilliant critiques of his own progressive allies present a clear model for me to follow in a time when the gulf between conservatism’s principles and its chief representatives has rarely been wider.

What advice would you give to other students who want to preserve the principles of liberty?

Almost invariably, conservatives are characterized by others more for what they stand against than what they support. The unfortunate myth of conservatives as future-hating troglodytes is so persistent that we ourselves can be infected with the false idea that conservatives stand predominately against things rather than for things. My modest suggestion would be for conservative students to occasionally remind themselves of what conservatism supports and cherishes, drawing from timeless sources like Burke, Kirk and Buckley, and in immersing oneself within the incredible achievements of Western civilization. We regard the future with prudence, yes, but we also protect and appreciate the greatness of how we came to arrive where we are. Study Raphael and Rembrandt, listen to Monteverdi and Mahler, read Spenser and Shakespeare, and search for what moves you most. Build a foundation of gratitude. Gratitude, not opposition, should define a conservative’s civic life.