U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Guest post by Seth Bartee

L.D. Burnett’s post on George Nash and her curiosity concerning a conservative organization by the name of Intercollegiate Studies Institute was most insightful and timely. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is known by its acronym ISI by those most intimate with it. For some reason ISI is an organization that many scholars do not know about, and definitely should if they want to understand postwar conservatism and its intellectuals. ISI, originally known as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists has been affiliated with the who’s who of American conservatism since 1953.

In this post I touch upon some of the major thinkers past and present that have defined ISI, and show the reach of this organization beyond the halls of academia. Additionally, one cannot be familiar with ISI without knowing about both its book press and scholarly journals or its annual events where ISI celebrates its history in the conservative movement. While ISI boasts a prominent place in postwar conservatism, lately the splits and sects that have spun off as a result of conservatives’ crisis of identity define it.
Journalist Frank Chodorov founded ISI in 1953, and ISI grew under the leadership of Victor Milione, who led ISI for thirty-five years (1953-1988). Russell Kirk, the intellectual father of postwar conservatism, gave ISI further credence when he co-founded Modern Age, one of ISI’s academic journals. Other prolific conservative intellectuals such as Will Herberg, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, and John Courtney Murray published in ISI journals alongside Kirk. The publisher of conservative books (The Conservative Mindand God at Man at Yale), Henry Regnery, published, affiliated, and funded ISI’s activities as well; and the Regnery family still holds a prominent place at ISI, although they are no longer are involved in publishing.

ISI is still publishing conservatism’s most recognized scholars such as intellectual historians Wilfred McClay and Christopher Shannon, political philosophers Patrick Deneen and Peter Lawler, and poet/cultural critic James Matthew Wilson. All of the aforementioned scholars are active in the ISI speakers bureau, as it is one of the key ways ISI spreads its message to college students.

ISI’s influence goes well beyond college campuses and scholarly activities. The president of The Heritage Foundation, Edwin Feulner, is on ISI’s board of trustees along with Richard Allen, a former member of Ronald Reagan’s national security team. Other lesser known but no less important board members like Wayne Valis, who has worked in several Republican presidential administrations, is a well-connected political consultant who oversees Valis Associates which was instrumental in engineering the 2010 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. Valis was a student member of ISI and remains involved in many of its functions. Past board members include Holly Coors, wife of Coors Brewing Company president Joseph Coors. ISI is also associated with a number of other conservative organizations such as The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, The Liberty Fund, and The Philadelphia Society.

I mentioned publications earlier. ISI has three hallmark print journals including The Intercollegiate Review, Modern Age, and The Political Science Reviewer and the online journal First Principles. ISI also houses ISI Books, which publishes standard academic press genres like biography, history, political science, philosophy, etc. Notably, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn wrote the introduction for the re-issue of Philip Reiff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic in 2006. ISI Books also features several series including Crosscurrents, which is a series that includes translations of books by foreign authors that ISI deems “conservative.” Chantal Delsol, Philippe Bénéton, and Pierre Manent are authors in this series. There is also the Foundations series that is directed towards families. This includes subjects such as homeschool instruction, and a children’s book of manners in which Joe Paterno wrote the foreword.

ISI also celebrates its conservative history with several annual events including the Dinner for Western Civilization that used to be located near ISI headquarters in the city of Wilmington, Delaware. The last two years the dinner has been hosted at The Harvard Club of New York City, a change brought about by its new president Christopher Long, who spent time working on Wall Street before taking ISI’s reigns. ISI also gives its own book award annually known as the Henry Paolucci/Walter Bagehot Book Award. Charles Taylor won this award in 2008 for A Secular Age.

L.D. Burnett wrote about communities of discourse in relation to ISI, and she is right here. As I showed above, ISI has created its own conservative community with events, publications, affiliations, and people that support the conservative cause. Certain and specific communities of discourse have developed in and around ISI, but this has also changed over its decades of existence. In my dissertation, I do not deal specifically with ISI but I am writing about three intellectuals whom were heavily involved with this organization during its peak years. ISI began as a fusionist organization meaning that they hosted an array of thinkers under the large umbrella of conservatism, which included anti-communists, traditionalists, southern agrarians, Roman Catholics, non-religious thinkers, capitalists, Republicans, Straussians, monarchists, libertarians, European émigré thinkers, and so on. Nevertheless, for the most part ISI has always leaned towards traditionalism with Kirk remaining its most celebrated intellectual.

However, as the first generations of postwar conservatives have passed on, ISI’s identity has shifted, too. From the many interviews I have conducted for dissertation research, the consensus is that ISI has become steadily more Catholic and Straussian, as a newer generation of conservatives have taken the reins at the Kirby campus in Wilmington (of course Catholicism and Straussianism are not synonymous among many of ISI’s Catholic scholars). Yet there are Catholic Straussians, and depending on what kind of conservative you speak to (neo-conservative, traditionalist, reactionary…) concerning this aspect, this may or may not be a good thing or this may seem a complete falsehood altogether. As a side note, you can find some of these issues debated in The American Conservative and at various blogs including Peter Brimelow’s VDare and Taki’s Magazine.

ISI does have certain social and intellectual boundaries, although many of them remain unwritten. ISI is not an organization for a world-weary evangelical or a populist. It has a defined bourgeoisie Catholic, even a high-protestant sensibility, although some would argue this point given that apologist Dinesh D’Souza is a featured lecturer. However, it is my understanding that D’Souza’s presence is more for publicity purposes than intellectual viability.

This is where in my dissertation I have utilized a concept known as textual communities. A textual community is community that forms around specific texts where meaning is rendered by a privileged interpreter. A privileged interpreter, as defined by Brian Stock, is someone who not only translates a text, but they give a text a new life, and live out the text, which others then live by and promulgate as members of a textual community. Russell Kirk was a privileged interpreter, because of the special status of The Conservative Mind to generations of American conservatives. Kirk defined what it meant to be a Burkean to his followers, and boundaries were set by Kirk during his lifetime, and then by his textual community after his death. The greatest segments of Kirk’s textual community filtered into ISI, although many now reside at The Kirk Center at his home in Mecosta, Michigan.

Generations of Kirk’s followers know Kirk’s rendition of Burke and are not necessarily Burkeans ex nihilo. This is not to say that ISI’s conservatives are blind followers of Kirk any more than to claim that all neo-pragmatists have no real understanding of John Dewey or Charles Peirce. The concept of textual communities, as defined by intellectual historian Brian Stock, is meant to demonstrate how ideas are passed on and then change through successive generations. I am not going to go in depth about the background of Stock’s research, but he used the backdrop of the Middle Ages to study religious heresy, thus to demonstrate that humans often follow particular interpretations of texts and not the text themselves. In other words, humans take ideas often twice removed if not more.

ISI has changed since Kirk’s death in 1994. ISI’s desire to remain an umbrella organization has brought it into conflict with conservatives of conflicting priorities. Paul Murphy recounted one of conservatism’s most seminal conflicts in his monograph The Rebuke of History. The now famous controversy between M.E. (Mel) Bradford and William Bennett for the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) chair, which pitted the neo-conservatives against the traditionalist or paleo-conservative wing of conservatism, eventually had greater implications, one that reverberated through ISI’s rank, although the implications were not immediate.

Essentially neo-conservatives successfully homogenized conservatism by getting rid of what they considered the racist and backward element of conservatism, its traditionalist wing. Michael Kimmage recounted a part of this process in his monograph The Conservative Turn as well. The traditionalist wing became more reactionary after three Republican administrations they considered less than conservative and often as reliant on the guidance of government as their supposed liberal foes. Gradually, this filtered into ISI who of course were friendly to neo-conservatives and Republicans while attempting to maintain its focus on traditionalist conservatism. The second year of the Bush administration was kind of the breaking point for the longtime alliance. In reaction, ISI, especially the Kirkean element, essentially drew up firmer boundaries around ISI, although I cannot stress enough ISI’s dependence on funding, which for the most part is considered to be in the hands of neo-conservative organizations. When thinking of ISI, one might picture the geography of a major metropolitan area. There is the core (city center) but after that, there are neighborhoods and suburbs that make up the metropolitan area. There are textual communities within the textual community; discourse on top of discourse.

As Web 2.0 grew, so did the ability of traditionalist conservatives to focus their voices throughout the blogosphere. Patrick Deneen, formerly at Georgetown and now at Notre Dame as of fall 2012, founded the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown and created an important blog by the name of Front Porch Republic (FPR). Deneen promotes “Place. Limits. Liberty” through his favorite thinkers/writers including teacher Wilson Carey McWilliams and novelist Wendell Berry. FPR blog posts touch upon religion, masculinity, food and drink, and almost anything else under the sun. Other conservative scholars such James Wilson, Ted McAlister, Darryl Hart, and Jeremy Beer have joined the FPR blog as frequent contributors.

Peter Lawler has conceptualized what he terms “postmodern conservatism.” He keeps a blog by that title at the journal First Things and blogs at Big Think, too. Lawler keeps a friendly but lively debate with the Porchers (FPR), as he calls them. The Berry College professor is a lively public speaker who often dazzles students with his interesting take on culture; including a well-known lecture on the television show Mad Men. Kirkeans have grouped at the online journal The Imaginative Conservative and The University Bookman—a publication associated with the Kirk Center and edited by Kirk scholar Gerald Russello.

While Lawler, Deneen, and many Kirkeans are still on friendly terms with ISI, other traditionalists such as Paul Gottfried are suspicious about the legacy of traditionalism left to ISI alone. Gottfried is a retired academic who has written a score of academic monographs that have dealt with American conservatism, most recently Leo Strauss and Straussianism. Gottfried is probably most known for his Marxist trilogy, where he theorizes on the roots of managerial society and therapeutic liberalism. Gottfried knew Kirk and corresponded with him, and he knew just about everyone who was anyone in American conservatism including Murray Rothbard and Richard Nixon. Gottfried was friends with Christopher Lasch, as the two reconnected during Lasch’s populist turn in the 1980s. Gottfried became more discontented with the Republican Party and neo-conservatives because of things like global democracy, and what he considers a therapeutic language garnered from the opponents of Bradford. He is equally concerned about the axioms the neo-conservatives coalesce around such as the universalization of morality and degradation of history, especially the idea of historicism, which Strauss derided in his book Natural Right and History.

Gottfried has taken a pro-active approach to combatting neo-conservatism, often to the ire of his former colleagues. He eventually broke from ISI, The Philadelphia Society, and Academy of Philosophy and Letters (which is its own kind of splinter group, too). Gottfried eventually formed The HL Mencken Club (HLMC) that meets annually in Baltimore. The Mencken Club and APL are traditionalist organizations looking to re-establish, recreate, or renew conservatism to something else other that what it is now. I attempt to flesh this out in my dissertation. As far as textual communities go, you will find that Kirkeans are localists, but not historicists, like Gottfried. The APL has a humanistic approach to conservatism as opposed to Gottfried, who wants to see conservatism become more “offensive” in their approach to politics and liberalism. The HLMC attracts a variety of dissenters while the APL is more bourgeois. Despite these sects, many of these members still publish in similar venues and congregate together on occasion.

ISI has lost some of its influence because of the proliferation of conservative thought in blogs and splinter organizations, but there is another factor, too. Conservatives are no longer the only scholars researching conservatism. Blogs like USIH and many academic historians such as Michael Kimmage, Paul Murphy, Kim Phillips-Fein, Patrick Allitt and others have made seminal contributions to research on conservatism. A student looking for research on conservative intellectuals need not only look inside the many pages of ISI journals and books. However, it is still probably the best place to begin primary source work when studying American conservatism. Even if ISI is going through a period of change, it is still an interesting community of scholars, college students, professionals, and laypeople. As you will find, many of ISI scholars participate in other historical associations such as USIH. As Kim Phillips-Fein suggested in her lead article on the current state of research on American conservatism last year, there is still plenty of room for recontextualizing conservatism and its intellectuals.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Seth,

    Thanks for introducing me to Brian Stock. How in the world have I not heard of his work before this post? Amazing. And also thanks for tracing the history and fundamentals of ISI here.

    We do not discuss Wendell Berry a lot here at USIH. I’m coming to believe that Berry is the writer and thinker around whom most of today’s “traditionalist” conservatives gather. What say you?

    – TL

  2. Dr. Lacy:

    Berry is important depending on what kind of traditionalist you’re speaking with. Conservatives like Patrick Deneen find Berry compelling because of his intense focus on place and human limitations. I believe Christopher Shannon is a proponent of Berry, too, for many of the same reasons. I find that many people who like Berry fall somewhere between the baby boomers and generation X. There is a definite rejection of the corporate idea of success, for sure.

    However, there are conservatives who believe the focus on Berry is too intense. Peter Lawler focuses his conservatism on the fusion of Catholicism, Walker Percy, and Tocqueville. For Lawler human limitations is more of a recognition of what he calls being “stuck with virtue” rather than the rejection of the world as-it-is. Homelessness or not feeling at home in the world is not an immediate path towards existentialism.
    Instead, it is recognition that technology is a good thing, but ultimately limited in its finality.

    Someone like Paul Gottfried would not look to Berry for a path to real “conservative” change either. Gottfried believes that our current political system will not be changed with more humanism. First, the language of therapeutic liberalism must be dismantled. Gottfried was a student of Marcuse’s, so he feels especially attuned and aware of how influential the Frankfurt School was and is in American politics.

    Yet, there are first-generation postwar conservatives like John Lukacs who have gradually moved towards an appreciation of Berry. Lukacs is kind of the conservative version of Hayden White, for those who may not be familiar with him. He considers himself both a writer and historian simultaneously. For Lukacs to find Berry compelling is interesting to me, because he is an émigré thinker who considers himself a real bourgeoisie European Conservative. Of course, Berry prides himself as being a raw kind of Kentucky farmer; Lukacs resides in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

    About Stock: I would like to take credit for excavating Stock, but I cannot. A member of my committee introduced Stock to me and we have been working on his methodology for a while now.

  3. I would just like to say that, although Carey McWilliams was indeed a beloved teacher of Patrick Deneen and was friendly with many conservatives, he was not in anyway a conservative. Carey was always a man of the left with a deep and abiding commitment to equality that would set him apart from the likes of Kirk.

  4. You’re correct about McWilliams, but I did not claim that he was conservative or that Wendell Berry was a man of the right, either. Most of the newer generation of conservative thinkers like Deneen, have a different canon of thinkers that they hearken back to for inspiration. For this reason, I do not directly link thinkers like Deneen and Lawler to Kirk, although, of course, there are some similarities. FPR is its own community. You might check out a recent blog post by Deneen, where he writes about his reasons for leaving Georgetown for Notre Dame. It gets to the core of much of what the FPR group is about. http://tinyurl.com/9ghn9gr

    • I know you didn’t — I just wanted to make that absolutely clear to your readers. As a student of McWilliams I know he would be strongly (and rightfully) reject any suggestion he was a conservative.
      Joseph Romance

  5. Anonymous and Anonymous (Joseph Romance) are correct that Wilson Carey McWilliams considered himself a man of the Left, or perhaps more correctly still, was a life-long Democrat. But, the categories of Left and Right don’t shed much light (as this fine essay suggests). McWilliams had as many arguments with friends on the Left as he agreed with friends on the Right, and vice-versa. He was a pro-life Democrat, a religious (Calvinist) moralist whose critique of immorality extended to the markets, at once sympathetic to FDR and LBJ yet a great defender of localism and community. Like Wendell Berry and Christopher Lasch alike, he is difficult to reduce to a label. McWilliams, like these others (and Deneen) would all be in agreement that they reject the current form of “conservatism” (just as they would also be highly critical of many aspects of contemporary “liberaism”), but in many specific respects, they hold positions that would be considered to be, by some lights, “conservative.” I think they are all very interesting precisely because they are not easily reducible to any label that reflects contemporary political positions.

  6. This exchange and the piece on Nash are excellent additions to the USIH blog. My forthcoming book, Superfluous Southerners: Cultural Conservatism and the South, 1920-1990, addresses, in part, the limitations and possibilities of traditionalist conservatism through the lens of the Agrarians and their intellectual descendents.


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