About 20 years ago a Washington Post reporter named Sidney Blumenthal interviewed me for a Post series that eventually became his book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment (1986), one of the first journalistic attempts to explain the role of foundations and think tanks in creating modern conservatism.
Blumenthal in time became a confidante of Bill and Hillary Clinton and is widely credited with planting in the First Lady’s mind the notion of the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” But back then he was still wondering about the origins of conservatism and the backgrounds of the strange people moving to Washington to join the Reagan Administration.
I remember he questioned me about a group that he decided was the wellspring of the conservative movement. It was the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), which I had joined as an undergraduate: “You all knew each other back then, didn’t you?” he asked.
I explained that ISI was a conservative student and faculty group holding conferences and seminars. It published a journal, supported student newspapers, and gave out scholarships. But Blumenthal wanted to hear stories of plots for seizing power, the seeds of revolution.
The whole truth about ISI can now be told. Lee Edwards’ recently published book, Educating for Liberty, is a straightforward account of the people, programs and publications that issued from a little-known organization that had big ambitions right from the start.
Blumenthal was correct in thinking ISI important. His mistake was in misunderstanding the reasons why it was created and why it’s been successful. Like most leftists Blumenthal believes conservatives are scheming to win power through politics, not recovering principles through persuasion. He didn’t take seriously the watchwords of Richard Weaver: Ideas have consequences.
ISI got its start in 1953 when a libertarian radical named Frank Chodorov decided to redeem American higher education from socialism by setting up an organization to help serious students understand and promote the cause of individual liberty and limited government.
Aware that radicals like Clarence Darrow, John Reed and Walter Lippmann had set up an Intercollegiate Society of Socialists after World War I, Chodorov proposed to undertake a “50 year project” to overcome campus collectivism by establishing what he named the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.
Chodorov tapped the tiny conservative network for support. A 26-year-old William F. Buckley, Jr., who had just written God and Man at Yale, became ISI president. Readers of the newspaper HUMAN EVENTS were asked to send in names of students who might become ISI members, and the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) was asked to handle ISI’s first mailings.
Chodorov inspired brainy lads like future ISI president Vic Milione, recent college grads Stan Evans and Don Lipsett, and Georgetown undergraduate Leonard Liggio to be the intellectual entrepreneurs for his mission. He set up an advisory board that included economist William Peterson and the actor Adolph Menjou, and secured financial backing from Sun Oil Company president J. Howard Pew who, with four other members of the Pew family, sent in five $1,000 checks.
ISI refined its mission in the 1950s and 60s. “To Educate for Liberty” (the organization’s motto), ISI audaciously offered itself as an alternative to the university curriculum. ISI publications, summer schools and campus clubs introduced students to the moral imagination of literary classics, the experience of history and the truths of philosophy. Its lecturers exposed the failings of modern higher education, which taught the relativity of values and cultures, despised business and the profit motive, and extolled government-sponsored social problem-solving as the noblest career calling.
Rejecting liberalism’s preoccupation with politics and social reform, ISI urged students to devote themselves to questions of mind and spirit. Imposing no party line, it sponsored debate among traditionalists and libertarians, Straussians and southerners, neo-cons and paleo-cons over the foundations of the Republic, the proper role of government, and what it takes to keep men free. Still, a 1966 board of trustees decision to keep ISI’s initials but change its name to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute was revealing: Individualism no longer seemed fully descriptive of conservatism. (And wasn’t a society of individualists an oxymoron?)
Edwards identifies the many ISI board members, staff and students who went on to notable political and academic careers. Some like Richard Allen, Don Devine, Ken Cribb, and John Lehman achieved high positions in government, particularly in the Reagan Administration.
Others helped establish the Philadelphia Society, Thomas Aquinas College, the Claremont Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Federalist Society. No wonder Sidney Blumenthal imagined ISI the font of all Bill Clinton’s troubles.
Ironically, Edwards notes that conservative political successes over the past two decades have given ISI less satisfaction and fewer benefits than might be expected. No matter the occupant of the White House or the party in control of Congress, ISI continues to publish essays by conservative professors who mourn the decline of the West and the moral anarchy of American life.
Many ISI supporters feel little sense of vindication from political or policy victories. Their vision of order is at odds with the views of other conservatives who celebrate the worldwide expansion of freedom and democracy.
Can ISI bridge the gap? (a.k.a. Is there a fusionist in the house?) Edwards bets on Kenneth Cribb, ISI president since 1989, to inspire a new generation of student conservatives. By reorienting its programs to fight new battles against political correctness on campus, Cribb and his colleagues are readying ISI for the next fifty years.
Educating for Liberty, an official institutional history, loses narrative momentum in its later chapters, which contain too many book titles and authors, staff changes and program improvements. But Lee Edwards is deserving of much praise.
As the author of many books, including the histories of the Heritage Foundation and Grove City College, biographies of Barry Goldwater and Walter Judd, and The Conservative Revolution (2002), a historical survey of American conservatism from World War II to the present, Edwards is our chronicler of conservatism’s lives and times. We are in his debt.