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To know what conservatism really is, look to Kirk

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Conservative Spotlight: Russell Kirk Center

To know what conservatism really is, look to Kirk

Conservatives today have given themselves many labels–there are neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, cultural conservatives, and even some libertarians who consider themselves conservatives. While each has an evolving set of beliefs, there is one conservative school of thought that has remained constant for more than half a century: Russell Kirk’s conservatism.

The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal was founded in 1995–a year after Kirk’s death–in Mecosta, Mich., a town his great-grandfather had settled. Kirk spent much of his life in Mecosta, where he wrote most of his 32 books, along with several short stories and hundreds of essays. Each year, students from across the United States travel to the center for lectures about Kirk’s writings, while others take part in the Kirk Center’s fellowship program.

“When you want to know what conservatism really is, you go to Russell Kirk,” said Annette Kirk, his widow and the center’s president. “All of his books for 40 years explained what conservatism is. We’re now transmitting Russell’s inheritance to the next generation.”

Annette Kirk, who also serves as publisher of the center’s quarterly, the University Bookman, told HUMAN EVENTS that her husband’s legacy continues to have a significant impact on the conservative movement, not only through the Kirk Center, but also as a result of the Heritage Foundation’s Russell Kirk Memorial Lecture Series (to be held in Washington on February 17) and at the Young America’s Foundation Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., which hosts an annual retreat for students in honor of Kirk.

Students are the primary beneficiaries of Kirk’s work at the center. Groups travel to his ancestral Mecosta home, known as Piety Hill, to hear lectures from scholars and prot√?∆? ¬©g√?∆? ¬©s of Kirk, including Loyola College ethicist Vigen Guroian, historian George H. Nash, author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, and Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley (Mich.) State University. The center’s fellowship program is geared toward graduate students and affords them the opportunity to live and study at the center for a semester.

Kirk used his residence for many of the same functions in the 40 years he lived there. After studying abroad in Scotland, where in 1953 he wrote his legendary book The Conservative Mind (published by Regnery, now a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS), Kirk returned to Michigan to work. The library Kirk used as his office still exists today, housing more than 10,000 volumes. The grounds at Piety Hill are filled with trees, most of which Kirk planted. As a strong believer in conservation–something Annette Kirk said is sometimes jarring to many of today’s conservatives–he made it his mission to replant trees that his ancestors had cut down for their lumber business.

Conservation was one of Kirk’s “permanent things,” which also included community and the Constitution. (They are the basis of another work, Enemies of Permanent Things, published in 1969.) And then there is order, which, as he wrote in The Roots of American Order (1974), holds the United States together. The book examines the contributions of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome and London to the Founders’ thinking when they set out to shape the United States in Philadelphia in the late 18th Century.

Annette Kirk said her late husband’s work holds true today, especially in light of U.S. endeavors in foreign lands. “Conservatives are stressing freedom and liberty, as the President is now, and Russell always made sure that when he said freedom or liberty, he used the word ordered freedom or ordered liberty,” she told HUMAN EVENTS. “You can’t just have the concept of freedom without order, and that’s the first need of all.” If Kirk were alive today, his wife said, he would probably urge President Bush to use caution and to make sure he understands other cultures before overreaching in the pursuit of freedom.

Annette Kirk met her future husband after helping found Young Americans for Freedom. She married him in 1964 after working as his lecture agent in New York. Since his death, she has republished some of his books and published three new works of fiction that include his short stories. Last year, Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales, turned out to be a popular hit with his fans.

“It’s not so much about Russell,” Annette Kirk told HUMAN EVENTS, “but mainly, it’s the synthesis he wrote about in The Conservative Mind that we’re trying to transmit. He explained where conservatism came from in history, and we want to convey that to the rising generation.”

Written By

Mr. Bluey, a contributing editor to Human Events, is director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation. He maintains a blog at RobertBluey.com.

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