Conservative Diversity

by Peter Augustine Lawler

So I’m spending the week at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s undergraduate honors program.

ISI is distinguished from other such programs by its display of conservative diversity — among both faculty and students.

Examples: There is a student here who’s pushing hard the case for hereditary monarchy. Nobody much is getting on board the king train, but he really does have a “safe space” to say exactly what he thinks. And just today: One student was talking up Lincoln as our best president. Another claimed he was our worst, the real source of our centralization, big government, the implosion of constitutional morality, and all that stuff other conservatives usually trace to the progressives and the New Deal and/or the Great Society. There was also the claim that you can’t blame Lincoln; America really started to go wrong with the unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase by President Jefferson. There are similar disagreements about whether the American founding was perfect or deeply flawed, whether the Greek polis and/or Plato and Aristotle should be our guides, whether or the Christian idea of the personal Creator and personal creature was a truthful modification of, transformation of, or decline from the possibly less personal wisdom of the Greeks, whether the modern world is a development or a negation of Christianity, and so forth and so on. There are also subtle discussions on whether America is exceptional and, if so, in what way.

There are also folks for and against same-sex marriage, defenders of (from my view) extreme judicial activism and judicial restraint, every conceivable view on foreign policy, radically different evaluations of the Tea Party, folks agrarian and Green and some climate-change deniers or minimizers, lovers and haters of Walmart, libertarians, anti-libertarians, and libertarian fellow travelers, at least somewhat radically different views on the constitutionality of the welfare state, and a divergence of opinions on our likely future. To dispel ridiculous stereotypes about conservatives, let me add the obvious observation that there is no disagreement on the evil of racism or the unique and irreplaceable dignity of every human person or on in the fundamental ways all men and women are created equal. There is, in fact, disagreement on whether human dignity and devotion to equality depend on the real existence of a personal Creator. Some say reason and revelation agree or are close enough for all practical purposes on such issues, others are much more skeptical. There might not be anyone who thinks that both the Socratic view of reason and the Biblical view of revelation have been discredited by the alleged progress of science. There’s little to no scientism or relativism at ISI.

And although anti-tech traditionalists in the mode of Alasdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, and the Front Porch Republicans definitely have a place at the ISI table, every student was thrilled to have received the techno-gift of  the most advanced form of Kindle loaded with 50 conservative classics. One of the classic categories is entitled ”Sex, Drugs, and Dignity,” which (of course) includes a book of mine.

On the other hand, every faculty presentation is “delivered” without the assistance of  PowerPoint or anything else displayed on the screen. And just about all the students confine themselves to taking notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. The ISI teachers really do leave those screens alone, at least when they’re teaching.

The students are distinguished not only by their academic achievements but by the self-confidence and moral compass that comes from having been raised right. But they’re not all Catholic or all Christian or all believers. What brings the students together (and the faculty too) is genuine concern for the soul, the personal and relational foundation of sustainable liberty, and the defense of imperiled civilization, a defense that is more cultural and political and includes, of course, a defense of liberal education.

On the fashionable (if stupid) question of whether or not members of our natural aristocracy of talent and virtue should attend Ivy League colleges these days, there are some joyful and serious men and women from the Ivies who are obviously flourishing intellectually and morally in an only semi-hostile environment. But it’s also true that are a number of exceptionally educated and hugely promising students from lesser-known colleges. One endlessly impressive young man, for example, is from Lee University in Tennessee. The reason? He’s studied with a graduate of Berry College who’s now a magnetic and highly “engaged” professor who knows what to do with talent when he sees it.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.