Thursday morning, in a genteel western suburb of Philadelphia, an American hero was laid to rest. E. Victor Milione (born in 1924) is not a name with which most American conservatives are familiar. He did not write a great book. He was not a self-promoter. He was not a controversialist or a member of the chattering class. He did not have ready solutions to a given day’s heated policy debate. He was not a celebrity, or a man who wielded much immediate influence.
And yet, just about every conservative younger than 65 has been shaped and influenced by him. Ironically, it was Milione’s tenacious and decades-long resistance to the thorough politicization of conservatism that accounts for both his relative anonymity and his pervasive impact.
Vic Milione was the principal architect and embodiment of an enormously influential educational institution: the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). He was part teacher and part evangelist. His campus was America. His potential student body: all undergraduate and graduate students interested in first principles, in the ideas and institutions that shaped the West and are indispensable for free societies to flourish. Counted among those forever shaped by his labors are U.S. senators, congressmen, cabinet officers, justices, foundation heads and staffers, editors and publishers, journalists and public intellectuals, philanthropists, business and religious leaders, and teachers at every level.
ISI was founded in the aftermath of World War II and at the dawn of the Cold War. William F. Buckley Jr. was there at its beginnings in 1952-53, and his friend, the libertarian journalist Frank Chodorov, was its originator. It was then called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. The word “conservative” became vogue only later that year when Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind. Economic and political collectivism were the ideas in ascendance, moral and philosophical relativism had taken hold in most academic quarters, and the views of John Dewey and others had turned education away from its ancient ends of inculcating wisdom and virtue and toward the newer goals of therapeutic socialization.
Milione was in his late 20s when he was hired by Chodorov as vice president and chief educational missionary for a new 50-year plan to directly educate a new generation of leaders dedicated to the free society. Milione set off in his car with a burning passion for truth and for the story of liberty, some ISI pamphlets, and a “Taft for President” button prominently positioned on him to attract attention on campus and get conversations started.
It worked. He started to recruit members. And a national youth program on behalf of the great tradition of Western and American liberty was launched. (The full history of ISI is told by Lee Edwards in his book, Educating for Liberty: The First Half-Century of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.)
Milione took over as president of the ISI when Chodorov stepped aside to pursue other journalistic assignments. For the next 35 years, and until his death this past Sunday at the age of 83, Milione was the animating soul of the intellectual movement for liberty on America’s college campuses. His impact was occasionally direct; more often, though, it was mediated in a variety of ways and through a combination of people and programs. To those who had the privilege of knowing him personally, he radiated a youthful innocence, humility, and that infectious sense of humor and devilish joy felt by a college student who loves ideas and whose eyes twinkle most when converting someone to the truth of his propositions. In that sense, Vic Milione was forever young.
Given his work, this youthfulness was probably an indispensable trait. Milione liked to quote Tocqueville to the effect that every generation is a fresh people. He understood that the tradition of liberty had to be re-taught, re-asserted, and repeatedly renewed. He understood that manners, mores, and an appreciation for the genius of the American constitutional system had to be refreshed continuously if a free and ordered civilization was to endure. The mission of ISI was to educate successive generations in the principles of liberty, and to do so by circumventing the contemporary college and university and going directly to the individual student.
Tactically, Milione built an independent network of students and professors who supported and educated each other. He established initiatives to financially support and connect generations of conservative teachers through the Richard M. Weaver fellowship program; he fostered an appreciation of the principles that precede politics through the pages of the ISI flagship publication, The Intercollegiate Review, and ISI’s many other publications; he brought together future conservative leaders, acquainted them with each other, and taught them at summer schools and lectures; he engaged business leaders and philanthropists — often in a challenging and feisty manner — about their role in advancing the free society; he founded or supported a host of alternative student journals and conservative newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s; and in general he developed a comprehensive set of resources for generations of Americans who did accept that the triumph of collectivism and relativism was inevitable.
Milione’s great gift was to bring thinkers together who disagreed on many things but who shared some part of the truth of reality. Milione appreciated that there were different modes of knowledge, different intellectual paths that shed light on a larger whole. He always kept his eye on the wholeness of the real, of the truth conservatives were trying to express about the nature of free persons and the societies they create. He pursued truth wherever it led him. With Bernard of Clairvaux, he believed that, “A wise man is one who savors all things as they really are.”
As such, Milione fought against the fragmentation of modern curricula and campus life. He promoted an ordered and integrated view of education that brought together economists and other social scientists, the hard sciences, and every humane discipline. Balancing and reconciling the tensions that existed between intellectuals and their respective disciplines was key to his mission. He built and oversaw the creation of a para-university composed of thinkers from every discipline, producing work of the highest quality directed toward thousands of self-selecting young conservative intellectuals — always aiming for maximum long-term impact. That was the ISI 50-year plan. There was no reason to expect that it could succeed, but it largely did. It was anything but inevitable. The fullness and complexity of this incredible story has yet to be told.
ISI was an amazing accomplishment. It creatively engaged the liberal conservative tradition, but it was anti-ideological. Milione understood that the tradition of liberty was to be cherished for its variety, not its uniformity. He created the only conservative-oriented institution that made room for virtually every strand or tendency within contemporary conservatism. Libertarians, traditionalists, Straussians, Voegelians, Burkeans, anti-Communists, communitarians, religious, secular, Protestants, Catholics, Jews — all who appreciated the fullness and richness of Western civilization and the American experience within it could find a home and a forum at ISI.
Milione liked to quote Jacques Maritain that the aim of education “is to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person — armed with knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues — while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heritage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved, and preserving in this way the century-old achievements of generations.”
Milione was not so much a political conservative, then, as an educational conservator. He marshaled the scarce resources he could raise and directed them toward the cultivation of the deepest sources of an ordered liberal tradition in the hearts and minds of American students. When political power became a reality for conservatives in the 1980s, they were able to take their stand and advance an intelligent conservative agenda because they had been formed properly and understood what was at stake. They were, like Milione and Ronald Reagan, a combination of idealist and realist.
As the word “conservative” became inflated by its own success, and some of its enthusiasts eager to reduce complex problems to easy “conservative solutions,” Milione chaffed and urged that intellectual conservatives resist the urge to politicize and maintain their principled independence. This won Milione some admirers, but it also resulted in ISI being more frequently dismissed as irrelevant in the new world of governing conservatism.
Of course, today, the conservative establishment should have a better appreciation for the wisdom of his vision and the absolute necessity of the work of ISI — and it should ceaselessly work to ensure that conservative ideas are deeply and freshly encountered by students, who in turn will ensure that ideas survive the ebbs and flows of party politics and fickle politicians.
Like the desert prophets of old, Milione spread the word person by person, community by community. Against the collectivist tide of the ’50s and the social revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, he built and supported a diverse network of thinkers and deployed them strategically on campuses generally hostile to the conservative tradition of liberty and order.
ISI’s tens of thousands of students, professors, and writers formed clubs and started publications on campuses across America. In retrospect, they were the real counter-culture. They swam against the stream of New Leftism and proposed the conservative alternative. They won the important arguments and eventually carried the day. If today conservatives are feeling disoriented and unmoored, Milione’s example and efforts should be at least one blueprint for any future reconfiguration of American conservatism.
Indeed, it has been said that the most interesting debates of the past half-century have occurred among conservatives and not between conservatives and liberals. Much of that internal debate occurred in the pages of ISI publications or between thinkers at ISI summer schools and conferences. It takes a person with a capacious spirit to bring together and allow for the fashioning of a family, a communitas, out of a disparate group of brilliant and contentious conservative minds. William F. Buckley Jr. achieved that feat in the pages of National Review, and Vic Milione did so through ISI.
A truly effective teacher will inspire his students to go forth and be creators themselves. Vic Milione did that, too. In the 1970s, staffers in his West Coast office were speaking to a donor about ISI’s view of education and were challenged to start their own school. And so they did — the successful and highly acclaimed Thomas Aquinas College in California.
Similarly, Milione supported a journalism-fellowship program, and that effort led to the creation of the Claremont Institute, which itself became a powerhouse for advancing the ideals of the American Experiment. A group wanting to extend its ISI experience beyond graduation banded together and formed the Philadelphia Society in the mid-1960s, which has ever since been a vibrant fraternity of conservative leaders. ISI’s influence continues to this day, and has been further energized by Milione’s successor and student, T. Kenneth Cribb Jr.
Great teachers, Henry Adams famously noted, write on the face of eternity — they never know where their influence stops. Vic Milione now can rest after a lifetime teaching and facilitating the teaching of first principles to millions of students. America looks much different, and is so much better, for his labor.
– Jeffrey O. Nelson was an ISI executive staffer for 15 years, and has been a grateful member of its community since his undergraduate days. He is currently a member of ISI’s Board of Trustees and is president of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.