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Conservatives of a Fashion

My adventure with ISI began two years ago, during my sophomore year of college. One afternoon, I was sitting at my desk and browsing through Facebook, looking at pictures my friend William had posted.

William is always impeccably dressed, but what caught my attention was how polished all the other young people in his pictures were. Had William just been recruited to model for Brooks Brothers? No, it turns out. As I researched further, I discovered that the well-dressed youths were actually conservative college students at an Honors Program Summer Conference run by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Some questions immediately came to mind. What is ISI? Who are these ISI “Honors Scholars”? To satisfy my curiosity, I Googled the names of these students and quickly found their ISI profiles. They were as impressive as they were well dressed. One, a Harvard student named Aurora, had recently been named a Rhodes Scholar. Another student, Chase from the College of the Holy Cross, introduced me to ISI’s online publication, the Intercollegiate Review. A third student, John Paul from Princeton, wrote for the Princeton Tory, the conservative journal sponsored by ISI’s Collegiate Network.

As I learned more about these students that afternoon, I was honestly baffled. I thought colleges were supposed to be liberal strongholds—especially the Ivies! Wasn’t conservatism supposed to be exceptionally unappealing to anyone under the age of twenty-five? Hadn’t promises of “change” and “progress” captured the hearts of a new generation? Conservatism sure seemed to be on its way out the door.

And yet when I was invited to attend my own Honors Conference a year later, I was proved wrong.

As I arrived at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, as I shook the hands of my fellow students and faculty mentors, and as we sat with one another late into the evening, I began to understand how high-achieving students like Aurora and Chase had come to love not only ISI but also the conservative frame of mind. In conversations with professors, in our group discussions and lectures, and, most important, in the authenticity of the friendships that I made in that short time with students from all types of schools—Berkeley to Duke, Hillsdale to Christendom—in all these I experienced something fundamentally good and beautiful, something worthy of being conserved.

That newfound energy followed me back to Baylor, where a group of friends and I hosted a lecture in our apartment, bringing fifty students together on a Friday night to discuss the differences between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan. Soon we founded an ISI Society that we call Convivium. One Friday night per month, we invite a professor to give an hour-long TED-like lecture or host a book discussion. Topics have ranged from “Lena Dunham and Our Need for Privacy” to Richard Weaver’s classic Ideas Have Consequences (ISI provided us the books!).

If there is one fundamental lesson that ISI has taught me, it is this: if conservative principles are now said to be too traditional by my peers, too rigid and puritanical, too old-fashioned or outdated, it is only because they never have been and never will be in fashion. They must be rediscovered by and returned to in each generation, for truth is not meant for a certain time—it is simply timeless. For the gift of a true education, I am grateful to the people of this organization. Here’s to the men and women who have advanced the mission of ISI—for all they have done, and for all they will do. 

Oliver Ha is a senior at Baylor University. Adapted from his speech given at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Dinner for Western Civilization, October 22, 2015.


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