Benjamin Rolsma is a rising junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he is majoring in economics and philosophy. Born and raised in Wisconsin, he nevertheless despises winter weather and longs for summer when he can bicycle around Madison pretending that he too is an intensely authentic, coffee-drinking urbanite. He is the president and founder of the ISI Tom Sawyer Society, serves on the leadership team of Reformed University Fellowship at UW-Madison, and is the technical guru for academic political theory journal The Political Science Reviewer.
- How did you find out about ISI? What drew you to get involved in ISI's programming?
A friend from high school started an Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) Society at her school and encouraged me to look into the organization. I perused ISI’s website and on a whim applied for an ISI conference. Soon afterwards an ISI staffer got in touch with me and suggested that I found a Society at my own college. Increasingly convinced of the value of what ISI brings to the table, I took the suggestion, attended the conference, found both to be helpful and compelling experiences, and have been involved ever since.
- If you had to choose one highlight of your undergraduate experience, what would it be?
Going on three years now I’ve been able to put together the annual Disinvited Dinner through my ISI Society in partnership with the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy in the Political Science Department. We bring in a notable public figure who was disinvited from speaking on a college campus and have a dinner with faculty, students, university administrators, state government officials, and regional business leaders. We offer a chance to speak to those who have had that taken away from them as a way of supporting a robust culture of free speech. We’ve hosted American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray and author and Washington Post columnist George Will and look forward to next year's (as of now yet-to-be-determined) speaker.
- What have you valued most about your ISI experience?
In a time of rancorous, divisive political discourse, ISI continues to help students thoughtfully engage in deep discussions about important issues. Conservatism has a rich intellectual tradition and now more than ever students need to understand why and what they believe, rather than simply taking action. ISI’s Societies, conferences, books, and magazines have pushed me to do exactly that, to be a more virtuous and thoughtful person, not just a more effective doer.
- How have you spent your summers while in college?
After my freshman year I worked as an intern for the Office of Governor Scott Walker in the Policy & Legislative Affairs Department. Practically, that meant that I put together briefing documents for the governor for speaking events and meetings, drafted letters, researched obscure policy issues, and did menial office work. This summer I’m continuing the website development, event planning, and administrative support work I do during the school year for the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy in the Political Science Department. I’m also helping out a professor who’s working on finishing a book on what Alexis de Tocqueville has to say about the nature of the democratic soul.
- Whom do you admire most, and why?
It is difficult to pick out a particular person. I admire the many people—parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, mentors, pastors, close friends, distant acquaintances, complete strangers—who have shown me the love and hospitality of Christ and his church. As human beings made in God’s image, our highest duty is to love God and love neighbor, and I am unfailingly moved by those who do their very best to fulfill that duty. I am incredibly grateful for what they have done, and for the examples they set.
- What advice would you give to other students who want to preserve the principles of liberty?
Take time to read and learn about the intellectual underpinnings of conservatism for, as Aristotle says in his Ethics, “when someone who has not deliberated correctly wishes for something, what he wishes for is not a proper object of wish at all.” Conservatism, Western Civilization, and ideas of liberty have a long and rich intellectual history that is very much worth investigating—and a number of important works are even published by ISI. Certainly, engage in activism if you wish, but don’t do it as a reactionary anti-leftist. Do it as someone who knows what you seek and why so that you can engage others thoughtfully and prudently. If possible build relationships with faculty who are at least sympathetic to your quest. It may seem unlikely that anybody meeting that criteria exists at your school, but you may be surprised, and ISI just might be able to help you get in touch with somebody. ISI’s undergraduate conferences are also a wonderful place to learn and to meet professors who are engaged with intellectual conservatism.