The Forum | Civic Literacy

Working to Become America’s University: the Intercollegiate Studies Institute

REALCLEAR WIRE   |  May 26, 2021 by Mike Sabo

.According to Intercollegiate Studies Institute president Johnny Burtka, “Free societies don’t work without virtuous and educated people.” The American republic relies on a “citizenry that can engage in politics at every level – from local townhalls to the highest offices in the country.”

Though political engagement is important, “especially with institutionalized wokeness and systematic purging of curriculums, political victories are ultimately short-lived,” Burtka argues. Long-term recovery, he continues, is contingent on renewing “civic education, which is the tip of the spear of ISI’s efforts.”

Burtka says that ISI isn’t just “supplementing student learning but instead provides a complete education altogether.” ISI should be viewed as “America’s university,” because it provides students who will be future leaders in academia, business, and government an education grounded in the canonical texts of Western civilization. A new student dorm and the opening of the Linda L. Bean Conference center on Labor Day 2022 will heighten the university feel.

Founded by the anti-communist writer Frank Chodorov and National Review founder William F. Buckley, ISI teaches the “American tradition of liberty” to students, faculty, and alumni. Using key works like Russell Kirk’s “The Roots of American Order” and Wilfred McClay’s “Land of Hope” to instill the principles of limited government, the rule of law, free market economics, and individual liberty, ISI tells an inspiring story about America to students. Notable alumni of its programs include Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, and Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn.

This year, ISI will be holding three major events. Guests to its Inaugural Homecoming Weekend, which will take place June 25-26 at its picturesque campus in Wilmington, Delaware, will hear from scholars and writers including McClay, Yuval Levin, and Helen Andrews. On July 23-24 in Alexandria, Virginia, The Future of American Political Economy Conference will feature speakers including J. D. Vance, Senator Marco Rubio, and Judge Neomi Rao. And in September, ISI will host its annual gala in Washington, which will feature Arnn speaking on the education of the American Founders.

A key resource is “Modern Age,” a quarterly journal that conservative stalwart Russell Kirk founded in 1957. Editor Daniel McCarthy says it focuses on “long-form essays on the mind of the Right, as represented not only by Kirk’s traditionalist school of thought but by a great conversation – sometimes a heated argument – among different responses to the Left and to the frequently inhuman character of modernity.” Both print and digital subscriptions are available.

College students and faculty can join ISI’s various communities, which promote rich and erudite discussions. For example, in conjunction with the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, ISI is hosting a series of “Great Idea Debates” on relevant topics such as defunding the police, the influence of Big Tech, and socialism versus capitalism.

Membership in ISI communities includes invitations to conferences and events around the country, exclusive webinars, internship and fellowship opportunities, invitations to join ISI Society chapters on college campuses, an online bookstore, and more. ISI’s faculty network lists more than 4,000 of the best and brightest professors on campuses across America.

The capstone of its student initiatives is the Honors Program, where undergraduates can explore liberty and other crucial ideas that have animated American life for centuries. ISI also offers a fellowship for graduate students intending to teach. Its journalism network, which includes 70 campus papers including The Stanford ReviewThe Dartmouth Review, and The Claremont Independent, gives budding journalists an opportunity to hold their colleges accountable and intern with top media outlets such as USA Today, the New York Post, and National Review.

Additionally, students can peruse ISI’s online resources as well as its Student Guides – compact introductions written by top scholars that cover broad areas of study including political philosophy, U.S. history, and liberal learning.

Even with Covid restrictions, ISI held 150 events this past academic year and saw 20 percent growth across the board, including the founding of new student newspapers and additional student chapters.

Burtka believes that by creating an attractive alternative to the current university system, ISI can give a new generation of students an education that befits American citizenship.

Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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