The ISI works to counter relativism on campuses across the country

A conservative, non-sectarian organization is working with leading Catholic thinkers, among others, to spread traditional liberal arts ideals on college campuses.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute Inc. (ISI) promotes John Henry Cardinal Newman's concept of a liberal education as one that does not serve any particular ends and can help young people liberate their minds, guide them to wisdom and virtue, and attain some degree of inner harmony within themselves, said Jeffrey Nelson, vice president for publications at ISI in Wilmington, Del.

Those liberal arts ideals have caused many ISI supporters to oppose movements such as feminism, historical revisionism, and multiculturalism because they serve specific, political ends, according to Nelson.

Issues regarding what Nelson calls ‘moral normalcy’- right to life and homosexual issues — seem to ‘get the passion going’ on campus more than any other issues.

“Newman would have considered them servile arts,” as opposed to the liberal arts, Nelson said, citing The Idea of a University by the English convert.

Philosophical relativism is “the most insidious influence in higher education,” because it teaches young people that there are no ultimate truths, Nelson told the Register.

Many who oppose ISI would claim that any pedagogy is inherently political, and ISI's is to preserve the status quo, which has benefited certain classes, creeds, and races of people throughout history.

“Any assertion of truth is not a power play,” said Nelson in defense of ISI's viewpoint. “We do have a point of view [which] is to pursue truth for its own sake. We believe there is a truth that we can know.”

ISI has 60,000 professor and student members, which makes it the largest such academic organization in the United States, “by a long shot,” said Nelson. The organization does not charge membership fees.

After launching its first such effort in 1993, the group now publishes eight to twelve titles each year and sells more than 100 discounted books, Nelson said.

Leading authors include G.K. Chesterton, Father Stanley Jaki OSB, Russell Kirk, and C.S. Lewis. Chesterton was an English convert to Catholicism, and Father Jaki is a theoretical physicist and theologian at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

ISI has also published A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, a handbook by Father James Schall SJ, of Georgetown University, about authors and books that liberal arts' students should read. Next month, the organization will co-publish Choosing the Right College, which features 52 schools, among which are about a dozen Catholic colleges and universities. The book reviews their ability to provide a solid liberal arts education and a healthy living environment for students.

One of ISI's most important works is its lecture bureau, which coordinates 300 lectures each year through a legion of “lesser-known” professors who do not require as high honorariums as some conservative speakers, said Mike Wallacavage, ISI's lecture director for the college and university level.

ISI, which has sponsored lectures since its 1953 founding, works with leading Catholic thinkers like Dinesh D'Souza, Robert George, Register columnist John Haas, Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, Father George Rutler, Father Robert Sirico, and R.V. Young.

George, a Princeton University professor, participated in the “End of Democracy? Judiciary Usurpation of Power” debate in First Things and wrote Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, published by Oxford University Press. He will speak at Duke University in Durham, N.C., this year, according to Wallacavage.

Last April, Boston College's Kreeft spoke at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire about the superiority of Western civilization. Father Rutler, from the Archdiocese of New York, may speak at Princeton this year, Wallacavage said.

ISI sponsors about 20 conferences each year, including one on Lewis's thoughts and writings at Seattle Pacific University last June,which featured Kreeft and fellow convert Howard, who teaches at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass.

Intercollegiate Review, published two times a year with a circulation of 60,000, speaks about the “great ideas and great authors in an interdisciplinary way … to make sense of their ideas today,” said Nelson.

Campus is mailed to 125,000 subscribers three times a year and takes on hot campus issues such as multiculturalism, sensitivity training, and political correctness.

“People don't realize how hostile a college campus can be” for conservatives, Nelson said. “Speech codes and harassment codes [are an attempt to] intimidate students into submission.”

College administrators usually justify speech and harassment codes as ways of protecting minorities and women.

Issues regarding what Nelson calls “moral normalcy” — right to life and homosexual issues — seem to “get the passion going” on campus more than any other issues, in some cases leading to the burning or trashing of independent conservative newspapers and threats against writers, he said.

ISI backers object to multiculturalism because of the cultural relativist and political overtones of such studies, Nelson said. “It's a beating down of the Eurocentric attitude,” and multiculturalist proponents claim “we can't really say with any certainty that there's anything special behind the West's achievements,” he said.

From a Catholic perspective, Nelson called attention to the “degree to which envy and hatred motivate multiculturalism.” He called for a “love of our culture but not an indiscriminate love.”

During the past four years, ISI has sponsored a network of independent student newspapers, and the number of publications has grown from 38 to 67 in that time, Nelson said. The publications serve as “watchdogs” who document the rise in incivility and immorality on college campuses, and they advocate the colleges and universities cut their “bloated bureaucracies” and make higher education more affordable, Nelson said.

The publications have a combined circulation of 2.7 million.

There are also ISI chapters at a number of colleges and universities.

ISI also prints two other journals, Modern Age and Political Science Reviewer, and distributes three other ones, including one dedicated to Chesterton's writings.

ISI was founded in Bryn Mawr, Pa., as the Intercollegiate Society for Individualists, to counter the Intercollegiate Socialist Society and its collectivist theories, Nelson said. Many people would consider the group's founders as economic libertarians, individualists, and proto-conservatives, he said.

The founders “came to learn that the crisis that confronted the West was much more than an economic one,” according to Nelson. Quoting Kirk, Nelson said they saw that there had to be “order in the soul and in the commonwealth.”

The Institute developed into one that promotes the cultural, economic, political and spiritual values that ISI members believe sustain a free society, he said.

ISI has granted about 400 graduate-level humanities grants. Edwin Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation; Russell Hittinger, Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and a law professor at the University of Tulsa; William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard; and former Navy Secretary John Lehman are among those who attained ISI grants in their college years.

Through an honors program, ISI pairs up some students with faculty members at other universities with whom they can develop close ties and a mentorship if all goes well, Nelson said.

Contact ISI at 800-526-7022 or via the Internet at

William Murray writes from Kensington, Maryland.