By Sakethram Desabhotla
I watched the woods hurry by me from inside the airport bus on the warm Sunday afternoon of August 1. It was my first time in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the temperate weather was a welcome respite from the humid, overbearing Texas summer heat. I was there for the Honors Program, a prestigious, all-expenses-paid week-long conference hosted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), an organization dedicated to “inspiring college students to discover, embrace and advance the principles and virtues that make America free and prosperous.” To further this mission, ISI has chapters on college campuses across the nation, supports student journalism, publishes the Modern Age periodical and conducts conferences like the Honors Program.
For decades, students from across the country and all walks of life have attended ISI’s programs, with notable alumni including PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito. I heard about the Honors Program from a mentor of mine and an alumna of the program and applied through ISI’s website. As our bus arrived at the hotel, I recalled what she told me: “Be prepared for quite a bit of reading.” Two months before the conference, ISI shipped me three books and a reading packet to be finished by the time I arrived at the conference, a feat I just barely accomplished. These readings were lengthy and abstract, going into the depths of British and American conservative political thought across history and across multiple perspectives. While some authors extolled tradition and virtue, others emphasized freedom and the individual pursuit of happiness, reflecting a prominent divide among American conservatives today. Exploring this traditionalist/classical liberal divide of American conservatism and delving into other pressing questions would be the task for the upcoming week.
What followed was one of the most enriching experiences of my undergraduate career. Fifty students, including me, were joined by scholars from various institutions who would encourage us to broaden our understanding of the world through illuminating lectures, including “History, Abstraction, and the Problem of Ideology,” “The Case for Pro-Black Conservatism” and “Jefferson’s Hopeful Moment: The Problem of Freedom in an Age of Slavery.” In these seminars, each of us was challenged to question our understandings of human nature, justice, societal prosperity and the role of government. Our inquiry continued over the course of four discussions, in which we explored the canons of conservative thought and debated their relative importance in our 21st-century cultural moment. One particularly enriching debate was centered around the role of theism in cultivating a moral society. While some argued that belief in God was necessary for virtue, I, a Hindu, asked my peers to consider the non-theistic Eastern religions and other philosophies of living that prescribe a methodology for personal growth without requiring belief in a Creator. Although everyone had diverse, well-thought-out opinions on the subject, I hardly know of many other spaces teeming with such intellectual humility and open-mindedness. There was a high degree of intellectual aptitude but little ego to go with it. This ensured that while we learned together and from each other, we also fostered deep friendships.
Our evenings were spent exploring the surroundings together. We shopped, tried out the local eateries (what Texas lacks in weather, it makes up in having better Tex-Mex) and explored the local history. We toured Colonial Williamsburg and learned about life in early America, from the pastimes to the legal system (apparently skipping Church was punishable by fine). Two evenings were spent hiking through the Battle of Yorktown battlefield and experiencing the ethos of freedom and sacrifice that the site still carries with it. These experiences helped us form connections that we took back home with us.
When I returned to Texas, I returned a more contemplative and objective thinker. I gained more clarity on what American conservatism means and should mean, a better understanding of what America represents and a renewed commitment to the ideals of freedom, individual rights and equality under the law.
Photo provided by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute