ISI Seminar on “Place” Comes to Stanford

Last month, Professor Wilfred McClay of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), seeking to “educate for liberty,” his group’s mission, held a seminar at Stanford aimed at conservative students on campus.

Founded in 1953, ISI developed a “fifty-year project to reform the university and society in favor of freedom.”  It seeks to nurture America’s best college students and future leaders by enhancing their knowledge of America’s founding principles: “limited government, individual liberty, market economy, and moral norms.” The first ISI President was William F. Buckley, Jr.  It currently offers lectures, publications, and fellowships and annually works with hundreds of thousands of students and faculty nationwide.

The Stanford seminar, which spanned Friday evening and Saturday, January 29 and 30, was titled, Finding a Place in the World.  It considered the role of “place” in the formation of identity, and the consequences for freedom of the erosion of place with new technologies.  Stanford students who attended engaged in lively, at times personal, debates.  One question that arose: where is home?   One student said, “My proper place—the place where I am complete and happiest—is with my family.  They are the reason I work so hard and strive to be the best.”  Another student, in contrast, felt that Stanford—his friends and life there—had become his home, while visits to his parents and hometown felt like dutiful departures from his current place in the world.

Another debate centered on the question, “What defines our obligation to others—and is it related to geography?”  Do Americans have a duty to help earthquake-ravaged Haitians?  To provide health insurance to illegal immigrants in the United States?  To people with health problems in other countries?  Participant Andrew Hillis offered a relatively expansive sense of duty to others based on faith, morality, and the dignity of each human life.  A student with an Objectivist perspective countered that we are responsible only for ourselves, not for others in either the “global community” or our intimate circle.

Readings assigned in advance helped to inform the debates.  Sources included Aristotle’s Politics, with its notion of the role of “the city,” William Leach’s Country of Exiles, Yi-Fu Tuan’s Cosmos and Hearth, and Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul.

A question that resonated strongly with the Stanford students was whether we are global citizens or American citizens.  Seminar leader Professor McClay mentioned an essay titled Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism written in 1994 by University of Chicago political philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  In it, she argued for a fundamental curriculum shift to a “cosmopolitan education” in which students are taught that they are, above all, “citizens of the world.”

The Stanford students agreed that this view that prizes cosmopolitanism over patriotism—let alone American exceptionalism—has become pervasive in their education at Stanford.  Professor McClay questioned whether “global citizen” isn’t an oxymoron.  He noted that citizenship by definition implies membership in a bounded group.  Therefore, one might perhaps be a global “homo sapien,” but not a global “citizen,” in his view.

The discussion of cosmopolitan versus place-based identity migrated from campus thought to national politics.  Discussion touched upon the enthusiasm for the candidacy of Barack Obama, which may have been, in part, due to his diverse background. Professor McClay also noted the trend among liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices to refer to laws of other countries rather than relying on the Constitution and laws of the United States in deciding cases.

The interrelationships among place, liberty, and technology arose during a discussion of the current “tea party” movement.  Despite its members’ belief in local rather than Federal government decision-making, it has become a nationwide movement, supplanting geographic boundaries with ideological ones.

The recent election of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts was supported by phone-banking and donations from tea party and like-minded volunteers at Stanford and around the country.  By networking on the Internet, they were able to unite in the cause of ending the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and, they hoped, Obama’s push for health care reform.  In defense of having overridden localism by participating in a Massachusetts election, volunteers said that the growth of central government meant out-of-state senators could assert control over their health care, justifying their activism across geographic boundaries.

All the students who attended the ISI seminar described it as a welcome complement to their Stanford education, especially in having a chance to explore philosophical and historical underpinnings of conservatism.  Many enjoyed the opportunity to network with like-minded students who were nonetheless diverse in their backgrounds and varied conservative, libertarian, and objectivist views.  The only complaints about the seminar involved the length of the readings and the need to wake up early on a Saturday.

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