Classics Not in Curriculum

In the year 2008, some intellectually-minded students realized that something was missing from Stanford’s array of groups. These students yearned to create a group that would explore the minds of conservative thinkers with alternate points of view from those philosophers often studied in university classes.

Shelley Gao, a current junior and Undergraduate Senator, was looking for such a group.  She states, “I didn’t feel like there was a community at Stanford that cared about the intellectual side of conservatism. For example, there is hardly any discussion at Stanford about modern American conservatism as a coalition of different impulses, including classical liberalism libertarianism, traditionalism anticommunism, and neoconservatism.” She felt like she needed to explore conservatism as distinct from the Republican Party. She added, “I strongly share Russell Kirk’s perspective— articulated in The Conservative Mind, a seminal work in shaping the American postwar conservative movement—that conservatism is a disposition, not an ideology.”

Daniel Slate ’09 recounted that “We didn’t have a philosophical element to the conservative element…there was no institution to grapple with the great ideas.”  Fueled by these deficiencies, Daniel Slate and four others created a reading group that would study these conservative thinkers. While Daniel was instrumental in the group’s founding, students Luukas Ilves ’09, Andrew Hillis ’10, Paul Craft ’09, and Shelley Gao ’11 played an important role in the founding as well.

Before his freshman year, Daniel read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a book that exposed the flaws of undergraduate education in selective universities in America.   Daniel said that this book, “got me interested in the idea that ancient philosophy and ancient wisdom had extraordinary relevance today. It actually planted seeds in my mind that led me to philosophy.”

In the summer of his sophomore year at Stanford, Daniel attended the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Summer Honors Program, where he read and discussed political philosophy pertaining to ISI’s mission, “to further…an appreciation of the economic, political, and moral principles that sustain a free and humane society.” Daniel realized that, “there’s this entire constellation of thought out there that I have never encountered at all at Stanford.” Gao, who attended ISI’s honors program as well, echoed Daniel’s thoughts: “Attending the honors fellows’ conference this summer introduced me to this great body of thought by ancient and modern thinkers.  As a result of the liberal hegemony in academia, classes on western civilization and the classical tradition are no longer part of our curriculum.”  In response to this common line of modern day thought, Shelley said, “Modernity is increasingly marked by secularization and relativism.  It is disconcerting that transcendent objectives, moral norms, and “eternal meaning,” are no longer defining the discourse.”

Upon his return from the honors program a year later, Daniel and the others founded the group Metis (Mητις), which is the Greek word for cunning or concealed wisdom.  This name had a double meaning. First, the material they studied was concealed in large part from their university education and second, the group itself was somewhat secretive.  Every other week, the five of them would convene at Haus Mitt or a cafe in Palo Alto to choose and discuss their reading material from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s reading list. ISI strives to advance six principles on college campuses through its reading lists and other programs.  According to their website, the principles are limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, a free market economy and moral norms.  The group promotes ideas of “ordered liberty” from Western philosophy combined with civic virtue and limited government of the “American Experience.” The suggested readings provide students with alternatives to the often liberal political philosophy found in classes at the university level.

Last year Metis read three books: Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Christopher Dawson’s Dynamics of World History, and Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History.  They covered about one and a half books per quarter, because they were rather long reads. Shelley admitted that these books, “contributed a lot to my intellectual development…these ideas were not about specific policies,” they were rather about the intellectual side of conservatism.

In a community of action-oriented people, Metis offered a place for these students to read and think.  According to Shelley, “The group offered an avenue for me to examine the deeper philosophical underpinnings absent from daily conversations with pragmatically driven peers.”  Students still searching for their political ideology might be better off discovering the roots of conservatism by reading some of the preeminent books of conservative philosophers than joining a group that immediately throws the student into political action and activism on specific policies. Presently, only Shelley and one other member remain in the group, as the rest have graduated.

For ISI and the members of Metis, exploring this material is vital to the continuation of “the American experience” in the United States.  Daniel states that, “The real purpose of something like Metis is to give interested people…access to this arsenal of arguments that we can deploy in our writing and in our conversations with people here and really sort of think about and grapple with and challenge people, because a lot of this stuff is important.” Shelley adds that, “it is important to understand ‘this stuff’ because we have to be aware of the sources of our convictions and why we embrace certain views.” The group may continue to appeal only to a niche membership, but for these members, it will serve a vital purpose in forming their viewpoints and perhaps eventually, their actions.

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