In light of the 60th anniversary of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, what better way to learn from Kirk than to hear the wisdom of one of his disciples?
I was fortunate enough recently to interview Alan Cornett. Mr. Cornett was once an assistant to Dr. Kirk, and has quite a few interesting stories to tell (he once even saved Mr. Kirk’s life). He is also an evangelist, history professor, and fashion guru. He writes on culture, faith, life, and everything in between on his blog, Pinstripe Pulpit.
For clarity, Mr. Draplin’s comments will appear in bold text. Mr. Cornett’s will be left as plain text.
Describe your experience as a student journalist.
When I was an undergraduate I would have loved an outlet like TheCollegeConservative. One of the great benefits of the Internet has been the ability for previously isolated individuals like college conservatives to connect and find a voice. I was blessed that when I was at the University of Kentucky as an undergraduate it was open to conservatives despite being dominated by liberals. I began writing regular opinion columns for the student daily, the Kentucky Kernel, during my junior year. I served as editorial page editor during my senior year, which was a relatively rare feat as I was a history major rather than a journalism major.
Back then, “politically correct” was a new term, and I remember writing a column about the new PC movement. The Kernel‘s editor-in-chief even ended up being a victim of a PC journalism professor, and the issue received some national attention when we raised a stink about it. All of that seems a bit quaint now.
During the fall of 1991 I was at Piety Hill, the home of Russell Kirk, interviewing Kirk for my senior thesis. Over supper one of the assistants mentioned that Magic Johnson had announced that day that he had HIV. I was stunned. At the time I was a Lakers fan, having followed the Pat Riley Showtime teams during the 1980s. HIV/AIDS was brought to greater prominence than ever before.
When I returned to UK I wrote my weekly opinion column on Magic and AIDS. The column was not popular with the left on campus. I remember standing behind our layout guy who grabbed a pull quote that was fairly inflammatory. I jokingly said he was going to get me in trouble. I had no idea how right I was. Before it was over, I had appeared on all three local news programs and was the target of a candlelight vigil outside the journalism building where the Kernel offices were. The good news was that my editor stood behind me. Not all college newspapers would tolerate that kind of writing then or now.
If you can, write for your school paper (or, I guess, website).
Briefly describe your time assisting Dr. Kirk. How did you get involved with him?
After a summer at the National Journalism Center run by M. Stanton Evans (including some time at Human Events), I went to Mecosta, Michigan to serve as an assistant to Russell Kirk. As a Gaines Fellow at UK, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley and the post-war conservative movement. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to interview both men for the thesis, and I even had a short interview with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. when he visited UK for a speaking engagement.
The Kirks, as it turned out, had their own small campus with multiple houses and a standalone library staffed by multiple assistants. There was no real plan on their part to find assistants, but rather they believed assistants would be provided providentially. When I arrived for my interview they decided I must be next year’s assistant. I was awed to be given such an unexpected opportunity.
As an assistant I lived in a house beside the library. It was my job to get the mail in the morning and process it. Of course, that also meant I could read it, which was fun. I maintained the library, reshelving books, sometimes typing up cards for the card catalog when new books came in. Assistants answered standard correspondence. We also ate supper with the Kirks most nights. We also took turns cooking, which could be an adventure. Dr. Kirk did not drive, so I was often pressed into duty as a chauffeur. There were frequent visitors to Piety Hill. Most weeks someone would stop by for a day or two. When the Kirks were out of town, they wanted us to sleep in their house, which was a spooky enterprise after hearing all of Dr. Kirk’s ghost stories. An assistant who served before me commented that going to Piety Hill was like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia, and it certainly had that feel.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned from Dr. Kirk?
The real lesson from Dr. Kirk is that conservatism is not about politics at all. Politics is a necessary outworking of it, but conservatism is a mindset and an inclination, a frame of mind. One is trained in it by reading great works of imagination, not policy papers. Dr. Kirk told me that the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott had a greater influence on him than the work of any other writer. I would assume that includes even Edmund Burke, whose disciple Kirk was.
What is your view of “the Permanent Things” and how do you conserve them?
The Permanent Things are a gift of revelation and tradition. They are the truths that conform with God’s will and man’s nature in a fallen world. Ideologies of all sorts are attempts to force man to conform to systems that deny these Permanent Things, which is why the ideologies will always fail but succeed in making man miserable until they do. While circumstances sometimes call for great acts of valor for the defense of the Permanent Things, the real work is done in the day to day lives that we lead. Being part of a family, raising children, going to church, haunting used book shops, planting trees, telling a ghost story–these are acts of someone who seeks to connect with generations gone by and generations yet to come.
What advice can you give to young conservatives going to liberal schools?
I think we are at a turning point in higher education. College has become increasingly expensive, and taking on life crushing debt is not a conservative act. Still, many will pursue a degree in a traditional institution.
The left has been unrelenting in its capture of our institutions. Buckley complained about it in God & Man at Yale over sixty years ago. There is a benefit from being exposed to those of differing views, of course. And there are still liberals of an honest mindset. Some of my favorite undergraduate professors were old style liberals who still believed in real scholarship and traditional learning.
Much of your best education will be self-directed. You must search out the right books and the right websites and read. Find a kindred soul and hash it out. It’s hard to have the right perspective when you’re surrounded by the opposition, but always remember that while the left may have the numbers, conservatives have the centuries.
The TCC staff and writers would like to thank Mr. Cornett for his time, words, and support.
Derek Draplin | University of Michigan | @DDraps24