The Buckley Approach to Higher Ed Reform

Sixty years ago last month, 25-year-old William F. Buckley, Jr., rocked the academic world. With much fanfare and much gnashing of teeth on the part of the academic establishment, the precocious Buckley published his first book, God and Man at Yale.

The book called on Yale to promote both Christianity over atheism and capitalism over collectivism, provocatively calling the two controversies “the same struggle reproduced on another level.” The controversy that surrounded its release—it was publicly denounced by Yale officials and many leading intellectuals of the day—is credited with launching Buckley’s career, and his career effectively launched the modern American conservative intellectual movement. The anniversary, therefore, is a significant one, and a number of influential scholars took time to mark the occasion, including Peter Berkowitz, Charles Kesler, Richard Brookhiser, and Roger Kimball.

What some of the commemorations missed, however, was that God and Man at Yale was not an attack on political correctness in the academy or a call for more diversity of ideas on campus. It was, in truth, a call for a restored conservative orthodoxy. The subtitle of the book, The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” hints at this. “I hasten to dissociate myself,” wrote Buckley, “from the school of thought, largely staffed by conservatives, that believes teachers ought to be ‘at all times neutral.’”

The idea that the nation’s most prestigious universities would advocate a Christian, pro-capitalist worldview has apparently been forgotten for so long that some modern observers can scarcely credit it. The Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz, for one, wrote on the Real Clear Politics website about “Buckley’s critique of academic orthodoxy at Yale,” without acknowledging that Buckley was actually trying to reinstate academic orthodoxy.

Indeed, Buckley attacked what he saw as the misuse of the term academic freedom, which was then (as now) used as a battering ram against traditional values.

Academic freedom is a bit difficult to define; generally speaking, it means the freedom of the researcher to pursue truth wherever it takes him. But some of the people who run our nation’s universities have taken this to mean that a university can never embrace any particular idea as true and therefore must present all ideas to students as equal. In such a system, students are supposed to sort through the various ideas—from economic systems to belief systems to scientific concepts—and decide on their own which is best.

Buckley thought this was “voodoo,” as he said in a 1966 speech building on God and Man at Yale’s thesis.

Such sorting through ideas to find truth is not enough, Buckley said in GAMAY (the shorthand title for God and Man at Yale, used during the editing process), “since the most casual student of history knows that, as a matter of fact, truth does not necessarily vanquish.” Buckley thought the university should present all ideas, then make the case for why the best ones are, in fact, best. As an example, he approvingly quoted Yale president Charles Seymour’s approach to teaching about Communism: “I am sure that Communist ideas ought not to be outlawed from college teaching. Rather they should be analyzed, discussed, and deflated [i.e. shown to be faulty].”

Buckley asserted that a private university should be committed to forwarding particular knowledge and values “at the expense of some points of view” (emphasis his), or else it would lose its sense of mission. “It is a terrible loss, the loss of a sense of mission,” Buckley wrote in the 1977 introduction to the book. “It makes the private university, sad to say, incoherent.”

At the time of God and Man at Yale’s publication, many alumni still thought the university was promoting Christianity and capitalism. Buckley hoped to shock the alumni into action by pointing out that some professors were openly promoting atheism and collectivism. He gave a number of examples. One of those heretics from the old orthodoxy was Ralph Turner, a professor of history. Buckley wrote that Turner was “addressing a large number of Yale students every year in such fashion as to wean a number of them away from religion by relentless disparagement of the whole fabric of Christianity.” The university refused to fire Turner because of its adherence to “academic freedom.”

While Buckley did shock many readers, no alumni revolt ever materialized. The upper echelons of academia—what Claremont McKenna College professor Charles Kesler has labeled part of the “high ground” of American politics—have been largely lost to conservatives ever since. In fact, not only are Christianity and capitalism not the prevailing doctrines anymore, but political positions directly opposed to Buckley’s have been enshrined in their own academic departments—Women’s, Gender, Sexuality, African American Studies, etc.

Ironically, the conservative movement that Buckley helped forge has adopted some of the tactics once favored by the secularists as they penetrated the higher education establishment. Rather than promote conservative ideas as the best ones, deserving of the university’s endorsement, they offer them merely as competing ideas for students to sort through on their own.

The American Council for Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), for example, has published a couple of reports in this vein. The group has repeatedly called for universities to engage students with more “intellectual diversity,” presenting many different points of view. “Intellectual diversity … is the principle that enables students to become informed and engaged citizens,” asserted a 2009 ACTA report titled “Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas.”

Unfortunately, it seems that, as a means of reestablishing conservative ideas on campus, that strategy isn’t catching fire the way that the progressive insurgency did. Mark Bauerlein assesses the situation on Minding the Campus:

The attempt to co-opt [the diversity movement] with “intellectual diversity,” while garnering much public support, failed time and again on campuses…. The lesson of diversity-skirmishes is that unless critics have a place within the institution, the attacks go nowhere. Campus walls are high and thick, and admission to the centers of decision-making usually requires many years of accreditation (and concomitant acculturation).

Higher education has moved so far from its pre-Buckley orientation that even getting conservative ideas heard is a challenge. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Alliance Defense Fund can tell you, it’s a full-time job just to make sure that conservative ideas aren’t censored.

Depressing though it may be to conservatives, God and Man at Yale’s case for securing elite American universities for the conservative cause failed. When I traveled to Yale last month for a 60th anniversary commemoration of GAMAY, a chalk message on the sidewalk informed me that Yale’s biennial “Sex Week” festivities were soon approaching (“Freshman… You never forget your first time”).

However, thanks to Bill Buckley’s life’s work outside the academy, there are still those who continue to make the case for the reinstatement of traditional values. For that, we should be grateful to Bill Buckley and his defiant assertion, sixty years ago, that God should still be revered at Yale.