ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
The publication of God and Man at Yale remains an important event in the history of the post–World War II conservative movement. It accurately assessed the state of higher education in 1950, correctly anticipated what ensued in the coming decades, and advanced reforms that have taken hold. Buckley had essentially four critiques of universities:
That secular humanism, in the guise of “academic freedom,” had become the new religion on campus. Rather than pass along to coming generations eternal truths received from previous ones — essentially, that all human freedoms emanate not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God and that this tenet was superior to all others — universities had embraced what Buckley would later term “ideological equalitarianism.” That view proclaimed all ideas and all purported truths of equal value. WFB insisted that it was hardly inevitable that truth would prevail in the hearts and minds of the young. It needed to be inculcated under the tender guidance of learned and, yes, “believing” instructors. On this one, things remain much as they were when he began this debate in 1950.
That the struggle between individualism and collectivism was the same battle as that between good and evil, or good and secular humanism, being played out on another level. He complained that collectivism, whether in the form of hard Marxism, the softer Fabian-socialist alternative, or “mixed economy” liberalism, had become the new orthodoxy in the academy. In the past 60 years, thanks to the pioneering work of Milton Friedman, the Chicago school, and many others, free-market economists more than hold their own in economics departments at most campuses. On some, they predominate.
In recommending that alumni set policy for universities through their choice of university trustees, WFB envisioned parents and students as customers and universities as purveyors of products. This principle undergirds what became the “school choice” movement. If, in his view, schools exist for the benefit of children, rather than teachers’ unions, universities should perpetuate enduring values, rather than academic fads or anti-capitalist or anti-religious credos of individual professors in the name of “academic freedom.” In Buckley’s eyes, academic freedom was nothing less than an endeavor to enforce ideological conformity. Diversity of opinion characterizes too few campuses today, as it did then, with self-identified conservatives still a rarity.
In advocating that the research and teaching activities that account for much of university life be vested in different hands, Buckley anticipated both the proliferation of think tanks (universities without students) and current demands that senior faculty teach more and that tuition costs be brought into line with actual costs of providing a university education. Were WFB to update God and Man, he might note that, just as faculty supplanted trustees in the formulation of curriculum and policy, power has since passed from the faculty to ever-expanding university bureaucracies. It is from there that so much of present-day social engineering on campus emanates.
Buckley is no longer a prophet without honor on his own campus. Yale awarded him an honorary degree a decade ago. Last week, its president kicked off a conference on Buckley’s first book. In his later years, WFB taught writing classes at Yale. Today, he is the subject of seminars at Yale that assess his ideas, contributions, and lasting influence.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg, Ph.D., is currently researching a book about William F. Buckley Jr. Last year, he taught a seminar on WFB at Yale.
Bill Buckley wrote 40 nonfiction books, but this was the first and, unlike most of the others, God and Man at Yale remains in print. Sixty years later, why does it still speak to us? When he prepared a new introduction for the book in 1977, Bill expressed embarrassment over its style, regretting some of his youthful formulations. It’s actually well-written and engaging, despite sustained discussions of long-dead Yale professors and textbooks. But GAMAY lives on primarily because it raised all the right questions and raised them first and with an undergraduate’s earnestness.
The modern university and the modern state were hand-in-glove from the very beginning, two parts of the same project to transform American life. Each got more and more liberal as time went on. Bill spotted this trend early and yelled Stop! The voters listened; the trustees and alumni, alas, did not. With few exceptions, American higher education is now much more lefty than it used to be, and much, much more lefty than mainstream political opinion.
Still, there is some good news. Within the academy, departments of economics are probably more conservative than they were in 1951. Although agnosticism and atheism continue to deaden official campus life, some students have taken to organizing their own religious societies and services, making their own joyful noise to the Lord.
The biggest question that the book leaves us with is how WFB could have been so right in his diagnosis of the university’s problem, and so wrong in his prescription for it. I don’t know of a single instance in which, answering a Buckleyesque call, a school’s alumni have risen up and persuaded the trustees to rein in the faculty’s and administration’s leftward policies. It just doesn’t happen. Ah, perhaps more people should read God and Man at Yale . . .
— Charles R. Kesler is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.