GEORGE H. NASH
For William F. Buckley Jr., the significance of God and Man at Yale was both immediate and enormous. With an inadvertent assist from Yale’s wrathful establishment, a star was born: Within weeks of the book’s publication, he was a national celebrity. Much more important, a conservative star was born. The controversy catapulted the debonair debater to the foreground of the emerging conservative intellectual and journalistic community in the United States. Without the succès de scandale of God and Man at Yale, Buckley might never have successfully founded National Review in 1955. It quickly became the preeminent conservative publication in the United States. Without Buckley, the movement might have floundered indefinitely in its search for sophisticated leadership.
His first book had even broader consequences for American conservatism. Although not the first 20th-century volume to voice conservative criticisms of liberalism in higher education, God and Man at Yale remains the locus classicus for what is now a burgeoning genre of conservative social criticism: the exposure of liberal bias and hypocrisy in American academe.
Buckley’s pioneering exposé and the ensuing brouhaha had another, more subtle influence on conservative intellectuals: It introduced a permanently populist dimension into their critique of education. Although conservatives had long decried the decadence and degradation of standards in higher education, it was Buckley who first argued that the problem inhered in a power structure controlled by a self-serving elite — a charge that continues to resonate on the right.
Today God and Man at Yale lives on because its courageous author raised enduring questions concerning faith, freedom, and education that continue to roil American public life. When all is said and done, what is the purpose of a college or university? Who should define and oversee the fulfillment of its goals? Its faculty? Its students? Its administrators? The parents and alumni who foot most of the bills? The federal government, which now, nearly everywhere, intrudes?
Perhaps the final lesson of God and Man at Yale is this. Just as it has been said that war is too important to leave to the generals, so is education too serious a pursuit to entrust to any single, unaccountable authority.
— George H. Nash is author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 and editor of the newly published Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath.
God and Man at Yale lifted an aura of reverence that had been extended to academic and cultural authorities in the East. Buckley posed the question: What ought to be the mission of Yale? Buckley saw Yale as ruled by an easygoing, unreflective establishment that, for the most part, would rather not engage in serious discussion on the mission of the university. His audacious book prompted the faculty and administrators to consider their proper place in society, if only to defend the personal reputations Buckley had so ferociously attacked. Buckley’s book also helped mobilize a popular, even populist, backlash against the ruling opinions of the Northeastern elite. It turned out that the book had struck a nerve; it was popular with many in the alumni community — and beyond — who were eager to see this flamboyant stylist fight for the traditionalist cause. They had found a learned and articulate champion who could take on the sacred cows of the establishment he seemed to belong to, but most definitely did not.
— Danilo Petranovich teaches in the directed-studies program and the political-science department at Yale.