Politics & Policy

God and Man at Yale, Now

WFB’s classic at 60

Sixty years ago this month, William F. Buckley Jr.’s first book, God and Man at Yale, was published. What was so special about God and Man at Yale, and how does it stand the test of time?



It was 1976. God and Man at Yale needed a new introduction, and I had dinner with WFB the night he wrote it. It was after an NR editorial day; after much conviviality, Bill returned to the office, where he wrote a several-thousand-word essay, revisiting his first book in a style as feisty as the original. (He suggested that Yale give itself to the State of Connecticut: Connecticut could pay its bills, and modern Yale could not say why it should remain private, though Bill added that he could.)


One aspect of God and Man at Yale’s original impact has vanished. Yale in 1951 still pretended to be a bastion of capitalism and Christianity; Bill told the world this was a con, to keep alums sending their sons and their money to New Haven. Yale now stands openly for critical thought, detached from any larger community. That stance may be more congenial to the life of the mind, if it were pursued rigorously, though what it means in practice is a tilt to the left.


What remains vital today in God and Man at Yale is Bill’s impudence. He was the conservative as enfant terrible — but this role reversal was justified by liberalism’s own adoption of all the defenses of orthodoxy. In power, the heralds of the new age became as stuffy as the reactionaries they had displaced. The eruption of the New Left in the Sixties simply displaced them with new reactionaries, further left.


God and Man at Yale is a standing invitation to get under their skin, and an example of how a bright kid once did it.


— Richard Brookhiser, a National Review senior editor, is author of the new book James Madison.




The publication of God and Man at Yale marked the birth of the modern American conservative movement.


To paraphrase George Will, before there was the Tea Party there was Newt Gingrich, and before there was Newt Gingrich there was Ronald Reagan, and before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was God and Man at Yale.


God and Man at Yale was not just a book — it was a political act. How else can you characterize a book that called parents, alumni, and trustees to action against a university administration? That urged the conservative majority to rise up and overthrow the liberal elite?


God and Man at Yale declared that there was a conservative tradition — not only at Yale, but in the nation founded on a belief in God, a trust in free enterprise, and a reliance on the individual.


God and Man at Yale stirred up not only the Yale administration but also conservatives looking for direction and leadership.


God and Man at Yale is provocative and witty, conservative and libertarian, elitist and populist, capitalist and anti-Communist — a true reflection of William F. Buckley Jr., who by reason of his wealth and upbringing and free spirit could have been the playboy of the Western world but chose instead to be the Saint Paul of the modern American conservative movement.


His first public sermon was titled “God and Man at Yale.”


— Lee Edwards is author of William F. Buckley: The Maker of a Movement, among other books.



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. 



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.

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