Education

The New Battle at Yale

The campus of Yale University in 2012. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)
Conservatives fighting for the soul of William F. Buckley’s alma mater should not abandon academic freedom.

William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale 70 years ago. Much has changed since then, both at Yale and in the world. Now is a good time to examine what, if anything, has changed for the better since Buckley’s day, as well as what uniquely modern challenges Yale faces.

Michael Samaritano’s recent essay discussing the state of American higher education is insightful on both of these fronts. As Buckley pointed out, conservatives cannot abandon the fight for control over any institution, especially not one as influential as the academy. Lofty aspirations to “academic freedom” are meaningless should they empower collectivists, fanatics, and relativists, after all.

In his debut book, Buckley famously accused specific professors of being outright hostile to faith and provided evidence of subversive teaching within the syllabi of economics courses. Christian organizations were headed by and religious positions were held by atheists. Required textbooks praised the central planning of the USSR and unanimously claimed that government debt was a nonissue.

I haven’t seen much evidence of these specific complaints at Yale today. The economics reading seems far more balanced, and readings no longer imply that government programs tend to increase productivity. The inward-facing, borderline-secular Yale University Christian Association has been replaced with an array of smaller, more fervent, and evangelical faith groups. The Saint Thomas More Catholic Center and Christian Union Lux, unlike their predecessor, would never “refuse to proclaim Christianity as the true religion.” Campus culture has shifted in these areas since Buckley’s day, and he surely deserves some credit.

While I admit that this could in part be due to my own luck, I have yet to encounter required material that has been subversive in the manner that Buckley describes. To be sure, there are some patently absurd courses being taught at this university. “Is that Racist?” and “Latinx Ethnography” do not quite meet my foreign relatives’ expectations of what American higher education has to offer. Nevertheless, the nature of these classes is transparent — only a student who is already a leftist would enroll. They are not mandatory for graduation, and, with very few exceptions, they are not filling up any hundred-person lecture halls. In fact, behind closed doors, many students admit that they enroll in these sorts of classes only for an easy boost to their grade-point average. This is not to deny the power of indoctrination. But people are not taking these classes particularly seriously. Indeed, they’re not even that popular — a major, at least: In 2020, a whopping five students graduated having majored in “women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.”

And yet conservative media are not wrong to lambast the Ivy League as a bastion of leftism. The fringes of the Left do control Yale. Conservatives are simply wrong about how it works. Since Buckley graduated, ideological pedagogues have generally lost their influence. Influential intellectual courses are remarkably neutral.

The current problem with the intellectual environment at Yale is that the students control it.

During my undergraduate career, I’ve been rather open about my political leanings. I have had the privilege of studying under three Sterling Professors (Sterling being the highest honor bestowed upon a faculty member for outstanding research). I would describe none of the three as conservative — but they most certainly are not revolutionary. One has the tendency to get into rants about the insanity of the “defund the police” movement. Another bonded with me over the tendency of popular historical narratives of U.S. history to have an aggressively pro-progressive bias. The third offered me support when I was dealing with backlash for my views.

These academics are not silent bystanders, either. There’s the famous story of the liberal professors Erika and Nicholas Christakis facing down a mob of angry students for daring to defend free speech, with the latter being yet another holder of the rank of Sterling. But this sort of clash, between rabid students and celebrated academics, is not uncommon. Two years ago, the conservative Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield visited Yale to speak to students about historical and political thought. This, predictably, led to outrage. The Yale Daily News ran an op-ed condemning Mansfield as “racist, homophobic and misogynist.” And who came to the defense of Mansfield? It was not some conservative students’ organization or a right-wing media outlet. In a similar way that religious organizations at Yale were once internally focused and led by atheists, conservative groups today tend to avoid the controversial campus slugfests. The College Republicans have virtually no influence; the Buckley Program, which Samaritano (rightfully) praised, has no official stance on the vast majority of current events, and several other ostensibly right-wing groups are led by self-described progressives. No, it was Bryan Garsten of the political-science department, renowned for his mild manners, knowledgeability, and kindness, who wrote a powerful commentary in response.

Many of my conservative peers at Yale have similar stories. For the record, the staff at Yale is in no way right-leaning. But it is astonishing how deeply resentful many of the most esteemed academics in the country are of the radical trends captivating the American youth. It seems to have resulted in a serious shift in classroom discussions. I never expected to be siding with my instructor against my peers when discussing the inaccuracies of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Souls of White Folk.” Rarely do I hear professors mocking conservatives, libertarians, or Christians. Sure, you get the occasional jab at Trump. But the main object of their criticism seems to be cancel culture.

Through the Left’s crusades for ideological purity and its full-throttle swerve to revolutionary politics, it has begun to alienate college professors, once their most ardent supporters. The phone camera and tweet terrify the professor — all it takes is one out-of-context clip or quote, taken by one vicious student, to place a decades-long career of research in jeopardy. Yet the academy is anything if not stubborn. Professors continue to cling to the selective, “antiquated” Directed Studies program they have come to love, despite the annual backlash it receives for placing too much focus on the Western canon.

Samaritano is right to say the Right mustn’t give up on Yale. There are hundreds of conservative students here, whether they be in Yale Political Union parties including the Federalists and the Party of the Right, in religious groups, or in the Buckley Program. But I must disagree with him and Buckley. Yes, the ability to discriminate against viewpoints is an important aspect of higher education. Professors should not treat, say, Marx with the same degree of respect as Burke. Burke is better than Marx, and we should say that. Yet there is a movement broiling under the scenes among the intellectual elites we are so prone to bash. It is quite possible that the academy will never be conservative, and there are plenty of dispositional, economical, and philosophical reasons why. However, if we take up the banner of academic freedom, it could be instrumental in restoring freedom of speech to college campuses. I have been harassed and blackmailed for my political views by students, not by staff. Conservative speakers should not be chased out by frothing undergraduates.

Perhaps I’m biased, or perhaps I’m too optimistic. But the fight for free speech on campus should not be framed as the Right versus the Left. I’m willing to go out for lunch with a socialist. I think he is wrong, but I do not think he necessarily wishes harm upon my person. Conservatives should make common cause with sympathetic academics. This is not a political fight: It is a battle between those who seek the truth and those who wish to destroy it.

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