Any young conservative – especially one at an educational institution – should be au fait with God and Man at Yale.
Released in 1951, William F. Buckley Jr.’s first book, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom, lambasted every sort of orthodoxy present in post-World War 2, affluent, Ivy League America. As Austin W. Bramwell once described the targets of Buckley’s book, “their religion was liberal Protestant, their outlook modern, and their sensibility elitist.” And one book, written by a conservative Catholic with a traditional outlook and a populist streak, challenged their authority in all matters political, religious, and economic.
Buckley accused numerous members of the Yale Faculty and Administration of attempting to “subvert religion and individualism.” In the book, the young (and recently graduated) Buckley openly named Yale professors who had been teaching atheistic, collectivist, and Keynesian lessons under the guise of “academic freedom,” a phrase any reader of the book will likely come to view with suspicion for years to come. In a particularly McCarthy-eqsue paragraph, Buckley analyzes the Yale Economics department, explaining “of the nine full professors in the department, only four are forthright defenders of individualism.” This may sound remarkable to any student in 2017, but, for a different reason than Buckley may have intended. ‘4 out of 9? That many?’ a student today may marvel.
His argument in the book was that since the administration of the private institution was supposedly answerable to its alumni, it was undermining their wishes by allowing such rubbish to be taught. This view was often criticized as being undemocratic; Theodore Greene even called them “anti-democratic authoritarianism.” But to Buckley, he was simply advocating that the private university cater to its alumni, who had paid their way to their position of authority. A private company disloyal to their elders would be undemocratic to Buckley.
In penning his challenge to the liberal Yale orthodoxy, Buckley also challenges a notion that he admits to having believed at one point about ‘the conservative’ in 1950s America. The conventional conception of his like, as he eloquently describes, is that “the so-called conservative, uncomfortably disdainful of controversy, seldom has the energy to fight his battles, while the radical, so often a member of the minority, exerts disproportionate influence because of his dedication to his cause.” Perhaps it was his eagerness to discredit this perception of ‘his side’ that gave him the fervour to publish to his name an individualist, christian, and free market view of academia.
Buckley had only recently graduated from Yale at the time of his book’s publication, and was now teaching in the Spanish department at his alma mater. Safe to say, he was not yet out of the Yale bubble, and was brave to criticize by name so many of his former teachers, and now… colleagues.
But it was prior to becoming staff and while he was still a student that he became well-known (or infamous) on campus. He had been the Editor of the Yale Daily News, where his editorials produced both praise and passionate criticism. He had also been a star member of the Yale debate squad and an active member of the Political Union. He was not apolitical while an undergraduate, and, in fact, his brief account of his personal disdain for the presence of the National Students Association on his campus is inspiring and relatable to any right-leaning university student in 2017.
He contends passionately in the ‘Evidences of Collectivism in Extracurricular Life’ section of his book that the National Students Association, “which operates at Yale, as it does in 289 colleges and universities, is not an inconspicuous case in point.” He continues, “Yale joined up with it in December 1947, after a close, campus-wide vote.” “Even today, the vast majority of Yale students are unaware that they are being spoken for as constituent members of the NSA by an alert pressure group and on behalf of leftist policies.” Buckley adds that an attempt made by some Yale students (likely the ‘conservatives’ of the campus) to alert the student body what they were singing onto with the NSA failed before the vote.
Buckley despised the idea that Yale students were forced into joining an openly leftist campus association, and thus were associated with a group that opposed pending state bills preventing Communist teachers from being hired by state institutions. This same fight, a fight over student choice and independence, is still being fought by conservative university students today. Though the issues have changed (from communism to post-modernism), there still remains a war being waged on university campuses: where one side advocates collective support for political organizations on behalf of student unions, and an objecting minority who favours the rights of individual students to choose what they sign onto. This interesting glimpse into the campus life of a young William F. Buckley is extraordinarily interesting, and certainly relatable to most conservative students today.
Any young conservative – especially one at an educational institution – should be au fait with God and Man at Yale. Not because it provides a young conservative man or woman in 2017 with anything particularly relevant to offer in a conversation with someone who disagrees with them, but because it is an exhibition of a skill conservatives often find themselves lacking in: challenging authority. By ‘naming names,’ so to speak, Buckley certainly challenged authority with his book, and, in doing so, altered the public perception of conservatives. Conservatives could be cool, too – even when they were pariahs.
Because of the attention it garnered (at the time, mostly negative) God and Man at Yale charted the course for the emerging Conservative movement. It gave its foot soldiers issues to die for: the defence of individualism in a heavily collectivist culture, and reverence for tradition in a modernist (or post-modernist) new world.
Buckley’s book, however, is much more philosophical than it is directly political. Aside from a few paragraphs in the section devoted to the Yale Economics department, actual policy is rarely discussed. Instead, Buckley couples his criticism for 1950s Yale with a deep and complimentary account of what Yale used to be, and the precepts it was founded upon. These were (Protestant) Christianity, economic liberalism, small government, and individualism, in Buckley’s view.
In total, God and Man at Yale is eloquently written and simply exudes intellectual angst. It no doubt inspired a movement that would eventually see success in 1981, with the election of Ronald Reagan as President. But the book is simultaneously more and less than that. While it is a sort of manifesto for 20th Century American Conservatism, it is also a mere 26 year old’s attempt at firing on some of his university professors who rubbed him the wrong way. And, in a lot of ways, the latter is more entertaining and more accessible to most readers.
Anyone open to learning more about ‘Religion at Yale’ and ‘Individualism at Yale’ in 1951, or interested in seeing a Conservative as ‘the rebel’ and Liberalism as ‘the empire’ would do well to add God and Man at Yale to their summer reading list.