America’s elite universities aren’t disappearing anytime soon. And there’s hope for conservatism on campus yet.
Published in 1951 right after Bill Buckley’s graduation, God and Man at Yale launched a debate, a controversy, and Buckley’s career. The book was an intellectual thunderclap and the reaction was fierce. McGeorge Bundy called the book “dishonest,” “false in its theory,” and — a shot at Bill — “a discredit to its author.” What caused all the fuss? Bill argued that the higher-education clerisy was undermining the American way: teaching Marxist-infused economics, dismissing traditional religion, advocating Western weakness in the face of the Communist challenge. What was especially infuriating to the educational establishment was that this young writer had the receipts to prove his position — and that Bill was precocious enough to publish them.
Now, National Review Institute has chosen God and Man at Yale as the subject of our first William F. Buckley Jr. essay contest. College freshmen and sophomores read the book and were invited to apply its insights to life on today’s college campus. The winning essay is published here at National Review Online.
Almost every Wednesday night of my freshman year at college, I donned my blue, two-piece suit to prepare for an evening of debate. The topics ranged from practical politics to philosophy, morality, religion, and everywhere in between. The debate society within which these debates take place, the Federalist Party, leaves no ambiguity as to its political philosophy: it’s unabashedly conservative. The real kind of conservative — the kind that worships God and tries to live out virtue.
So, I surely go to school at some obscure, Christian college, right? No, I go to Yale.
And the Federalist Party’s existence is not the only thing about Yale that listeners of conservative media might be surprised to hear. They might be similarly surprised to learn that the largest student organization on campus, with over 350 members, is the William F. Buckley Jr. Program. The program hosts lectures, debates, and seminars aimed at bringing a conservative political message to campus.
I suppose most conservatives, when thinking about the political climate at Yale, would not expect to hear that the school’s largest student group is named after one of the founders of the post-war conservative movement. They’d expect to hear about the liberal echo chamber, the socialist indoctrination, and the “snowflakes.” Well, there is a lot of that. And, as Buckley makes clear in God and Man at Yale, there has been “a lot of that” for quite some time — at least since the late 1940s.
I could talk about how I have to carefully word my political comments in class discussion, how I have been forced to watch a PSA video informing students that masturbation is the safest form of sex during the COVID pandemic, or how other students in my residential college have (more than descriptively) labeled my roommate and me “The Republicans.” I could talk about all this and more, but come on (man!): This is really the low-hanging fruit. After reading God and Man at Yale the summer before my freshman year and consuming years of conservative media, I was prepared for the Left’s cultural and administrative dominance over the university. I was not, however, expecting to encounter a robust conservative community.
What is even more perplexing than finding a conservative community at Yale, however, is comparing the project of large portions of American conservatives with that of the book that sparked the post-war American conservative movement, God and Man at Yale. Take, as an example, the Buckley Program at Yale which I mentioned earlier. It’s a wonderful organization, and I’m proud to be one of its members. But its mission statement, which is read aloud before each event, would be recognized by its namesake as something wholly liberal. The program states its goal as “promoting intellectual diversity” and allowing that “all perspectives must be heard and examined in good faith.” I don’t at all mean to indict the Buckley Program; its work far outstrips its mission statement. Yet, its mission statement seems to represent a prevailing opinion among conservatives, that the purpose of education is to present all perspectives equally without commenting on which position is better or worse. Such attitudes seem to contradict directly the claims of Buckley in GAMAY, who calls academic freedom a “hoax” and goes to great lengths to demonstrate the absurdity of treating all ideas as equally deserving of examination.
So, how did the American conservative movement come to flip the thesis of its foundational work on its head? A historical answer to this question is not that hard to postulate: The Left has come to dominate many of our institutions. Incipient in Buckley’s Yale of the late 1940s, nurtured in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, and now ascendant on modern college campuses is a leftist orthodoxy. This new orthodoxy, like all orthodoxies, has set boundaries of acceptable speech and behavior. Much of conservatism lies outside of these boundaries. As a result, conservatives have taken up the old liberal mantle: claiming that the boundaries are foul.
The boundaries are foul. Still, conservatives need to exercise caution in crafting their reasoning for claiming so. In their fight against the new orthodoxy’s particular boundaries, many conservatives have begun to argue against all boundaries, something as foreign to conservatism as unquestioning faith in capital-P Progress. I can understand how seizing the banner of “intellectual diversity” or “academic freedom” might be seen by some conservatives as an expedient strategy for not being banished from the educational and cultural playing field entirely. I do not, however, see adopting this viewpoint as a viable long-term commitment for the conservative movement.
This is foremostly because “academic freedom” obscures the true purpose of education. The academic freedomites conceive of the classroom as a place for ideas to clash and do battle with one another. Such an understanding is wrong. In GAMAY, Buckley provides an analogy for the classroom that demonstrates the proper, classical understanding of education’s purpose: “The practice field on which the gladiators of the future are taught to use their weapons . . . and are inspired with the virtue of their cause.” The classroom is supposed to be where the most important truths and values — those that have stood the test of time and compose the very foundation of our civilization — are passed down to future generations. It is the last place where these truths and values should be regarded as merely one opinion among countless equals.
Given the current state of higher education, wherein students seem to be inculcated with precisely the values that conservatives see as detrimental, settling for “academic freedom” doesn’t sound all that bad to many. As conservatives, we must aim higher. If we want our ideas to be taken seriously in the university, we must ourselves assert that they are serious. We cannot tell students that all ideas are created equal; we know unequivocally that they are not. Classical philosophy and critical theory are not equal. One teaches students humanity’s unique nature in the universe so that they may build; the other teaches them the opposite so that they may dismantle. Consequently, the latter should not be given the same space and examination in the university as the former.
One way to view conservatism’s turn away from this classical view of education is as a loss of confidence in our own values. In the past, conservatives felt quite comfortable asserting that some truths are fundamental, that such truths cannot be improved upon by any amount of human progress, and, therefore, that such truths may be indoctrinated by parents or teachers. Ask the average conservative for his or her opinion on “indoctrination” today and you will find confidence in its wickedness.
Of those conservatives who do possess confidence in their values, many have made the rational, but fatal, decision to keep their children away from universities like Yale. The bravest of such parents send their children to elite universities to study something in STEM. (It’s no coincidence that the Buckley Program views STEM majors as a target group for outreach.) Then, whenever a report comes out about how the faculty of these universities, particularly in the humanities, are overwhelmingly liberal, conservatives grumble and groan. This is then taken as further evidence to avoid these universities and these fields, giving rise to a self-perpetuating cycle. What conservatives fail to notice is that we are the victims of our own shortsightedness. After all, where do we expect conservative humanists to come from if we write off the humanities by telling our children it’s a liberal domain?
Regardless of how much we desire it, Yale, and the rest of America’s elite universities, aren’t disappearing anytime soon. These institutions have power, money, connections, and — to be completely honest — many of the top intellectuals and instructors in the world, even (and especially) in the humanities. Whether we like it or not, these institutions will continue to shape the future of our country. Just take a look at the current Supreme Court. Four justices from Yale. Four justices from Harvard. One justice from Notre Dame.
Imagine what the contemporary conservative movement would look like without Ivy League graduates. No Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Ben Sasse, Tom Cotton, Elise Stefanik, Ron DeSantis, Dan Crenshaw, Ben Shapiro, or Michael Knowles. All graduated during or after the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. And that’s just what a quick Google search reveals; there are certainly more. If these schools aren’t going away, we might as well use them to achieve conservative ends — or at least hinder them from achieving liberal ones.
One school I mentioned, Notre Dame, presents an interesting objection. Notre Dame is Catholic — but meaningfully, not just nominally. It requires all students to take courses in Catholic theology, separates male and female dormitories to discourage sinful behaviors like fornication, and has a chapel in every residence hall where Mass is said multiple times per week. Additionally, Notre Dame’s reputation as an academic institution is on par with many of the nation’s top universities and continues to improve. The question arises: What if we build an alternate system of top-tier universities, like Notre Dame, that embody and inculcate conservative values?
Altogether, this is not a bad idea. The picture I painted of Notre Dame is, of course, too simplistic. The school’s doctrinal orthodoxy has had to suffer some blows on its quest to prestige, and it, too, has adopted a commitment to some form of “academic freedom.” These complications aside, the general point remains. When the old centers of America’s higher education have imploded and have begun to pursue a course detrimental to the nation’s interest, maybe they should be abandoned and reconstructed elsewhere. After all, it was the liberalness of Harvard that led a group of orthodox Congregationalist ministers to found what eventually became Yale.
Still, I’m not ready to give up on Old Eli. Maybe I’m just too blinded by proximity to acknowledge the ugly truth. But maybe the insider’s view gives me, along with other Yale conservatives, access to enough knowledge to make the right diagnosis: Conservatism is not dead at Yale — not even close. Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of pious and passionate conservatives, starting with Buckley but continued by each successive generation, conservatism at Yale is alive and well.
Where there is life, there remains hope.