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The New York Sun


Classroom Warfare

May 21, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Reading a description of a university culture in which left-leaning professors preach anti-American and anticapitalist sentiment while free-market philosophy and devout Christianity are generally relegated to the sidelines of polite discussion, one pictures any number of college campuses today. One of the most striking things about William F. Buckley Jr.'s landmark manifesto of 1951, "God and Man at Yale," is how similar academic culture was in the late 1940s when he was a Yalie. The reign of the "tenured radicals," he shows us, began way before the '80s.

As an undergraduate at Yale after World War II, Buckley was not with the program. Dueling with liberal opponents in the pages of the Yale Daily News, he felt that Yale was missing an opportunity to give students the tools to grapple meaningfully with the demons menacing an increasingly challenging world—so strongly that a few years after graduating, he wrote this book, which became a national sensation.

Buckley's argument was specific: He envisioned a Yale that inculcated in its students, first, the teachings of Christianity, and, second, a commitment to free-market economics and democracy. To him, the crucial battle was between individual initiative and disempowering groupthink, with the Cold War an obvious backdrop. In an oft-quoted passage, he asserted, "The duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level."

His call was not for the views he espoused to be included alongside their opposites in a quest for objectivity, along the lines of today's Center for the American University at the Manhattan Institute or John Tomasi's Political Theory Project at Brown. Buckley argued that these were issues regarding which there could be made no moral allowance for "objectivity."

"There is surely not a department at Yale that is uncontaminated with the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no absolute truths," he observed, which "makes impossible any intelligible conception of an omnipotent, purposeful, and benign Supreme Being." He was appalled at textbooks used on campus such as a political science tome suggesting we "free ourselves from some of the generalizations, abstractions, and conventional fictions that so often obscure a clear view of the realities of the American Government" and embrace interventionist economic policies rather than wallowing in "Constitution worship."

That Buckley was only 24 when he wrote this painstakingly reasoned book, methodically taking down potential objections to his characterization of Yale, is almost hard to believe. But only out of a limp politeness could one pretend that it remains as relevant an engagement with academic culture as it was so long ago. ("I Love Lucy" made its premiere the week it hit stores).

When Buckley wrote, college presidents at least made references to God in their speeches. But the "diversity" fetish now reigning on college campuses makes the notion of making Christianity a touchstone of the curriculum as idly antique as calling for students to wear coats and ties.

The real-life danger of a war with the Soviet Union gave a certain cogency to Buckley's elevation of free-market philosophy and low taxation as a corrective to "collectivism." But that specter haunts us no more, such that it is a fashion statement among Blue Americans to refer to the welfare state economies of Scandinavia as an ideal.

And as to Buckley's call for alumni to require the faculty to preach the virtues of Christianity and capitalism, this may have seemed vaguely plausible when said alumni were largely white men of affairs with three names. Today, however, the alumni are a much more heterogeneous group, and imprinted by the teachings Buckley reviled, just as he feared would happen if his prescriptives were not attended to immediately.

Yet here and elsewhere, one good point about the book is that Buckley was a capable predictor of the future. "If and when the menace of Communism is gone, other vital battles, at present subordinated, will emerge to the foreground"—ecce identity politics and the enshrinement of group identity over the individual. Reading Buckley's preface to the 50th anniversary edition describing the contempt heaped upon his book, I was reminded of the reception of my book criticizing racial preference policies, "Losing the Race." Stewards of "academic freedom" dismissed my reasoning as immoral rather than alternate, often having read not more than a chapter or two of the book. Melodramatic epithets flew thick, hurled by people blissfully unaware of the contradiction in upholding free inquiry while readily tarring people expressing certain views as "not with the program."

In fact, given this plus ça change factor, "God and Man at Yale" was only slightly less quixotic in 1951 than it would be now. Professors then, as now, prided themselves on philosophical impartiality, but with the codicil that morality trumps impartiality in some areas. This was true of Mr. Buckley as well, but where for him, morality required bringing God and Adam Smith into the discussion, for the Yale faculty, morality required holding both at arm's length.

The ultimate value of the book has been as the catalyst for a conservative consensus that now has a place at the table in the wide world of American political debate. Mr. Buckley stressed that one could not assume that campuses would gradually embrace Christianity and capitalism via the truth gradually winning over reasoning minds: "Truth can never win unless it is promulgated. Truth does not carry within itself an antitoxin to falsehood." If so, if Mr. Buckley could choose between his book's having changed the way some undergraduates were taught or the wider impact it has had spawning the National Review and "Firing Line," he would presumably choose the latter.

Not that the book has had no effect on college campuses. The post-World War II campus Mr. Buckley describes was not an especially political place. However, today the conservative movement that "God and Man at Yale" galvanized is studiously reviled on college campuses, such that acquiring a conception of political conservatism as evil is part of the warp and woof of the modern college experience.

Collateral damage, I suppose. Only a small portion of America's learning takes place in university classrooms, and, albeit indirectly, "God and Man at Yale" did more than its share in serving as an American "antitoxin to falsehood."

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