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The Ideologue

In 2000, Yale awarded William F. Buckley Jr. '50 an honorary degree. President Richard C. Levin, referring to Buckley’s famous indictment of the university—God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” first published in 1951 and still very much in print —said, “When you were at Yale, your sharp, youthful observations stirred controversy and challenged us to self-examination.”


God & Man at Yale

In fact, the response at the time was less self-examination than fear, revulsion, and damage control. I was an undergraduate when the book appeared and knew, then or later, almost all of the people mentioned in the book; and I played a small part in preparing the response. What I have to say combines historical research and personal memory and opinion.

The heart of God and Man at Yale is Buckley's assertion “that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world [and] … that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” He said that influential Yale faculty and the university itself were leading students to join the side of evil in both aspects of this struggle. The fate of the university and indeed of the nation was at stake. The solution was for the faculty to be required to inculcate belief in Christ and to explain the evil of “collectivism,” defined as government restrictions on the economy. The orders should come ultimately from the alumni via the Corporation—as the owners of Yale and employers of both the faculty and the administration.

Academic freedom, in the '50s as today, was a cherished concept in higher education, with origins early in the first universities in Europe, although it was not widely acknowledged in the United States until the twentieth century. For Buckley, it was hypocrisy and should be abolished. “Freedomites” (his word) were simply hiding their misconduct behind a false claim. Faculty should owe their positions not to academic freedom, but to alumni. To quote:

The faculty of Yale is morally and constitutionally responsible to the trustees of Yale, who are in turn responsible to the alumni, and thus duty bound to transmit to their students the wisdom, insight, and value judgments which in the trustees' opinion will enable the American citizen to make the optimum adjustment to the community and to the world. … The trustees of Yale, along with the vast majority of the alumni, are committed to the desirability of fostering both a belief in God, and a recognition of the merits of our economic system. … It was the clear responsibility of the trustees to guide the teaching at Yale toward those ends.

Buckley did concede that there should be freedom in scientific research, with a distinction made between teachers and researchers who would work in institutes and not teach. There was no sense in the book of Yale as a research university.

The campus and national circumstances in which Buckley wrote are important. He entered Yale in 1946 after serving in the army and was a close observer of the intensifying Cold War. As chairman (editor-in-chief) of the Yale Daily News throughout 1949 his outspoken editorials were both admired and despised. For example, in March 1949 he denounced sociology professor Raymond (“Jungle Jim”) Kennedy '28, teacher of a popular course, for dismissing religion as a matter of “ghosts, spirits, and emotion.” A year later, Kennedy was murdered while doing research in Indonesia. He remained, however, Buckley’s exhibit number one.

The American Studies Program at Yale was meant to meet the threat of Communism.

In the winter of 1950, Buckley’s last semester as an undergraduate, Senator Joseph McCarthy gave his name to a national campaign to find alleged Communists and their sympathizers and purge them from the government, universities, Hollywood, wherever they lurked. Buckley admired McCarthy and would write his second book on the man. Meanwhile, the very conservative Yale president Charles Seymour '08, '11PhD, was winning approval from the McCarthyites for pledging that there were not and never would be known Communists on the faculty, and from Buckley for having called on “all members of the faculty, as members of a thinking body, to recognize the tremendous validity and power of the teaching of Christ.”

Seymour acted on these beliefs when he negotiated a $500,000 endowment for the minuscule and unfunded American Studies program from the ultraconservative philanthropist William Robertson Coe. Seymour proposed that the expanded program carry this description: “The American Studies Program at Yale is designed to inculcate in our students an appreciation of the ideals fostered by our forefathers and exemplified by the development of free American institutions. It is designed as a positive and affirmative method of meeting the threat of Communism.” The last sentence, said Seymour, is “the nut of the matter.”

Coe replied that the description should also refer to “State Socialism”—the real threat, since the American people were not likely to accept Communism. Seymour, agreeing, expatiated on the viciousness of the New Deal. “The extension of Government aid and the consequent deterrent to individual initiative is not in accord with the American tradition. … This should be made clear in setting forth the program.” Buckley himself could not have said it better.

Seymour retired in June 1950, as Buckley was contemplating writing his book. The new president, a young history professor named A. Whitney Griswold '29, '33PhD, was appalled by Seymour’s description of American Studies. He personally rewrote it, removing the taint of indoctrination, for the Course of Study Bulletin. As American setbacks in the Korean War stimulated McCarthyism’s hunt for subversives, Griswold became a national leader in the cause of academic freedom, publicly making the case that the ability of scholars to teach and pursue research free from political dictation is essential for a democracy.

Sidney Lovett’s popular course on the Bible was known to generations as “Cokes and smokes.”

Meanwhile, on campus, Buckley was hard at work on God and Man. The Yale establishment knew what was coming. Chaplain Sidney Lovett '13—himself a target of the book because of the relaxed character of his popular course on the Bible (known to generations as “Cokes and smokes”) —reported that prominent alumni who had seen advance text were favorably impressed. “Bill,” wrote the chaplain in a letter to historian George W. Pierson '26, '33PhD,

is a kind of McCarthy, in the academic precincts, more intelligent, more clever, and, I believe, more honest than the senator. But it’s the same technique employed—men are accused, tried, and condemned without a chance to state their case. Somewhere the “godlessness” of Yale is linked up with the socialization of our government process, and Christianity and free-enterprise are backed as gospel and law.

The book was published in October 1951. Griswold found himself accused of dereliction for not mentioning religion in his inaugural address. Yale officialdom reacted in three ways.

In his most formal and public response, Griswold appointed a committee of venerable alumni and worthies of the Corporation (Yale’s board of trustees) to survey “the intellectual and spiritual welfare” of the university, its students, and its faculty. The chair was the Reverend Henry Sloane Coffin '97; the youngest member was Edwin (Ted) Blair '24 of the Yale Corporation. The average age was 66. The committee talked with a few faculty, university officials, and alumni, but did not talk with students. Its four-page report—firm on affirmation, weak on evidence—was sent to all alumni.

Without actually mentioning Buckley, the report announced that faculties were not “trying to … indoctrinate students at Yale with subversive theories.” And: “the moment the classroom presentation of an unpopular position is restricted or prohibited by university mandate, the search for truth is checked and the integrity of the university comes into question.” As for religion, “the committee believes that religious life at Yale is deeper and richer than it has been in many years and stronger than in most places outside the University. The charge that Yale is encouraging irreligion is without foundation.”

McGeorge Bundy denounced Buckley as “a twisted and ignorant young man.”

Unofficially, the Yale administration encouraged and circulated published rebuttals to Buckley, especially an excoriating essay in the Atlantic Monthly by McGeorge Bundy '40 (soon to be dean of faculty at Harvard). Bundy denounced God and Man for “insidious innuendos” based on dishonest use of flimsy and unverifiable evidence. The chapter on economics, said Bundy, showed Buckley “to be a twisted and ignorant young man.” Bundy concluded with three predictions:

First, if any large group of alumni, however rich and angry, ever tries to force upon the Yale Corporation any fixed and required line of teaching, they will be firmly but politely told to take their money elsewhere; second, if the Corporation ever accedes to such attempts to enforce upon the University any prescribed line, the best of Yale’s faculty and student body will leave New Haven for good; third, neither of these things is likely to happen—and least of all in response to the crusade of William Buckley, Jr.

Griswold avoided direct public comment, but in private mingled the lofty approach of the Coffin committee with the Bundy bite. “I am only saddened,” he told a classmate and loyal alumnus who had found Buckley’s arguments persuasive, “to see how many of our alumni have been willing to believe him [Buckley] without making any effort to investigate the facts for themselves.”

What actually happened in Yale’s classrooms was almost irrelevant for Buckley’s concept of the nature and goals of teaching. It was not important to him to distinguish between outright attacks on religion and failure to proselytize; both were sins. His sources on teaching were selective quotations from textbooks and word of mouth from students who shared his views. He spurned suggestions that he talk with professors whom he was accusing of irreligion and hostility to free-market economics. His allegations of “collectivism” dealt almost entirely with the economics department. (The charges reverberated for years, so that Woodbridge Hall and economics chair Lloyd G. Reynolds and his colleagues pursued sustained efforts to persuade critics of the department’s strength.) But lest other departments be considered innocent, he simply declared them guilty: a “complete survey would take us into the departments of political science, history, sociology, and others.”

Lecture courses relying on textbooks were replaced by courses requiring students to think for themselves.

God and Man did not cause Yale to reexamine its principles, but it did lead to more extensive and effective communications with alumni, evolving from the unimaginative Alumni Board of the 1950s to, eventually, the multifaceted Association of Yale Alumni. (This magazine, unspeakably dreary in the 1950s—on that I agree with Buckley—improved decade by decade.) I was involved in this process, in a minor way. President Griswold offered me a job as one of four members of the development office. I worked there for 12 months in 1954-55 before going to graduate school. A large part of my assignment was to prepare reports on what was happening in Yale College and to draft responses to alumni who thought Yale was going to hell.

The most important change in Yale, however, would have proceeded had Buckley never written: the predominance of large lecture courses relying on textbooks was replaced by courses requiring students to think for themselves.

On a personal note: I met Bill Buckley first in the spring of 1951 as a freshman and aspiring Yale Daily News editor. My colleagues may not have believed in God (I never asked) but we certainly believed in Bill’s extraordinary brilliance—although not necessarily in his big ideas. Years later, a common addiction to oceans brought us together. In 1978 when I was master of Pierson College I invited Bill to speak on sailing. The Pierson dining hall was packed literally to the window sills. We agreed to say nothing about politics. It was a wonderful evening.  the end






David Frum offers a new interpretation of Buckley’s legacy—one that would have surprised the man himself.

Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhaus surveys the Yale of Buckley’s day and how the young conservative found his voice there.

Excerpts from God and Man at Yale.

Buckley taught a writing seminar at Yale in 1997 and wrote about it for the magazine.

Join the discussion about William F. Buckley Jr. Send us your comments and memories and read what others have to say.


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