The Attack on Yale

"God and Man at Yale, written by William F. Buckley, Jr., is a savage attack on that institution as a hotbed of 'atheism' and 'collectivism.' I find the book is dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory, and a discredit to its author."

Finally, Mr. Buckley comes to the late Lord Keynes. He argues that the texts he denounces are slavish in devotion to Keynes, whereas in fact all four contain major differences from Keynes's position—just as Keynes himself constantly revised and modified his own distinctively capitalist views. The error is unimportant except that it shows Mr. Buckley's ignorance of what he is denouncing. Moreover, the central object of his attack—the policy of fiscal adjustment to prevent a boom-and-bust cycle—is "collectivism" only if Senator Robert Taft is a collectivist, for it has his clear public endorsement.

Mr. Buckley finds radical the views of a leading conservative economist, the late Henry Simons; if he bothered to study it, he would find the same kind of "radicalism" in the work of such men as Hayek, whom he ignorantly praises as a supporter of his sort of individualism. Mr. Chamberlain, in his introduction, makes the same error; it simply is not true that Mr. Buckley's individualism is like that of Lippman's Good Society or that of Frank Knight (if Mr. Buckley read Lippmann and Knight, he would be horrified). In the end Mr. Buckley's indictment of Yale's economics texts turns out to be a self-indictment. This chapter shows him to be a twisted and ignorant young man whose personal views of economics would have seemed reactionary to Mark Hanna.


The worst is yet to come. Having made his "case" against Yale, Mr. Buckley has the appalling effrontery to urge that only those who will support his basic position should be allowed to teach subjects that relate to religion and economics at Yale. He goes on to argue that the alumni have a right and duty to enforce this view—unless they are themselves sympathetic to atheism and collectivism. His personal view of what a university should be is of course his own business, but in urging alumni control of Yale's educational policy he is absolutely wrong, both on the law and on the Yale tradition. His basic argument is that because the alumni pay the piper, they should call the tune. This argument has no more validity than a proposal that the religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church should be dictated to the Pope by the Roman Catholic laymen who pays his bills. Of course any alumnus who disapproves of what Yale is doing may urge changes, and equally of course he may cast his vote as he pleases for the minority of elected members of the Corporation. Obviously also he can always send his money and his sons to other institutions if he pleases. Moreover, Mr. Buckley makes a fair point when he says that most alumni know too little about Yale—although he is totally wrong in his charge that this is the fault of the University authorities. (The principal evidence for this charge is that Mr. Buckley himself was once discouraged from making a speech to a large alumni audience.)

But these considerations do not add up to the conclusion that the alumni as a body have any right or duty or capacity to set the educational policies at the college. They never have and never should. The Yale tradition is one of unusually close and effective cooperation among students, faculty, and alumni, but that tradition is based on an understanding of respective rights and obligations which is entirely different from Mr. Buckley's theory.

The book winds up with a violent attack on the whole concept of academic freedom. It is in keeping with the rest of the volume that Mr. Buckley does not seem to know what academic freedom is. He leaps from one view to another, as suits his convenience, and his view of the facts depends entirely on their usefulness to his argument. He is upset because the Harvard Alumni Magazine gave more space to Mr. Conant and Mr. Grenville Clark, to defend academic freedom, than it gave to a certain Mr. Ober to attack it, but he himself never does any Yale defender of this cause the justice of an accurate statement of his position. He totally fails to understand the vital difference between standards for hiring a professor and standards for firing him, and he has no conception whatever of the basic requirements for attracting and holding distinguished scholars. His theory seems to be that because ex-President Seymour once said he would not hire Communists, he should therefore have fired everyone who would not teach his own religious and economic views. This is one view of a free university; fortunately it is not Yale's or Mr. Seymour's.

In summary, Mr. Buckley's basic technique is that of a pretended firsthand report on the opinions and attitudes of Yale's teachers and textbooks, in which quotations and misquotations are given whatever meaning Mr. Buckley chooses to give them and not the meaning their authors intended. This method is dishonest. In addition there is a constant effort to assert that both Mr. Buckley's views and his suggestions for reform are somehow true to Yale's ancient tradition and virtues. This claim is wholly false. Mr. Buckley in fact holds views of a peculiar and extreme variety, both on economics and on the organization of a university, while his religious orientation, honorable and ancient as it is, emphatically differs from that of Yale.

In attacking Mr. Buckley's book, I do not wish to say, or seem to say, that Yale is perfect. Obviously she is not, and those who love her know that like any other great institution she has problems and weaknesses. Nor would I assert that Christians and conservatives have nothing to worry about at Yale. As an American institution she shows the difficulties of our land and time, and two among these, certainly, are the place of religion and the balance of political and economic belief and teaching. It is possible that Yale should have a stronger and more effective teaching of religion, and that she would benefit from the appointment of a strongly right-wing economist. It is also possible that her immediate needs are different, or even opposite. These are fair questions, of the sort which University officers must constantly and carefully consider, and anyone who troubles to look will find that these questions get the best attention from the distinguished men who are responsible for the University. No Christian or conservative should suppose that this particular book offers him either a genuine case against Yale or a useful method of advancing his views. I can image no more certain way of discrediting both religion and individualism than the acceptance of Mr. Buckley's guidance.

God and Man at Yale has the somewhat larger significance that it is clearly an attempt to start an assault on the freedom of one of America's greatest and most conservative universities. In this sense it is in some degree a sign of the times. It is reported that Mr. Buckley's father is sending a copy to every Yale alumnus, and in a few angry and uncritical circles it may get a hearing it does not deserve. Certainly it will put the Yale authorities to an absurd amount of trouble in making answers to questions based on a set of charges that ought to be beneath contempt.

Yet it is unlikely that all this will do much lasting damage. I will conclude 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.

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