What Conservative Critics of Higher Education Share

For 70 years, even as their complaints have evolved, they have consistently aimed to troll.

William F. Buckley sits with his hands placed behind his head.
Don Cravens / Getty

About the author: Virginia Heffernan writes a monthly column for Wired and hosts the podcast This Is Critical on Stitcher.

Seventy years ago, William F. Buckley Jr. published his keening lament for American higher education, God and Man at Yale. Chagrin pervaded GAMAY, as Buckley later branded the book, but it also stung in a satisfying way—a high-handed swat at the Ivy League by a debonair twerp who’d only recently graduated. GAMAY has since inspired seven decades of tribute acts by more and less debonair conservatives.

Then, just this month, the college administrator and Shakespeare scholar Pano Kanelos announced that he and a cadre of renegade ideologues are starting a school in Texas expressly to exorcise from academia the nameless ghosts that have spooked conservatives since GAMAY. The casting call seems to be for self-styled outlaws with lively online newsletters or massive fortunes, along with credible claims to having been canceled.

Buckley wouldn’t have qualified. He achieved blockbuster success, first with GAMAY, then with some 60 other books; his long-running TV show, Firing Line; and National Review, which he founded in 1955. He was popular with the liberals of his caste, who loved to debate him (many won; see: James Baldwin). It’s hard to imagine he ever knew the anguish of so much as a Maidstone Club snubbing. Nor would he, in 1951, have stood with those who opposed diversity, political correctness, or “wokeness,” if only because the Yale of his time was almost uniformly white and eminently male, an institution that wouldn’t admit substantial numbers of Black men for another 15 years and women for another 20. The perceived persecution of white men and commitment to feminism and anti-racism that addle Buckley’s intellectual offspring didn’t touch him in the 1940s, as there were no other races or sexes at Yale to offend, mistreat, envy, or fear.

I reread GAMAY this fall to try to understand why American universities so reliably disappoint conservatives, decade after decade after decade. Calling higher education possibly “the most fractured institution” in “broken” America, Kanelos, in his manifesto for the University of Austin (UATX), slags off every other college as a finishing school. “Historians will study how we arrived at this tragic pass,” he concludes. And though it’s presumably premature to play historian to the tragic pass of November 2021, I figured Kanelos’s tragic pass would bear at least a passing resemblance to the numberless tragic passes at colleges confronted by reactionaries before him. I thought that GAMAY would contain, if not the first-ever tragic pass—the Eden of tragic passes—at least a kernel of the unceasing heartbreak delivered to so many right-wing college graduates by colleges. I imagined I’d find a pedagogic program in Buckley’s book that would speak to Kanelos and all the others affronted by the nation’s finishing schools. I did not.

Buckley’s notion of what students and alumni needed from mid-century colleges is nowhere in the literature for the new UATX. Kanelos mentions “students” in his manifesto only to ticket them for terrorizing conservative faculty. Unlike Buckley, who dabbled in anti-intellectualism, Kanelos is squarely on the side of the professoriate. His concern is for heterodox professors to whom students object; Buckley’s concern is for students who object to heterodox professors. Seven decades after GAMAY warned readers that colleges were failing to inculcate orthodoxy in their students, conservatives now fear they’re doing so only too effectively. They’re just worried it’s the wrong orthodoxy.

Buckley—the devoutly Roman Catholic, homeschooled polyglot son of a globe-trotting oil wildcatter who grew up largely in Mexico and Paris and learned English in London as a third language—was just too different from most American college students, conservative and otherwise, then and now, to share an animus with them. His nemeses at college were his own: Yale professors who did not affirm “a belief in Jesus Christ as God and Saviour”—Buckley favored Anglo orthography—and anyone who mentioned the economist John Maynard Keynes.

Buckley seemed sincere in this. Heresy in GAMAY does not describe stock right-wing positions on immigration or trans politics, which are evidently warmly welcomed at UATX. Heresy, to Buckley, meant heresy. Buckley was shocked, he wrote, to find that many on the Yale faculty—including the Jewish scholars Paul Weiss and Robert Cohen—were not catechizably Christian and willing to go full Nicene from the podium. (Buckley especially worried that caustic asides, such as Weiss’s statement that “Christ was a minor prophet,” might shake the Christian faith of Yalies.) Buckley boldly proposed to “narrow the existing orthodoxy” at Yale, and make sure that Christianity was “championed and promulgated on every level and at every opportunity” on campus. It’s hard to convey just how eccentric a book GAMAY is, but I’ll give it a shot.

This desire to re-center Christian doctrine in the Yale curriculum is only the first weirdness of GAMAY. In the book’s second section, Buckley calls out lectures and textbooks in which Keynes (as much a meme as an economist, then as now) gets a hearing he considers too robust. Buckley had no beef with the study of evolutionary biology, which often set off 20th-century Christians, but he was anxious that professorial support for “interventionist solutions to economic problems” would crush the enterprising spirit of young American men. Buckley thus rejected #Keynes in favor of what he considered the implicit ideology of Gold Rush miners, who, in the words of a Yale dean whom Buckley admired, “formed the vanguard of the vast and colonial movement which increased immeasurably the health and strength of the country.” This elevation of the 49ers as a Yale beau ideal might be intriguing, except that precious few 19th-century adventurers had been to college. Maybe—as some in Silicon Valley have proposed—the best way to create a college for the entrepreneurial vanguard really is to abolish it altogether.

Buckley was just 25 when he wrote GAMAY, and it’s shot through with underproofed righteousness. It’s a delight anyway. In it are traces of the imperiousness that became Buckley’s stock in trade. Lockjaw is almost audible in the prose, and of course gall, as Buckley, who at the time lacked all scholarly, political, or literary achievement, staked a claim to a wide intellectual terrain. This time around, GAMAY struck me as not a polemic but a perverse anti-bildungsroman, the story of a young man, utterly unwilling to learn, who sees himself as a native-born executive and his instructors as woefully underperforming employees.

He inspired a legion of successors, mostly college-educated men who made their names denouncing liberal arts as too liberal, including Allan Bloom (University of Chicago, 1949), David Horowitz (Columbia University, 1959), Roger Kimball (Bennington College, 1976), Heather Mac Donald (Yale, 1978), Dinesh D’Souza (Dartmouth College, 1983), Peter Thiel (Stanford University, 1989), Jonathan Haidt (University of Pennsylvania, 1992), Mary Katharine Ham (University of Georgia, 2002), Ben Shapiro (UCLA, 2004), and Charlie Kirk (Wheeling High School, 2012). But they are tilting at different windmills. Kanelos cites approvingly Yale’s recent commitment “to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable”—a program that would have appalled Buckley, with his bold intention to narrow Yale’s existing orthodoxy to nothing but the supremely mentionable Christian doctrine.

If conservatives who have Chicken Littled about higher education for 70 years don’t share an ideology, what do they share? Easy: career ambitions and superb trolling reflexes. Buckley’s prose, as Michael Lee wrote in 2010, was “gladiatorial,” reflecting a “flashy, combative style whose ultimate aim is the creation of inflammatory drama.” Reading the work of today’s conservatives, or hearing their disquisitions on Fox News, it’s hard to imagine that the right-wing idiom ever had any other aim.

If Buckleyism failed as a philosophy of education, it succeeded beyond measure as an aesthetic. Inflammatory drama now abounds. We await the historian who will one day comprehensively mourn all the tragic passes. And American colleges truck on. Last year, 46,905 people applied to Yale; only 2,169 were admitted. I looked to the current list of best sellers about higher education to find the latest critiques of college as apocalyptically liberal. But the list was dominated by titles about getting in.