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."

The recently published book, God and Man at Yale (Regnery, $3.50), written by William F. Buckley, Jr., a 1950 graduate of Yale University, is a savage attack on that institution as a hotbed of "atheism" and "collectivism." As a believer in God, a Republican, and a Yale graduate, I find the book is dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory, and a discredit to its author and the writer of its introduction.

Writings in The Atlantic by William F. Buckley:

The American Idea: A Proposition (November 2007)
"Ours are loyalties to an ideal, not to a revelation."

Aweigh (July/August 2004)
A master and commander decides, after a lifetime on the water, that he will no longer go down to the sea.

Bush for President (October 1988)
Employment is up; inflation is down; and success as a social ideal now commands prestige. Why repudiate the politics that have brought us to this felicity?

Mr. Buckley's thesis rests on two propositions: first, that Yale is currently anti-Christian and anti-capitalist; and second, that Yale's alumni have a right and duty to insist that it teach "Christianity" and "individualism" as he defines them. Let us consider the method and evidence with which he tries to establish these notions.

Beginning with religion, Mr. Buckley asserts that Yale has a weak department of religion, a high degree of apathy in the student body, and a number of un-Christian and anti-Christian lecturers in other fields. Even if all this were true, it would not make Yale anti-religious, for the weakness of religious teaching has been a national phenomenon for decades, and so has religious apathy among young men. And it is well to note that on Mr. Buckley's strict definition of a Christian such men as Jefferson, Emerson, Lincoln, and Yale's own William Howard Taft would fail to qualify.

But in fact there is no need to grant Mr. Buckley's claims. What he has done is to take the flimsiest of evidence or no evidence at all, and ignore whatever goes against his thesis. Thus on the basis of a single hearsay quotation—ripped from its context and quite unverified—he condemns as anti-religious a teacher whose profoundly religious influence I myself know from classroom experience and personal friendship. Similarly, in the teeth of the massive testimony of faculty and students alike—and quite without proof—he asserts the ineffectiveness of the saintly man who is Yale's chaplain. He makes no mention of the fact that not one of the ministers or chaplains at Yale, of any faith, agrees with his analysis; he never considers the generally agreed opinion of these and other observers that Yale is more religious than the rest of Protestant America and more religious than it was a generation ago. Most remarkable of all, Mr. Buckley, who urges a return to what he considers to be Yale's true religious tradition, at no point says one word of the fact that he himself is an ardent Roman Catholic. In view of the pronounced and well-recognized difference between Protestant and Catholic views on education in America, and in view of Yale's Protestant history, it seems strange for any Roman Catholic to undertake to define the Yale religious tradition (and Yale has thousands of Catholic alumni and friends who would not dream of such a course); it is stranger still for Mr. Buckley to venture his prescription with no word or hint to show his special allegiance.

If possible, the economic section of Mr. Buckley's attack is still weaker. A part of this attack consists of the same sort of personal "evidence" against individuals that he uses in his religious chapter. The insidious character of this sort of innuendo and quotation from lectures lies in the fact that no outsider can readily check the context in which the statements were made. Fortunately a large part of Mr. Buckley's case rests on the theory that Yale students are enormously influenced by the views of those who write their introductory textbooks in economics, and he devotes a long section to an "analysis" of the "collectivism" of four books which have been used in recent years at Yale. Here any man who has access to a library can check him up, and this "analysis" deserves detailed attention.

Mr. Buckley acknowledges that outright Marxists and Communists are exceedingly rare at Yale; he mentions none in this book. What he is attacking, and what he finds in the offending textbooks, is the more subtle menace of "collectivism," a term which remained undefined throughout his book. But let us see what he regards as evidence of this menace in the texts. First we find that these textbook writers consider nineteenth-century individualism "impractical of application" in contemporary America. This dangerous view has been repeatedly expressed by Mr. Herbert Hoover. Then Mr. Buckley complains because a quotation he has lifted discusses the excesses of capitalism (excesses which he himself admits, at least in large part); but he omits other quotations, from the same book, in which the over-all success of the American economic system is bluntly and vigorously asserted.

Next we find him distressed because the texts in question argue that the great inequality of wealth and income should be avoided in a healthy society. Is it ignorance or trickery that leads him to neglect the fact that this "collectivist" view dates back to Aristotle, has the support of his own Church, and is roundly endorsed by one textbook which he praises?

He then goes on to accuse the textbook writers of "egalitarianism." An inspection of the books shows that not one of the authors supports a full leveling of incomes, and among the quotations Mr. Buckley has omitted we find this: "'Equality' has generally been regarded as undesirable; such a goal is fundamentally inconsistent with the American focus on the advantages of aggressive private initiative based on income incentive."

The next inequity is that the textbooks used at Yale support a progressive income tax. This of course has been the law of the land since 1913. But Mr. Buckley feels that the writers of these books (whom he quotes indiscriminately as if they were all members of a single panel) place undue reliance on the tax, and part of his "evidence" is the fact that one of the texts wants to raise 60 percent of federal revenue in this way; he then misquotes the recommended tax rates and fails to inform the reader, first, that on incomes between $20,000 and $100,000 the recommended rates would be a substantial reduction of those in force when the book was written (let alone now); and second, that the whole recommendation was based on the views of the Committee for Economic Development, which was led at the time by such great "collectivists" as Paul Hoffman of the Studebaker Corporation and Beardsley Ruml of Macy's. He fails to mention that three out of four of the texts he attacks urge changes in the income tax laws to encourage venture capital.

Another claim is that these texts do not defend the institution of private property. In support of this claim Mr. Buckley enters a single quotation in which it is argued that majority opinion probably does not consider "free enterprise" to be as basic a right as the four freedoms. The quotation is evidently supposed to indicate hostility to free enterprise, and it is therefore somewhat surprising to find that the author in question went on, in a passage ignored by Mr. Buckley, to present with evident favor three detailed and practical arguments for the institution of free enterprise: that it works, that it is "a central causative factor in the growth of political liberties," and that it satisfies a basic human urge. This total reversal of the author's intent is a measure of the honesty of Mr. Buckley's method, and the sample could be multiplied a dozen times.

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.