I finally got around to reading William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951; reprint, 2001) in November, 2005. This was probably too long to wait. I started reading Buckley’s National Review back in 1959, my first semester in college.
Better late than never.
What Buckley described at Yale was common in almost every liberal arts college in 1950. In some fields, things are much worse today, especially in the humanities. But in the economics departments, it is sometimes a lot better. Political correctness is worse, but economic correctness is better.
What I noticed only after reading almost the entire book was its subtitle: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.” How had I missed that? More to the point, how could half a century of commentators and critics have missed it? While Google can locate a few discussions of it in the 18,900 links pulled up by searching for “God and Man at Yale,” nothing short of a web search engine could have located these few discussions.
It was a great title. It was a great subtitle. The problem is, the two are almost never associated. They should be. Buckley used his inside knowledge of Yale to promote an agenda for undermining the liberals’ control of higher education in America. The chapters on Yale are highly specific. Chapter 4, “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’,” used the example of Yale as a springboard for a much broader assault on the Left.
Nothing scares the Left more than a threat to cut their funding by members of the non-Left. This was what Buckley proposed.
When Buckley spoke of God at Yale, he meant the God of Yale’s Protestant — originally, Calvinist — Christianity. Where was there any trace of this God at Yale in 1950? Not in the classrooms, certainly. Buckley’s point was that the university had once officially stood for Christianity, but this commitment had faded. He did not say when.
Anyone who has read George M. Marsden’s book, The Soul of the American University (1994), knows that this departure from orthodoxy institutionally and operationally took place long before Buckley arrived at Yale in 1946. Marsden dates this transformation at Yale as having taken place no later than 1880.
When Buckley spoke of man at Yale, he meant the science of man, which was revealed most clearly to more students on campus by the economics department. Specifically, he meant the Keynesianism of the textbooks.
In 1880, the battle had been over sociology: specifically, the sociology of Herbert Spencer, as interpreted by Yale’s William Graham Sumner. But Spencer’s ideas spilled over into economics. “The survival of the fittest” — his phrase, which Darwin later adopted — had implications for every social science in 1880.
In 1951, Buckley’s book became a sensation, the first big seller ever published by the tiny conservative publishing firm, Henry Regnery Company. Some diligent master’s degree candidate in history could profitably research this question: Why?
The fact that religious liberalism by 1950 had captured the religion department of an Ivy League university was hardly front-page news. It would not have been front-page news in 1890.
The fact that theological liberalism was being used by certain professors as a cover for their agnosticism and even atheism also was not big news. Had Yale’s religion department been filled with Bible-believing professors with Ph.D.’s, let alone Calvinists, this would have warranted a front-page story in the New York Times. It would have deserved a book.
Similarly, the fact that Keynesian textbooks were being used in the economics department in post-war academia should not have been a surprise to anyone with knowledge of academia in 1951. By the time Buckley graduated in 1950, Paul Samuelson’s Economics was well on its way to becoming the best-selling textbook of all time. The New Deal had been replaced by the Fair Deal. Had economics textbooks in 1950 not reflected the move from free market economic theory of the pre-Depression era to the interventionism of the Cold War era, this would have been a remarkable non-development, academically speaking.
With respect to the academic world of 1890, the move to economic interventionism was already visible. Numerous economists who founded the American Economic Association in 1885 were Progressives: believers in the ability of agents of the State to guide the economy into prosperity through higher taxes, government spending, and regulation. The Federal Reserve System in 1913 had been sold to politicians and commercial bankers on this basis: the inability of the unhampered free market to produce stability. Keynes offered nothing new with his call for more government spending. He offered merely a jargon-filled, incoherent justification for it.
What Buckley did not mention was the fact that these two intellectual developments — theologically liberal Protestantism and politically liberal economics — were linked both philosophically and institutionally. Richard Hofstadter was not exaggerating when he wrote in The Age of Reform (1955) that “Progressivism can be considered from this standpoint as a phase in the history of the Protestant conscience, a latter-day Protestant revival. Liberal politics as well as liberal theology were both inherent in the response of religion to the secularization of society.” Robert Crunden has told this story in detail in his book, Ministers of Reform (1985).
So, the question needs to be asked: What was it about Buckley’s book that created a sensation and established his reputation? Within four years, he had raised enough money to start National Review. He would then become for two decades the most identifiable voice of intellectual conservatism, a voice so well known that Robin Williams did a good imitation of it in the Disney cartoon, Aladdin (1992) — by then an inside joke lost on all of the children and most of their parents.
What made the book unique was its subtitle, which no one remembers, but which could not escape the attention of the faculty and administration of Yale.
The book was a frontal assault on the idea of academic freedom as promoted by college faculties: immunity from control by the outside agents who pay the university’s bills.
Academic freedom as a concept had its modern origin in Prussia. In the early nineteenth century, the Prussian government was creating the modern public school system. Both the kindergarten and the graduate seminar were Prussian developments. Edmund Wilson wrote in 1968 that America missed a great opportunity in World War I when Congress failed to propose legislation to ban the Ph.D. degree as a German atrocity. Wilson had a point, but our only President ever to earn a Ph.D. would have vetoed the bill.
Professors in Prussian universities sought independence from the Prussian State. They demanded what no other bureaucrats in Prussia possessed: immunity from interference by the State that paid their salaries. They did receive limited immunity. This precedent became the touchstone for professors everywhere — immunity not just from the State but from all those who paid their salaries. The tradition of academic tenure is a product of this view of the academicians’ vocation.
Yet what Prussian professors wanted in 1825, university professors had always demanded. Medieval universities had insisted on their sovereignty, meaning a limited but defined jurisdiction separate from bishops, kings, and burghers. This was why professors insisted on the right to wear robes, a mark of sovereignty possessed only by clerics and civil judges.
This immunity was and remains a violation of a familiar economic principle of authority: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” The medieval church denied this principle; so did the established churches of the colonial American era. They sought money from the public, yet they resisted control. The universities imitated the churches.
When Massachusetts’ Horace Mann in the 1830s began to proclaim the concept of the public school as an agency of personal virtue and social redemption, his timing was perfect. The state of Massachusetts had abandoned tax support of Congregational churches in 1833. The public school soon became America’s only established church.
Yale and Harvard had provided training for the Congregational priesthood prior to 1833. They continued to do so after 1833. The graduates’ robes did not change color. Neither did the source of the funding: the State. But the graduates’ ordination liturgy changed. So did their creed. The common creed of the public schools was Unitarian and moralistic: salvation by good public works.
Buckley understood exactly what he was doing in 1950. He understood the implications of his proposed solution to Yale’s drift into modernism: an appeal to Yale’s alumni to re-establish control over the faculty or else cut off the funding. He proposed this in Chapter 3.
Chapter 4, “The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” offered a philosophical defense of his proposal. He began with a brief survey of what was by then an 80-year affirmation of academic freedom by Harvard and Yale presidents. Then he showed that the defense of academic neutrality is a myth. Faculties screen themselves. For example, they do not hire defenders of Aryan racial supremacy. (They did in 1925, however.) The defense of value-free, morally neutral academic truth is deceptive, he argued.
He made a telling point, one which I had never considered before. The researcher requires freedom of inquiry because he does not know what his research will produce. But when he supports himself as a teacher, he cannot legitimately claim the same kind of immunity from those who fund his teaching. Yet he does make this claim. “Therefore, cannily, he distends the protective cloak of research to include his activities as a teacher, thereby insuring to himself license in the laboratory, which is right and proper, and license in the classroom, which is wrong and improper.” This is a form of bait and switch.
In the early medieval universities, students paid their teachers directly, if they paid them at all. They retained the right to hire and fire. The teachers revolted within a century. They sought funding from outside the university. Then they sought immunity from inquiry by those footing the bill. None of this was new in 1950.
Men want to receive money with no strings attached. This includes the faculty members of every institution of higher learning. Yale saw Buckley’s threat in 1950: the tightening of alumni strings. This was a decade before the Federal government began to replace the alumni as the primary source of funding, a development that simultaneously replaced the power of department chairmen over aggressive faculty members who were not dependent on their departments or the university for their primary income, which was large. Robert Nisbet described this process in The Degradation of the Academic Dogma (1971).
Yale went on the attack in 1951. Yale graduate Austin W. Bramwell, in the 50th anniversary edition (2001), provides some of the choicest rhetorical examples in his Preface. Buckley in the 1977 reprint had provided others. Anyone who thinks that the rhetorical excesses of the more recent entrenched professorate are historically unique should read extracts from the Yale faculty in 1951.
It is not too much to say that the liberal Establishment went ballistic. But, as it turned out, they provided, free of charge, the first stage of the missile that carried Buckley into the stratosphere. Like all first-stage rockets, they detached and fell back to the earth. Buckley is still up there, sending his observations back to earth. That few people tune in any longer is a matter of competition and style as much as anything.
The critics did for God and Man at Yale what a later generation of critics did for The Passion of the Christ. They turned it into a phenomenon by means of their preposterous accusations and off-the-wall rhetoric. Their strategy backfired.
WHEN YOUR FIRST BOOK IS YOUR MASTERPIECE
The book made Buckley’s reputation. It was cogently argued, but not flamboyant. There is no trace of the thesaural pyrotechnics of his later career. His style reads well, half a century later. I enjoyed Up from Liberalism more, long, long ago. Nevertheless, this book is restrained, documented, and easily read, even by today’s Yale alumni. That was its threat in 1951.
Buckley in 1951 was a skilled debater. He and Brent Bozell were a team at Yale. He knew how to work the judges, meaning the readers. He did not expect to convince the Yale administration. But if he thought the Yale alumni would listen to him and follow his advice, then he had not read Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) carefully enough.
He refers to this book in Chapter 2. Schumpeter, a Harvard professor, argued that rich entrepreneurs send their sons to prestigious universities where they will be taught by professors who are envious of the fathers’ wealth and dedicated to undermining the social order that makes such wealth possible. If Buckley did not believe Schumpeter, he should have believed Aristophanes, whose Clouds had made much the same point regarding Plato’s academy.
Buckley misunderstood the nature of university funding and its relation to the internal chain of command. Two decades after this book appeared, Henry Manne [MANee], a legal scholar and self-taught Chicago School economist, delivered a speech to the trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education, to which he had just been appointed. The speech was titled “The Political Economy of Modern Universities.” It was later published in a collection of essays, Education in a Free Society (1973). Manne went on to found two graduate programs in law and economics and ended his academic career running the law school at George Mason University.
Manne pointed out that the trustees at a university are legal agents. The public thinks of them as agents of the donors. Certainly Buckley did in 1951. Chapter 3 rests on this assumption. Not so, said Manne. The trustees are economic agents of the president, whom they appoint, who in turn becomes the economic agent of the faculty.
The faculty is in charge economically and institutionally because they are full-time experts in their fields. The system of academic appointments establishes their functional autonomy. Under the present system, the trustees are part-timers, seekers of prestige, and gain this prestige by way of the reputation of the faculty.
Manne argued that the only way to restore accountability to the market for higher education would be for the trustees to hand over ownership of the university to the faculty. Then the faculty would have to provide services that families are willing and able to pay for, or else seek donations.
There is another crucial factor that Buckley ignored. The university serves many graduates as their would-be sacred home. With the loss of faith in God and trust in the authority of the church, alumni look to the reputation of their alma mater (“nourishing mother,” as in earth goddess) to provide what the Mother Church once provided: a sense of participation in something both meaningful and immortal. The greater the reputation of the alma mater, the greater its reflected glory. Sometimes this reputation is achieved through sports. Sometimes through faculty scholarship (rarely). Anyone who seeks to call into question the legitimacy of the alma mater is calling into question the reflected glory on its alumni. This is a futile effort.
Buckley could not win that fight. I find it difficult to believe that he ever expected to win. But God and Man at Yale soon became one of the most effective business cards in the history of American conservatism. It opened many doors.
BUCKLEY’S ECONOMIC THEORY IN 1951
In a note on one Keynesian textbook calling for government spending, he made this observation.
“All I know about the long run,” Keynes once quipped, “is that we are all dead.” One of Keynes’s most distinguished critics, Professor Ludwig von Mises, retorted that this was “the only correct declaration of the neo-British Cambridge school.”
He then went on to explain the business cycle in terms of credit inflation, which is produced by the government. “As for aggregate unemployment, the individualist insists that it is exclusively the result of government intervention through inflation, wage rigidities, burdensome taxes, and restrictions on trade and production such as price controls and tariffs.”
He goes after Henry C. Simons, the founder of the Chicago School of economics. He describes Simons’ 37-page pamphlet, A Positive Program for Laissez Faire, which was assigned to Yale economics students. “He equates freedom with free enterprise, and proceeds to outline a sure program for the destruction of the free economy.” He then lists nine recommendations by Simon, every one of them mandating government intervention. “This, we are led to believe, is the conservative alternative to ever greater statism and socialization.”
Which economists should Yale students have been reading? [John] Jewkes, Hayek, Röpke, [B. M.] Anderson, Watt [V. Orval Watts?], and von Mises. This was a reading list straight out of the Foundation for Economic Education’s recommended list of authors.
It was years later when the methodological heirs of Henry Simon displaced the methodological heirs of Ludwig von Mises in the pages of National Review.
Buckley established his conservative bona fides with God and Man at Yale. Never again did one of his books have an impact to rival this one. The book was positive and negative. It dealt with theology and economics — good and bad — which I surely can appreciate. It offered what seemed to be a practical solution: a call to the alumni to cut off the funds. This was perceived by Yale’s defenders as a highly practical solution and therefore highly dangerous. It was neither. Buckley in 1977 quoted Dwight Macdonald: Yale’s authorities “reacted with all the grace of an elephant cornered by a mouse.”
Buckley’s assault on the academic Left became a sideline for him after 1951. He sent out copies of Russell Kirk’s little quarterly review, The University Bookman, as part of a subscription to National Review. But he never again focused his sights or his energy on higher education in America. This is just as well. We should choose our battles carefully, and that one is inherently unwinnable. The correct strategy is replacement, not capture.
In the spring of 2005, Yale University’s chapel severed all ties with the United Church of Christ, the institutional successor to Congregational Church. The chaplain felt too confined theologically for the UCC. This boggles the mind. Rev. William Sloane Coffin, in retirement, an old friend and fellow Bonesman with Buckley, the son of Henry Sloane Coffin, who savaged God and Man at Yale, had no comment.
Buckley had seen it coming. His critics denied that any of it was true. All of it was true.
It now costs $40,000 a year to attend Yale. It will cost more next year. Yet rich men still send their sons and daughters there. Schumpeter had seen it coming.
What neither of them had seen coming was academia’s loss of faith in Keynesian economics by 1980, let alone the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, Hayek, Röpke, and Mises have more followers than they did in 1951. Samuelson still has plenty of book royalties flowing in. The great reversal is not complete, but it has begun.
November 12, 2005
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