Shortly after graduating from Yale University, William F. Buckley penned God and Man at Yale, which has since become a classic critique of the Ivy League and its poignant disregard for several areas of study and philosophies that helped lay the foundation for Yale’s renowned reputation. In God and Man, Buckley points out that Yale: 1.) had become openly hostile to religion and its involvement in academics; 2.) had begun to disparage free markets, capitalism, entrepreneurship, and any ideas associated with them; and 3.) had in an almost Orwellian fashion twisted the idea of “academic freedom” to suit its own ends. Please let it be known that this is not an indictment against Yale alone, but against the direction of higher education as a whole.
God and Man at Yale was written in 1951, yet it reads today as if it were written in response to contemporary problems. Being that it was written in an era in which to be published required objective talent and expertise, it is very much a work of public policy prophecy. No one can know for sure whether or not Buckley expected that the symptoms present in the academic life at Yale would soon become the cancer that would infect most educations of higher education, but such is no less the case.
First, academic attitudes toward religion, and Christianity in particular, have not just turned cold, but indeed have turned hostile. Using Yale as an example, we see that a prestigious university once and long led by clergymen has since turned its back on the faith, thereby turning its back on its very foundation. Much in the same way as Yale, many other institutions of higher education, be them religiously or secularly founded, have made little room, if any, for matters of the spirit. Least of all are the teachings of the Christian God welcome, as the prevailing revisionist attitudes have painted the Church of Jesus Christ as the perpetrator of so many of modern man’s problems.
Enjoy for a moment the sort of ironic twist that so often accompanies such foibles: David Aikman, former bureau chief of Time in China, recently spoke of conversations he held with leading Chinese scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. When discussing their research into how the West rose so quickly and powerfully, these scholars pronounced, “It was not in your guns, your wealth, even your natural resources. We find the secret in your religion: We believe that Christianity is central to the rise of the West.” Hmm. The country we are so regularly told to fear finds value in what we view as yesterday’s garbage. One man’s trash. . . .
Next, Buckley turns his attention to the disparagement of free-market ideals. In essence, Buckley points out that the textbooks of his time set forth to make the case for more government involvement in markets, and that, as Buckley puts it, “the individual firm, the individual himself, is powerless to cope with the complexities of the economy in times of stress. The government must step in.”
If this sounds familiar, it is only because this is the prevailing narrative of the modern day. I am not advocating for each man to go through life on his own. I am, in fact, a firm believer in the power of community. What’s more, the government – which lest we forget is made up of people like you and me – exists to help its citizens in times of trouble. However, as Buckley points out, these textbooks and the professors who used them placed such an onus on the supremacy of government intervention as to completely undercut man’s ability to adapt to his changing reality. It is anti-“Social-Darwinism.” Government over-involvement weakens man’s resolve to face life’s challenges, to the point that when the next challenge presents itself, he is less inclined to overcome and much more readily enlists the “help” of government.
This, as we well know, is not what America was founded upon. Our earliest settlers, in another somewhat ironic twist, came to the new world in pursuit of a life free from religious persecution, and they did it on their own. That being set aside, man needs challenges that he may learn from. Iron sharpens iron; man will not grow stronger and more capable of advancement if he is not first allowed to struggle to some degree.
The third point Buckley makes is in regard to the shifting sands of academic freedom. Where once the university was where we went to pursue truth, it has now become the place for truth to be rendered irrelevant (if inconvenient) or dictated (if it fits the narrative of the day). The academy more and more teaches that there is no such thing as objective truth, that truth is whatever we as individuals hold to be true.
Drew Faust, President of Harvard, made the following remarks in her inaugural address: “The ‘Veritas’ in Harvard’s shield was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion. We understand it quite differently now. Truth is an aspiration, not a possession. Yet in this we—and all universities defined by the spirit of debate and free inquiry—challenge and even threaten those who would embrace unquestioned certainties. We must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt, to the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.”
It is interesting that something as fundamental as truth can be “understood quite differently now,” as Faust puts it. Perhaps truth can never be fully known, and in that respect it is an aspiration. What is perhaps most troublesome about these remarks is rather that in the eyes of the president of one of the most renowned universities in the world, those who “would embrace such certainties” as unassailable truth, are not only to be challenged, but threatened. To be challenged it wholesome in the pursuit of truth, but to be “threatened” for holding a belief? Nothing promotes the plurality of thought like a boot on the neck.
I point out in closing that this is not a problem unique to Yale, or to the Ivies as a group. This is not even a problem confined to the halls of academia. This is, rather, an epidemic that has touched most areas of our society, and has been allowed to expand unchecked. What is needed is perhaps not a return to the very beginning, but a return to the inclusive nature of the higher education of yore. Teach your Marxist ideals and your relativist morals if you wish, but do so in harmony with their counterpoints–the ideas undergirding the founding of the United States.