“The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’”


(Continued from last issue)

Now the question arises, do most colleges practice and does Yale actually practice “academic freedom.” To this question Mr. Buckley answers that they do not, and, in fact, do “not even believe what they say about education and academic freedom” (p. 145). For example, an English teacher who would teach that Joyce Kilmer is a great poet would not pass muster, although in judging poetry, the greatest latitude is allowed to varying evaluations. This may be seen from the fact that some consider Gertrude Stein an esteemed literary figure, while others consider her writing worthless—both, however, could find a place on the Yale staff. In sociology a racist would not have a chance. This is clearly a case showing no freedom to teach as one pleases. “Yale looks upon anti-Semetic and prejudices as false values…” (p. 148). Neither is there room on the Yale platform for the political totalitarian. Nor does the administration of Yale approve of Soviet values, consequently its buildings are not open to an “educational rally for peace.” Besides, Yale buildings were denied to Ferdinand Pecora in 1933, to G.P. Nye in 1936, and academic freedom was violated in the dismissal of Jerome Davis from the divinity school in 1937. And in 1949 President Seymour announced that he would not knowingly hire a communist. But to all intents and purposes communists have been active under the guise of academic freedom [or the last fifty years. The communists have not changed, but the temper of America has undergone a change. The point of all this is that Yale as most other colleges “does subscribe to an orthodoxy: there are limits within which its faculty members must keep their opinions if they wish to be ‘tolerated’” (p. 151).



These wide limits are prescribed by expediency and not by principle. Buckley seeks to establish that these limits ought to be further narrowed. Now it is to be remembered that the advocates of “freedom” believe on the one hand that truth is not apprehensible, is not expressed in any given source or formula and hence teachers must be left free to approach truth as best they can. If in the process of finding the truth about contagious diseases some specious biological generalization was taught as science, for example, that they arose from filth or the nearness of stagnant waters, which was the best available theory at the time and as such was taught, there is no objection, although future discoveries may demonstrate that the facts were falseIy interpreted at a given time.

Now in the mind of Christians Christianity “is at least the nearest thing to unrevealed and perhaps inapprehensible ultimate truth” (p. 154). So, too, “individualism as expressed in economics, politics and social policy is regarded as the best . available philosophy to guide the legislator, the executive, and the judge” (ibid). The question arises whether our educational guides can embrace and seek to inculcate one system of values while the possibility must always be faced that some other system may supercede it. Our author contends that as a matter of fact most universities are espousing Democracy as opposed to totalitarianism. In spite of its limitations, weaknesses and defects it is the nearest thing to truth that we possess and we consider with President Seymour that communism is evil and foolish. But, says our author, if President Seymour had thought of atheism as evil and foolish he by the same logic could have excluded atheists as he did communists.

Further, it is contended by Buckley that the truth will not and cannot win unless it is promulgated; the cause of truth must be championed witness the turn to dictatorships in our present-day world. As a matter of fact, the lies of the Nazi philosophy have been successfully inculcated, but occupation authorities have banned Nazi textbooks and their young wards are now being redirected and taught the evils of Nazism. At Yale the President is selected on the basis of his subscription to Christian values but he is hampered by a so-called academic freedom from having those values positively inculcated. Though President Seymour was a serious Christian and opposed to socialism, he is ineffective in transmitting these values to the student body in comparison with a teacher of sociology or economics who scoffs at both Christianity and free enterprise. Though President Seymour was selected by the trustees because he subscribes to the traditional values, nevertheless because of the superstition of academic freedom he maintained in his final baccalaureate address that it is not the duty of the university to exclude from its teaching staff those holding doctrines contrary to certain established creeds or standards. But this high-sounding pronouncement is inconsistently applied, as we have seen from the ruling on Communism.

The advocates of academic freedom are afraid that we may find ourselves in an arid scholasticism unless we may sift and refine our beliefs and have the freedom to choose alternative sets of values. But the advocates of traditional Christianity and free enterprise, the author points out, are not averse to consideration of alternative systems of values. If experience renders certain features of individual, free enterprise indefensible, we’ll have to give them up, but such experience has not yet appeared. In the meantime society and education are faced with the present, crucial value alternatives, and choices must be made. A liberal may be one who doubts his premises while acting upon them, as Richard Weaver defines him, but a responsible human being cannot act without conviction. Pure objectivity, holding one’s judgment in suspense on ultimate issues, being neutral in relation to God or communism is psychologically impossible and ethically reprehensible, if it were possible.

Academic freedom for the student seems to mean that he must learn to think and analyze and choose freely. Value inculcation would breed, according to President Seymour, “unthinking, unreasoning, credulous disciples” (p. 178). Hence we must not teach the student that Christianity is the truth and that individualism is right since that would warp his judgment. But as a matter of fact the Yale student gets only one basic course in sociology in which religion is scoffed at and the professor is violently anti-religious. Basic economics is taught by a collectivist, but nothing is ever done “about the monolithic prejudices or these courses” (p. 179). If the President had acted upon his own statement of principle he would not have tolerated such one-sided inculcation of values because it leads to unseasoned credulity. President Seymour of Yale is willing to have his students learn about communism, but the professors must analyze, discuss and deflate its tenets (cf. Interview with New Haven Register reporter 1950). Why, in the name of common sense does not he prescribe the same procedure for atheism, agnosticism and collectivism since these are also evil according to his basic set of values.

Academic freedom, then, being actually impossible to attain and in actual practice not to be found, the author hastens to add that he would not be identified with the school of thought that believes that teachers ought to be at all times neutral. “Where values are concerned, effective teaching is difficult and stilted, is not impossible, in the context of neutrality; and further, I believe such a policy to be ‘a lazy denial of educational responsibility” (p. 181).

One further observation ought to be made—namely, that Buckley does not deny the scholar the freedom of research in his study or laboratory—to follow the argument or experiment whither it leads. To extend his immunity in the laboratory to the classroom, however, is a license that is censurable. The parents, trustees and president of Yale are not violating any freedom if they insist that the values they live by and which have made Yale what it is shall be taught to the next generation—in fact, that is their freedom. If the freedom of the consumer in America is to be upheld, then we must ask the Socialist teacher to find employment in a school that cherishes his ideals. To say to the atheist or socialist, “You may continue to teach sociology and economics if only you will keep your convictions to yourselves is a highly hazardous expedient, since value inculcation is such an important part of education that it must be approached and executed with the greatest sensitivity and delicacy, and with keen and genuine enthusiasm” (italics added, p. 188).

My evaluation has been interwoven with the materials of the author, but it is not superfluous to add that I believe the youthful author to be right in his main contention. I believe with him that the responsibility for education falls upon the shoulders of those who pay for it; that no school can escape some kind of value orthodoxy, since we cannot live without the truth or what we held to be the closest approximation to it. Truth must be championed and no freedom is violated when the overseers and sponsors insist that the teachers they employ shall hold and disseminate the same values. The final point is

that alumni and friends cannot support an institution that encourages and disseminates values which they consider evil or inimical to the public welfare or their tradition. That would constitute a travesty on integrity and justice. Buckley does not expect the atheists and collectivists (socialists) to support Yale if and when the directors narrow the existing orthodoxy along the lines that he has sketched. I think that that is a fair proposition.

The academic community has no illusions about its own importance even in our Calvinistic circles. It means to be and claims to be the nerve center of the Church. It claims to be able to define the values that ought to constitute our heritage and which ought to be inculcated. Education is a kind of dynamite. The pen is mightier than the sword. Education, it is now conceded was the most typical feature in the background of the communist revolution, and the most Nazi expression of the National Socialist Revolution (taken from Howard Lowry, The Mind’s Adventure, by Buckley, p. 191).

Now is the time for private, orthodox schools organized like Yale in the fear of the Lord to maintain and carryon the Christian tradition, to look to their defenses. For the bug of “academic freedom” is ubiquitous. The idea that the church goes as the school goes may be ridiculed, and under certain safeguards there may be a restraint upon the process, but as a matter of fact the seminaries and the colleges in this country have always led the churches in their defection from orthodoxy and their deviations from the faith. If the church is becoming more “broad-minded” on the matter of worldly-amusements, divorce, and has lost its enthusiasm for the organizational antithesis as is. evidenced in our antipathy toward the Christian Labor Association, it is well for us to take inventory of the educational situation. This our people have always instinctively sensed. Besides, the prejudice that anyone can teach without prejudice, that an unprejudiced teacher is purely “scientific” ought to be faced squarely, and once for all ought to be rooted out of the educational philosophy of Christian institutions. “Objectivity” is another one of those cliches of the modern mind which ought not to inspire us with dread any longer. Buckley makes it plain, if one is not too prejudiced to read and to study the evidence, that there exists no objectivity in the sociological and economic courses at Yale, one of the greatest of our American institutions. Man being what he is, a spiritual image-bearer of God, is either a covenant-keeper or a covenant-breaker. He holds down the truth of God in unrighteousness by nature! He is not a disinterested seeker of the truth! All his science is based upon a pre-theoretic, religious choice. And that religious prepossession determines all of his other activities, since man is not a rational animal guided by reason, but a spiritual-moral being out of whose heart are the issues of life.

I wish to congratulate Mr. Buckley for his fine witness against the trend toward atheism and collectivism and urge all our readers who can to read this testimony for themselves.