“The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’”

William F. Buckley, Jr.: GOD AND MAN AT YALE. THE SUPERSTITIONS OF ‘ACADEMIC FREEDOM.’ Chicago: Henry Renery Company. 1951.

The chief sin of the author, says John Chamberlain in the introduction, is that he holds “certain truths to be self-evident: that the free economy is better for both the individual and the group than the ‘planned’ or the controlled economy; that man h as a definite nature, which includes intimations of a moral and religious character; that to live solely for ‘others’ is not only an impracticability but an insult to the average human being’s need and capacity for self-reliance” (Introduction, vii.). The main thesis probably could be stated in opposition to the position of Professor Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, who thinks that the university faculties, and not the parents of the students, should have final control over the aims of education. It would run something like this: “In the educational market the customer, who pays the bills, must also be accorded the right to choose what he wants. Customer autonomy is sacrosanct in the education of children as well as the buying of cars.”

As an undergraduate at Yale Mr. Buckley wages war against those “who seek to subvert religion and individualism” (ibid. xiii.). He was against secularism and collectivism and had hoped for some support from those who were responsible for educational policy. In this he was disappointed. It was his contention that the faculty was morally and constitutionally responsible to the trustees, these in turn to the alumni. Furthermore, our author had the conviction, although history did not seem to be with him, that those running a great school ought to be “committed to the desirability of fostering both a belief in God, and a recognition of the merits of our economic system” (ibid). The reaction to this point of view was violent. In the name of academic freedom, “by which they mean the freedom of the faculty member to teach what he sees fit as he sees fit—provided, of course, he is ‘honest’ and ‘professionally competent,’” a great hue and cry went forth against this view. Mr. Buckley tells us further, “I propose, simply, to expose what I regard as an extraordinarily irresponsible educational attitude that, under the protective label ‘academic freedom,’ has produced one of the most extraordinary incongruities of our time: the institution that derives its moral and financial support from Christian individualists and then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists” (ibid., xv).

The Real Issue: Christianity vs. Atheism

The author makes the observation that to all appearances he is waging a losing fight against both atheism and socialism, but he considers the duel between Christianity and atheism the most important in the world, and that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is part of the same struggle. To say that Western civilization is doomed will inevitably be overcome by atheistic communism—is defeatist propaganda. There is nothing which can compel one to be on the side of history even though it appears that history is heading for disaster. We have a moral obligation to fight evil even though that fight may seem hopeless.



Furthermore, the author does not want to be understood as writing a defense for Christianity or individualism—he is not defending the deity of Christ or the economics of Adam Smith. He assumes Christianity and the system of free enterprise to be good. The main point of his position is that those paying for the education of their children at private universities and colleges do consider these to be good.

As to the argument between Christianity and atheism, individualism versus collectivism there is no possible neutrality, yet the prepossessions of the Yale teaching staff do not coincide with those of the trustees of that institution—rather are they directly opposed. On the question of the possibility and desirability of impartiality in the classroom the author holds that as a matter of fact such a policy has never been practiced, it is impossible to practice, and ought never to be practiced. So much for the introduction to this significant book.

!o this reviewer the formal propositions of the author appear incontestably correct. Whether or not one can personally subscribe to Mr. Buckley’s construction of either Christianity or individualism is not our question here. But that parents have a right under God to train their children in schools which they support and that these schools should not surreptitiously wean these children away from the faith of our fathers either theologically or economically—to me that seems incontestable. Incontestable, that is, given the Christian world and life view and the kind of democratic government which rejects all totalitarianism.

On the other hand, if one accepts a kind of Platonic caste system recognizing “an elite of professional Untouchables,” self-perpetuating and accorded the right to dictate what we ought to think on matters religious and economic, we may be sure that we’ll soon land in atheism and communism. As a matter of fact, economic dreamers always come forth with some sort of utopian scheme in which the individual is lost in the social organism, the political power being invoked to do the planning for every detail of life.

Educational Responsibility

The author exposes and opposes “an extraordinarily irresponsible educational attitude” and, to my mind, the expose is sufficiently documented to prove both charges—namely, that of irreligion issuing in a derisive indifference to the claims of Christianity; and that of economic and social “leftism”—supporting collectivism. The first 125 pages (including appendix) are devoted to this matter. Buckley makes it clear that although President Charles Seymour in 1937 called on all the members of the faculty to recognize “the tremendous validity and power of the teaching of Christ in our life-and-death struggle against the forces of selfish materialism,” the greater weight of academic activity at Yale nevertheless subverts Christianity. Not only is Yale as a whole not pro-Christian, it is not even neutral toward religion. Although between ten and fifteen percent oJ: the student body may “take courses in religion,” even in such courses Christianity is not taught. This is partly due to a desire to be scientifically “objective” and partly to the religious neutrality of those teaching religion. For example, a Mr. Lovett gives a course entitled:

Historical and Literary Aspects of the Old Testament, in which he does not teach religion at all. Mr. Greene teaches Philosophy of Religion which consists of a “non-dogmatic examination of the philosophies of religion.” He, moreover, replies in an obscure manner when asked directly if he believes in the deity of Christ. Neither does Mr. Schroeder, chairman of the department, who teaches Problems of Religious Thought in Western Civilization, “seek to persuade his students to believe in Christ, largely because he has not, as I understand it, been completely able to persuade himself” (cf. pp. 6–8 for references).

Next comes Mr. Goodenough who teaches Types of Religious Experiences and Judaism and Jesus. He was once a Congregationalist minister but on occasion has classified himself as 80 percent atheist and 20 percent agnostic.

It ought to be evident, says the author, “that the Religion Department is not a source of pervasive Christian influence at Yale.” Certainly, with only about ten percent of the students taking courses in religion “the University does not recognize religion as an indispensable field of study for an educated man.”

In the social sciences the author narrows down his inquiry to sociology, philosophy and psychology. ProChristian teachers, if there are any, are not in evidence. No doubt this is in the interest of “objectivity.” But those who are hostile to religion, either overtly or covertly, abound. They choose one of three possible methods—namely, the “silent treatment, active opposition or supercilious disparagement.” Mr. Turner, for example, “is emphatically and vigorously atheistic.” He is a professional debunker who fears neither God nor man, a dynamic and colorful figure who draws twice as many undergraduates as attend any other class in his department. Buckley is sure that he weans a number of Yale students away from the faith of their fathers by his “relentless disparagement of the whole fabric of Christianity.”

Competence Does Not Demand Unbelief

In a lengthy Appendix the author establishes the fact that competence in (he fields of sociology and anthropology does not demand a skeptical uncertainty toward belief in God (cf. p. 206). The conclusion of the author is that neither the silent treatment nor the tongue-in-cheek treatment of religion is appropriate or academically justified. Neither need one fear that he is going to lose face if he entertains an active belief in God. As proof he cites N.S. Timasheff of Fordham (formerly of Harvard) who need bow to none in his field. In spite of this the atmosphere at Yale is that religion is a useful superstition and many would judge it a “harmful benightedness.”

Professor Raymond Kennedy until 1950 has had the greatest influence on the greatest number of students. He taught basic Sociology and Anthropology in such a way that no one doubted his contempt for Christianity. The author as editor of the Yale Daily News deprecated the anti-religious approach of Mr. Kennedy, at which a storm of protest broke loose. Mr. Kennedy’s own defense consisted in saying that he was not anti-religious (interestingly enough none of his defenders hit upon this novel thought but accepted the charge that he made a cult of anti-religion, which was, they said, his privilege) but he maintained that he was merely unbiased. This, of course, is the acme of prejudice, that is, when one considers himself unprejudiced. The sad part of the matter was that the classroom bias was not counter-acted by any textbooks that dealt sympathetically with religion. Besides, the rest of the members of the department, though less spectacular, nevertheless left the impression with the students that religion was not esteemed.

In philosophy the chairman of the department is characterized as an expansive atheist and another, very popular teacher, Mr. Paul Weiss, is an agnostic. The one man best fitted to present the challenge of the Christian Faith, Prof. Robert L. Calhoun, is an ordained minister who keeps his convictions largely to himself even in the treatment of HebraicChristian Philosophy. After analyzing further various men in the department the author concludes: “While the atmosphere is not as universally discouraging to religion as for example in the Department of Sociology, it cannot be in any sense deduced that the spirit of the department is either pro-Christian or even remarkably tolerant of Christianity. My opinion is that taking all the courses in the department into consideration, the bias is notably secular, and, in some cases, straightforwardly antagonistic to religion” (p. 22).

Space does not permit to cite further evidence of irreligion at Yale, but the author says concerning the Department of Psychology, “Unless the influence of the textbooks is vigorously counteracted from the platform—which it is not—then the student of basic psychology is unlikely to learn that the historical Christian faith has today and had had throughout the ages a colossal impact upon human personality” (p. 25).

Before leaving the subject of religion in the curriculum the author informs us that there is “a widespread academic reliance an relativism, pragmatism and utilitarianism.” And there is surely nat a department at Yale that is uncontaminated with the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no ultimate truths” (ibid.). This prepossession, of course, rules out Christianity at the outset.

There are two things that aught to give one pause in considering this situation. First, the fact that Yale has earned for itself some renown for being the bulwark of “triumphant conservatism,” according to Time magazine. If this is true, we may well be alarmed at the extent to which the acids of modernism have corroded the educational structure of the nation. Secondly, the uncritical assumption of modern science that the atheist is unbiased, that the irreligious are without prejudice, which is the very acme of dogmatism and prejudice. It is in this spirit that men of science jeer at the Christian conception of the universe, but in their denial of an absolute revelation, as norm of truth, an absolute standard of ethics, they are substituting, as Buckley suggests, this as an absolute: there is no absolute. In short, an absolute denial is just as prejudicial to objectivity as an absolute affirmation. But most men of science who disparage religion or things that were held sacred by the previous generation do not have the objectivity to engage in a transcendental criticism of their own prescientific, religious presuppositions. They neither see reality whole nor do they see the facts in relation. This bias of the unregenerate mind makes him affirm that religion is an aberration of the unscientific mind, a superstition of those poor benighted souls that have not had the benefits of contemporary scientific learning (indoctrination is the word, but that term is shunned as poison).

Parental Responsibility

Small wonder that men who have such pride with respect to their superiority aver the uneducated should also take unto themselves the privilege and call it their right to legislate what shall be taught the coming generation. Buckley contends that parents and trustees ought to determine that issue. Not only would common sense seem to he on his side, but certainly Christian opinion and the Word of God supports that view. Parents have not only a God-given right, but theirs is a duty divinely prescribed to bring up the child in the way he should go. No self·styled intellectual or would-be educational philosopher has the basic right to prescribe education contrary to the wishes of the parents, whose responsibility it is to nurture their children in the fear of the Lord. It may be that the fear of the Lard is running woefully thin in most homes today, but the author suggests that the average Yale alumnus is still dedicated to the values of Christian civilization.

The subverters of religion at Yale are no mare honorable than the subverters of orthodox Christianity in the churches who under the protection of historic terminology are piously preaching another gospel, which in the virile language of Paul, “is not another,” that is, it is really no Gospel at all. They are simply bringing in the damnable heresy of salvation by works, which cannot save and therefore is not the good news of God which the true Gospel purports to be. These modernist preachers, prating about ethics and life instead of doctrine, are themselves making a travesty of Christian morality, for they are being salaried by the sacrificial tithing of the saints while they are destroying the very faith of the fathers.

What About Academic Freedom?

But you say, what about academic freedom ?

I am genuinely sorry that I cannot reproduce here the evidence for collectivism as the prevailing economic philosophy at Yale. It is simply devastating! The text-books that are employed, and the majority as well as the outstanding men in the department are for price-fixing, government monopoly, virtually unlimited taxation to equalize the distribution of wealth, etc. Besides, collectivism is supported with quotations from Keynes, the Fabians and Marx, while authorities of the Ropke, von Mises, Hayek stripe are not cited. Furthermore, among the students conservatives are regarded as the new radicals! Collectivism elicits far less protest than individualism.

But to return to the question of academic freedom, the leftist propaganda machine has so intoxicated the minds of ordinary citizens that to kill any proposed measure one need only to label (or libel) it an infringement of academic freedom. Buckley quotes from a symposium held at Cornell in the spring of 1949 on Freedom and Responsibility in the Contemporary Crisis to the effect that it is “not the proper function of the University to indoctrinate its students in any specific political or social formula!” (p. 142).

Most schools are agreed that professional competence and character are indispensable professorial requirements. Moreover, some would hold that academic freedom ought not to shield superficial and showy peddlers of learning, so-called, (which would undo a good percentage of the militant disparagers of religion). But the great war cry today is that the professor must be free—free to believe and to teach what he sees fit as he sees fit. An academic institution is like an arena in which an open contest for truth is waged, and the truth will as a matter of course emerge victorious in the long run. The student is the spectator who with the tools provided him is to pick out the truth and reject error. It is important that each student make his own choice with a minimum of external influence, for the student so trained presumably will take his place in society as a disinterested searcher, a noble follower of the truth.

(Concluded in next issue)