A Critique of God and Man at Yale

by Chris Mack

January 12, 2019

God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s first book, was written in 1951, shortly after he graduated from Yale University.  It has been the blueprint for conservative criticisms of higher education ever since.  And it is a terrible book.  It is awful not because I disagree with his conclusions (though I fervently do), but because of the intellectually deplorable ways in which he arrives at them.  Buckley is guilty of some of the worst crimes of rhetoric over reason, logical malfeasance, and purposeful manipulation of his readers, in other words, sophistry, as I have ever experienced in a book of its reputation. 

Buckley has two main thrusts.  First, that our general support of a liberal education, where students are taught how to think rather than what to think, is misguided and should be replaced by a system setting and enforcing a narrow scope of ideological and theological views as determined by a majority of the alumni of each specific university.  Second, that Yale should adopt this approach to enforce an orthodoxy of conservatism and Christianity.  Buckley’s two most cherished views, that Christianity and conservative economic policies lead to the good life, are simply given as true.  His readership is assumed to accept these as facts and his goal is to then lead the reader to his conclusions about educational theory.  How Buckley arrived at his views is never discussed, but we can examine God and Man at Yale to see how he tries to steer the sympathetic reader.  Examples of his rhetorical malfeasance are legion. 

Gross exaggerations and alarmist language.  Buckley obviously believes that Yale is serving its students poorly, but he portrays the results of that education in alarmist terms:  the “desctruct[ion] of the best in civilization” (p. 175), .  As is a favorite of polemicists everywhere, he employs militaristic language to impress the reader with the importance of the subjects and to create an “us versus them” mindset (a “battle of educational theory”, a “duel between Christianity and atheism”, a “struggle” between individualism and collectivism (p. lxvi)).  The Yale Department of Economics “deifies” collectivism. (p. 89)  Further, the negative consequences of this collectivism in America are “very soon a-coming.” (p.62)

Anecdotes as evidence.  Buckley admits that his book is not a scholarly work (p. lxv), a gross understatement, but his reliance on anecdotes is overwhelming.  Besides his own experiences at Yale, Buckley has “interviewed several students.” (p. 22)  He provides quotes allegedly made by professors during lectures, many of them hearsay, that are necessarily without context and are highly unlikely to give a balanced view of the true teachings of those profs.  His selective quotations from massive economics textbooks are not likely to provide a fair representation of their views, though I certainly am not going to read them to try and find out.

Quotes as evidence.  Buckley frequently quotes like-minded conservatives, and sometimes a string of such quotes is the only “evidence” presented to support a particular claim. (p. 32)  He also states, as evidence of the fairness of his depiction of Yale, that “several friends” have told him that he bent over backwards to avoid distortion.

Assumptions as facts without evidence.  Buckley makes frequent claims without any supporting evidence:  Yale alumni are predominantly Christian conservatives (p. lxv).  Tuition pays for academic research (p. 166), though at most institutions tuition is not sufficient to pay the costs of teaching, let alone research.  Since he apparently couldn’t get former Yale President Charles Seymour to comment on the topics of his book, Buckley simply puts words in his mouth. (p. 149, 151, 152)

Labeling and name calling.  Buckley employs labels such as individualist, collectivist, and socialist (and my favorite, “freedomite”) that he does not define, and in fact it seems that Buckley uses them in ways that are starkly different than their common usage (then as well as today).  It seems I am a socialist because I support a graduated income tax and an inheritance tax.  He is quick to apply the pejorative label of collectivist especially, but socialist as well, to anyone who is not as stridently conservative in their economics as he is.  Some textbook writers are even “professional socialists”. (p. 44)  When he quotes von Mises’ definition of a collectivist in a footnote (p. 62), it is clear that most of the people he labels as collectivist do not deserve it.

Code words.  Buckley frequently (though certainly not always) uses the word “religion” when he clearly means Christianity.  Would he support the inculcation of “religious” values in Yale students if the religion was Islam?  He also uses “individualism” when he means “conservativism”, or at least capitalism as it was practiced before 1932, but since it would be unseemly for a university to actively promote a sectarian political philosophy, he disguises his desire through the code word “individualism”.  “Collectivism” means socialism, or Keynesian economics (which to Buckley is the same thing), or even just a modern liberal view, or really anything that isn’t Buckley’s strident version of conservative capitalism.

Bait and switch.  Buckley will start an argument by using a certain term, and then switch the term midway to reach his desired conclusion.  For example, in the preface (p. lxvi) he starts a paragraph as about Christianity and “individualism”, then individualism morphs into capitalism, and finally, by the end of the paragraph his subject is described as Christianity and “freedom”.  Later, an argument that a university is free to hire whomever it likes (p. 166) is used to justify being able to fire whomever it likes (p. 168).  But the biggest “bait and switch” comes from his description of the governance of Yale.  Like almost all universities, Yale is governed by a board of trustees (the Corporation) that can hire and fire the President, approve budgets, and set educational priorities.  Buckley mentions that most of the appointed board members are Yale alumni (p.105).  He then says that Yale is run by alumni, a true statement in the sense that most of the trustees are alumni.  He repeats this statement, however, changing the meaning of alumni to be the entire alumni community. (p. 120, 122, 145, 156)

False dichotomies.  Throughout, the battle lines are drawn between two starkly different viewpoints:  Christianity vs. atheism, and individualism versus collectivism (by which he means a conservative capitalism versus socialism, or any brand of capitalism that is not as conservative as he likes).  Very little room for gradations between extremes is allowed.  One must choose one over the other.  Yale either “fortifies or shatters” the student’s respect of Christianity. (p. 3).  If one is not overtly pro-Christian, then one is hostile to religion (p. 11), for example, by not mentioning it. 

Views are biases.  When someone expresses a view that Buckley disagrees with it is almost always described as a bias, the easier to reject it without reasoned consideration.  It is true that in the Preface he describes his own viewpoint as a “bias”, but that hardly makes up for its overwhelming use throughput the book to disparage the views of others.  He suggests that his economic views are sound and supported by many economists (p. 53), without acknowledging that the views of the textbooks he criticizes are supported by many more economists - they are simply biases.  When it comes to atheism, biases become bigoted. (p. 12)

Repetition makes it true.  Once Buckley makes a false statement that he wants to be true (“alumni … are the ultimate overseers of university policy” (p. 156)) he repeats it frequently and without qualification so that the less discerning reader might forget that it isn’t so (p. lvxiv, 145).

My straw man is “fair”.  Rhetorical arguments almost always begin by creating a “straw man” opponent which is then demolished through the writer’s wit and logic.  Buckley frequently insists that his straw men are rendered fairly (p. 127), and then proceeds to provide ones with gross injustice to the opposing view.  Consider this description of a “plank of the academic freedom platform” (p. 131):  “Scholars must be selected to staff the faculty without consideration of their personal convictions, “even those regarded as erroneous by a majority of learned colleagues.””  I can’t imagine a university administrator in a hiring situation that would agree with that statement.  He also describes academic freedom in teaching as encouraging students to “select the side that pleases him most.” (p. lxvii)  No professor I know of would ever say such a thing.

Hiring and firing.  Buckley repeatedly ignores what every employer knows:  the criterion used to hire someone is not the same as the criterion used to fire them.  When hiring, one looks for the best person available for the job.  Why would they hire otherwise?  But to fire, an employee must be below some minimum standard.  In a logic that I couldn’t follow, Buckley uses this difference to claim that Yale does not in fact practice academic freedom.  Further, Buckley ignores and does not mention tenure, and an example of a professor that is not granted tenure (p. 134) is used somehow as evidence of Yale’s hypocrisy on this topic. 

Students are and are not gullible.  Students at Yale are described as “impressionable” (p. 12), gullible and insufficiently intelligent (p. 14), cruising through “without learning very much” (p. 29), and “insensate and tractable” (p. 100).  But the students at Buckley’s hypothetical new Yale will simply be “steered … toward the truth”. (p. 162)

Category error:  truth and values.  Possibly Buckley’s most egregious rhetorical misstep is to make the category error between truth and values. (p. 142, 150)  I’m not sure if he is doing this on purpose, or if he is just that poor a student of philosophy.  Academic freedom is described as the pursuit of truth, where honest people can disagree.  But Buckley seems to think that means any set of values held by a professor must be allowed, in the name of academic freedom.  Buckley attempts to paper over this category error by stating simply that his values are the truth, or most closely approximate the truth. (p. 143)  Thus, if education is about teaching the truth, it must be about teaching values (Buckley’s values, that is).

The square root of a negative number is demonstrably an error.  (p. 132)  I’ll forgive Buckley his lack of mathematical acumen.

 Of course, I also disagree with Buckley’s conclusions and his remedies.  Besides, if he really believes that free market principles apply to university education, then universities that fit all of Buckley’s requirements already exist:  the Bible college.  Let the free market decide if that is where most students want to go.

To conclude, I will turn criticisms that Buckley made against others back on himself.  In God and Man at Yale, Buckley, at the very least, “fell back on rhetoric where analysis would have been more appropriate.” (p. 155) But more bluntly, he is guilty of “flamboyant words and systematic sophistry,” (p. 173) hallmarks that he would carry with him throughout his long career.

Chris Mack is a writer in Austin, Texas.

© Copyright 2019, Chris Mack.

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