William F. Buckley and a Party already in Progress

There it is again!  Every now and then we see some commentator who starts her historical discussion of conservatism in American education in 1951, or 1968, or 1980. 

This week we got another dose: In her Salon.com article about the conservative attack on liberal-arts education, Katie Billotte claimed William F. Buckley “pioneered these attacks [on liberal-arts higher education] in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, and his claim that universities serve as indoctrination camps for liberalism has become a standard talking point on the right.”

Billotte made her claim as part of a rebuttal of a Joseph Epstein article, “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?”  Her argument, and Epstein’s, are both worth reading.  But once again, we must point out that conservative attacks on the nature of higher education must be traced back at least to the 1920s.  The first generation of Protestant fundamentalists, for instance, complained bitterly about the ideological and theological perversions of liberal-arts higher education.  Texas Baptist fundamentalist leader J. Frank Norris, to cite just one example, warned in 1921 that college students went wrong when they studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

The tradition of conservative attacks on leftism and radicalism among liberal-arts educators in higher education was not limited to religious conservatives.  For example, in 1938, American Legion National Commander Daniel Doherty took an audience at Columbia University to task for becoming “the Big Red University.”  To a chorus of boos from his Columbia audience, Doherty warned, “The name of Columbia is besmirched from time to time when preachments containing un-American doctrines emanate from those who identify themselves with this institution.”  The problem, Doherty felt, stretched far beyond Columbia.  Later in 1938, he accused,

It is well known that many of our institutions of higher learning are hotbeds of Communism.  They disseminate theories and philosophies of government which are entirely alien to the American concept and American principles under which we have prospered more than a century and a half as no other people.

Such sentiments were standard fare among conservative activists and thinkers long before William F. Buckley criticized the trends at his alma mater.  Indeed, Buckley himself may be presumed to be familiar with the work of Albert Jay Nock.  We know Nock spent time at the Buckley home in Buckley’s youth.  And Nock’s attitude toward higher education, at least as expressed in his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) leaves little room for Buckley to “pioneer.”

Nock remembered his own liberal-arts education fondly.  Since his time, however, Nock claimed a far-reaching “educational revolution” had destroyed the liberal-arts tradition (85).  The “purge” was “based on a flagrant popular perversion of the doctrines of equality and democracy” (88). 

The conservative protest against the theological and ideological tendencies of higher education and its liberal-arts program long preceded William F. Buckley Jr.  In addition to drinking in long conservative traditions, Buckley cribbed much of his enfant-terrible critique of Yale directly from Nock and his ilk. 

Billotte might protest that her interest lay with today’s conservative attacks, not those from the 1920s, ’30s, or ’40s.  But like many other commentators, she makes claims about the history of conservatism without any apparent familiarity with the subject.  Buckley’s criticism of Yale only makes sense when we understand that it was not a pioneering effort at all.  Billotte’s argument will make sense only when she takes time to understand the legacy of her opponents’ ideas.


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