It looks as if Harvard will not host its Black Mass after all. The school had planned to allow a Satanic group to perform its signature ceremony as a gesture toward inclusion and free speech. Conservative reaction to the event tells us something about conservative ideas about higher education.
Naturally, many Catholics, conservative or otherwise, protested the plan. The Black Mass, after all, is a deliberate inversion of the most sacred Catholic ritual. According to some reports, Satanists in the Harvard mass boasted that they had acquired a consecrated Eucharistic wafer to mock and humiliate in their performance. Harvard alumnus Father Roger Landry pleaded with Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust to cancel the ceremony. Harvard, Landry argued, would not allow a mock lynching in the name of free speech. Nor would Harvard allow racist verbal assaults.
But other conservatives criticized the event for different reasons. This sort of bizarre public performance, some conservatives argued, demonstrated just how deeply elite colleges have veered out of the cultural mainstream. Schools such as Harvard, some conservatives say, have lost all sense of what is normal in real life.
In the pages of National Review, for instance, AJ Delgado did not attack Satanism. But he did attack elite higher education. The perverted reasoning that led Harvard to accommodate such a hateful attack on Catholicism, Delgado argued, demonstrated the ways “the Ivy League continually sinks to shockingly low depths.”
Oklahoma representative Rebecca Hamilton elaborated on this theme. “Harvard,” Hamilton insisted,
and its little troupe of elite schools are not healthy for this country. They create a 1% that is disconnected from and hostile to the rest of us. They are, in many ways, predatory.
As I argue in my upcoming book, educational conservatives have long insisted that elite colleges had lost their way. At times, historians have accused conservatives of being “anti-intellectual” due to this tradition. But that’s not the case. Conservatives in general are no more anti-intellectual than anyone else. But throughout the twentieth century conservative activists and intellectuals specifically lamented the perverted ideas dominant at elite universities and institutions.
In the 1930s, for example, conservatives attacked schools such as Columbia University for coddling communists and subversives. It was not “college” in general that had gone wrong, conservatives argued. But elite schools in particular had strayed from educational tradition. US Congressman Hamilton Fish, a founder of the American Legion and dedicated red-hunter, listed in 1935 the schools that had become “honeycombed with socialists, near communists, and communists.” Watch out, Fish warned, for Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Pennsylvania. Such elite schools had gone off the rails.
Harvard’s flirtation with Satanism seems to have confirmed this theme among conservative activists and intellectuals. Higher education is a good thing, most believe. But the kooky garbage on offer at elite schools such as Harvard demonstrates the problem with the upper crust of academia.