Guardians of the word: Kirk, Buckley, and the conservative struggle with academic freedom.

Author:Sheahan, Luke


The Conservative Movement's Perpetual Civil War

The conflict between advocates of the free market and traditionalist conservatives dates from the beginning of the modern conservative movement. Never have traditionalists and classical liberals comfortably shared the same space. The differences and ensuing conflicts between these two strands within modern American conservatism have been well documented. In every area, whatever the potential for practical political alliances, differences emerge between the underlying philosophies that often produce irreconcilable policy prescriptions.

In the 1950s, just as the postwar conservative movement was beginning to coalesce around several key institutions, Russell Kirk, author of the 1953 bestseller The Conservative Mind, and Frank Meyer, National Review's book editor, famously sparred over the role of reason and tradition, freedom and community. (1) Meyer published a review of Kirk's Conservative Mind titled "Collectivism Rebaptized" in the July 5, 1955, issue of The Freeman, accusing Kirk of putting a traditionalist gloss on the statist status quo. (2) Kirk responded in kind and the two exchanged invectives for the next several years. Kirk never allowed his name on National Review's masthead because he did not want his reputation associated with that of Meyer or others like him. (3) Neither was convinced by the other and the conflict remains representative of the disagreements between the two schools of conservative thought. (4)

Both factions have famously decried what both perceive as the stranglehold of the political and cultural left in academia. However, each has offered solutions based upon its own presuppositions. William F. Buckley's 1951 book God and Man at Yale is widely considered the standard for the conservative view of academic freedom. Buckley argues that academic freedom, as it exists in the academy, is a mirage to cover for indoctrination by tenured radicals. Universities are institutions funded by the public, either through the alumni if they are private or through taxes if they are public. But the inmates control the asylum; the radicals in the faculty control the universities, and it is incumbent upon the public at large and specifically university alumni and donors to rein them in.

God and Man at Yale made it to sixteenth place on the New York limes best-seller list and catapulted the twenty-five year old author into the public spotlight. (5) Shortly thereafter he would agree to become the first president of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, (6) now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and in 1955 he would launch the conservative movement's flagship magazine, National Review. (7) Buckley would become arguably the most productive public intellectual of the twentieth century, publishing fifty-five books and 5,600 newspaper columns and hosting 1,429 episodes of Firing Line, in addition to giving hundreds of lectures around the world and publishing hundreds of prefaces, forewords, obituaries, and editorials. (8) Through the magazine and his other endeavors Buckley was responsible for bringing together various strands of seemingly disparate and hostile intellectuals on the right and unifying them into a viable political movement. (9) At its center was opposition to communism abroad and statism at home. The term "fusionism" described the tenuous alliance between traditionalists, libertarians, and various ex-leftists. (10)

Russell Kirk published Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition in 1955, part of a life-long critique of higher education. (11) According to Buckley, Kirk's role in the founding of both National Review and the American conservative movement at large was essential. Neither the magazine nor the movement would have existed without him. (12) Along with Buckley, "Kirk was the most prolific conservative author of the last century," (13) publishing over thirty books, over 2,000 articles, essays, and reviews in addition to thousands of columns for syndication. (14)

Kirk's book on academic freedom received mixed reviews. Some saw it as a ground-breaking treatment of a difficult subject and a breath of fresh air in a debate mired in paranoid histrionics on one side and dogmatic denunciations of legitimate concerns on the other. (15) Claude Hawley described Kirk's take on academic freedom as "refreshing whether one agrees with him or not." (16) In a review in The New York Times Book Review, Roswell Ham noted that, while by the book title "it would seem to offer one more dry-as-dust disquisition" on academic freedom, the book actually is broad in scope and high in quality, making a significant contribution to the relevant discussion. (17)

Others were not so favorably inclined. Buckley denounced Kirk's book in a review in the same issue of The Freeman that carried Meyer's review of The Conservative Mind. (18) He wrote that it "has something in it for everybody" and that "it can be justly quoted to defend virtually every consistent position in that controversy" over academic freedom. Buckley quickly realized that his review could very well repel Kirk from Buckley's central enterprise, National Review. If Buckley was to have the young traditionalist scholar join his big-tent conservative effort, he would need to convince Kirk that he was on friendly terms with him despite their disagreements. Immediately upon publication, Buckley sent a copy of his review to Henry Regnery, whose publishing house published both Buckley's and Kirk's books, with a note saying,

I enclose a copy of my review of Russell Kirk's last book, which you won't like, nor will he. But I hope you both understand that it is done in context of a deep respect and friendliness for Russell Kirk. We simply happen to disagree fundamentally on this whole business of academic freedom. (19) Buckley was right; Regnery didn't like it. Kirk, who was with Regnery when he received the review and the note, read them and, according to Regnery, made no comment. Buckley was eventually able to meet with Kirk at his home in Mecosta and convince him to write a regular column for National Review. (20)

This article will examine the differences between Buckley's and Kirk's views of academic freedom and how their justifications are derived from their fundamental understanding of religion, truth, and the human person at the heart of their respective philosophies. We shall pay special attention to how the underlying principles involved demonstrate a key difference between the free market conservatism of which Buckley was a proponent and the traditionalist conservatism of Russell Kirk. (21)

Buckley's 'Superstitions of Academic Freedom'

Buckley's God and Man at Yale burst on the academic scene with a storm of controversy. It was the time of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. Professors at various institutions had been fired for communist sympathies. Buckley charged that Yale was teaching its students, if not outright communism, at least collectivism of a milder but no less deplorable sort and, what was at least as bad, irreligion. Economics professors denigrated capitalism and lauded state planning. (22) Religion and humanities professors dismissed claims of orthodox religion and, at best, advocated a sort of vague moral ethics in place of doctrinal commitments. (23) From this initial introduction to Buckley's thought, it would seem that he had one foot firmly planted in the traditionalist camp, which was largely sympathetic to religion, and the other equally firmly planted in the free market camp. (24) However, his argument regarding academic freedom demonstrates that his assumptions draw largely from his economistic leanings and not from tradition or religion.

Buckley was deeply influenced by Yale's own Willmoore Kendall, a political scientist of some stature who advocated a theory of "absolute majoritarianism," which meant that for society to endure a "public orthodoxy" must be enforced, "The truth of Christianity and free enterprise, Buckley argued, had been established by history and tradition." (25) Therefore, it was the role of a great and influential institution to enforce those values. Civilization depended on it.

The professors Buckley castigates as betraying that mission claimed the protections of academic freedom. Buckley argues that the "superstitions of academic freedom" were mere smoke and mirrors to distract from Yale's teaching students a different kind of orthodoxy than the one that it claimed to provide. Every institution already limited what it allowed professors to teach as a necessity of good pedagogy, Buckley writes,

I believe it to be an indisputable fact that most colleges and universities, and certainly Yale, the protests and pretensions of their educators and theorists notwithstanding, do not practice, cannot practice, and cannot even believe what they say about education and academic freedom. (26) For example, everyone acknowledged that some pieces of literature were superior to others. No one objected when certain poets were left off of the reading list and others were included. (27) It was understood that there were good poets and there were bad poets; the former ought to be taught and the latter ought not to be taught. Limits necessarily exist. Buckley only advocated that those limits be narrowed to exclude all but free market economics and Christian moral and theological views. (28)

Yale claimed to be a champion of capitalism and Christianity to its sympathetic alumni, but it provided a different sort of education in the classroom. Administrators told the alumni what the alumni wanted to hear to solicit donations and then promulgated contrary values, a situation described by Buckley as Yale's "twilight zone of hypocrisy with respect to her alumni." (29) Buckley called on the Yale alumni to exert control over the faculty and to make sure that Yale remained an institution that upheld the principles that alumni held dear, namely, Christianity and capitalism.


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