Critical Race Theory is Just the New Buzzword in Conservatives’ War on CampusesRoundup
tags: conservatism, William F. Buckley, culture war, teaching history, colleges and universities, critical race theory
Lauren Lassabe is the coordinator for student accountability at the University of New Orleans. This history was inspired by her current book project Resistance from the Right: Conservative Forces in American Higher Education in the Era of the New Left.
Today’s conservative panic over critical race theory in American classrooms, both unfounded and intentionally misunderstood, has led to a litany of organized social and legislative backlash in settings including local communities, state legislatures and conservative media. Republican members of Congress are encouraging conservative leaders to “lean into” the schoolhouse culture war. But although the topic is fresh, the overall trope of campuses gone wild and threatening American values is nothing new. Conservatives for decades have targeted liberal politics in the classroom, especially in colleges and universities. These efforts haven’t reshaped the professoriate or campus climate, but they have had success at convincing trustees and administrators to exert greater control.
Decades ago, it was the conservative commentators William F. Buckley Jr. and M. Stanton Evans who led the charge against what they perceived as progressivism in academia. While in college, both had been members of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) created by conservative writers at the Freeman and Human Events magazines in the early 1950s. The ISI aimed to be a bulwark against what these writers decried as liberally biased education. ISI offered books, magazines, pamphlets and other media to communicate conservative ideas to college students.
After leaving college, Buckley and Evans produced book-length works lamenting bias in the academy. In Buckley’s 1951 “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom,’ ” he eloquently chided his alma mater as capitalizing on financial contributions from religious alumni while “persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists.” In “Revolt on the Campus” (1961), Evans echoed these charges, complaining that the campus of the 1950s was “a world in which a student of conservative inclination found himself badly in need of help, counsel, and information.”
Buckley and Evans also worked to cultivate activism by conservative students. In the late 1950s, they identified a small group of high school and college students who had campaigned to draft Barry Goldwater for president in 1960, and others who fought to preserve the unpopular anti-communist loyalty oath requirement for recipients of National Defense Education Act funds. In 1960, putting their grievances into action, Buckley and Evans recruited these younger students to form Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a conservative youth club largely based on college campuses. Throughout the group’s early years, YAFers worked to expel moderate and liberal members from their campus student governments and organizations, especially College Republican clubs, and replace them with outspoken conservative leaders.
YAF’s activism, backed by ISI’s intellectual defenses and College Republican clubs’ political organizing skills, set the foundation for the right’s long crusade from within against liberal higher education. And as anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and demands for Black, ethnic and women’s studies programs increasingly made headlines, these organizations got support from conservative political leaders.