Conservatives Today Carry on Buckley's Legacy of Being Mad at Higher Ed – But Not His MotivationBreaking News
tags: conservatism, higher education, William F. Buckley, culture war, colleges and universities
Seventy years ago, William F. Buckley Jr. published his keening lament for American higher education, God and Man at Yale. Chagrin pervaded GAMAY, as Buckley later branded the book, but it also stung in a satisfying way—a high-handed swat at the Ivy League by a debonair twerp who’d only recently graduated. GAMAY has since inspired seven decades of tribute acts by more and less debonair conservatives.
Then, just this month, the college administrator and Shakespeare scholar Pano Kanelos announced that he and a cadre of renegade ideologues are starting a school in Texas expressly to exorcise from academia the nameless ghosts that have spooked conservatives since GAMAY. The casting call seems to be for self-styled outlaws with lively online newsletters or massive fortunes, along with credible claims to having been canceled.
Buckley wouldn’t have qualified. He achieved blockbuster success, first with GAMAY, then with some 60 other books; his long-running TV show, Firing Line; and National Review, which he founded in 1955. He was popular with the liberals of his caste, who loved to debate him (many won; see: James Baldwin). It’s hard to imagine he ever knew the anguish of so much as a Maidstone Club snubbing. Nor would he, in 1951, have stood with those who opposed diversity, political correctness, or “wokeness,” if only because the Yale of his time was almost uniformly white and eminently male, an institution that wouldn’t admit substantial numbers of Black men for another 15 years and women for another 20. The perceived persecution of white men and commitment to feminism and anti-racism that addle Buckley’s intellectual offspring didn’t touch him in the 1940s, as there were no other races or sexes at Yale to offend, mistreat, envy, or fear.
I reread GAMAY this fall to try to understand why American universities so reliably disappoint conservatives, decade after decade after decade. Calling higher education possibly “the most fractured institution” in “broken” America, Kanelos, in his manifesto for the University of Austin (UATX), slags off every other college as a finishing school. “Historians will study how we arrived at this tragic pass,” he concludes. And though it’s presumably premature to play historian to the tragic pass of November 2021, I figured Kanelos’s tragic pass would bear at least a passing resemblance to the numberless tragic passes at colleges confronted by reactionaries before him. I thought that GAMAY would contain, if not the first-ever tragic pass—the Eden of tragic passes—at least a kernel of the unceasing heartbreak delivered to so many right-wing college graduates by colleges. I imagined I’d find a pedagogic program in Buckley’s book that would speak to Kanelos and all the others affronted by the nation’s finishing schools. I did not.
Buckley’s notion of what students and alumni needed from mid-century colleges is nowhere in the literature for the new UATX. Kanelos mentions “students” in his manifesto only to ticket them for terrorizing conservative faculty. Unlike Buckley, who dabbled in anti-intellectualism, Kanelos is squarely on the side of the professoriate. His concern is for heterodox professors to whom students object; Buckley’s concern is for students who object to heterodox professors. Seven decades after GAMAY warned readers that colleges were failing to inculcate orthodoxy in their students, conservatives now fear they’re doing so only too effectively. They’re just worried it’s the wrong orthodoxy.