Norman Thomas vs. William F. Buckley on Those Liberal Professors!

For my write-up today on W.A. Swanberg’s biography of six-time Socialist candidate for President Norman Thomas, entitled Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, I will discuss Thomas’ interaction with conservative William F. Buckley’s 1951 book, God and Man at Yale.  It has been a long time since I have read Buckley’s book, plus I read it as a kid, so I did not understand pieces of it.  (I got that Buckley was against the liberal bias of some of Yale’s faculty, but it was Buckley’s philosophizing that I did not understand.)  Consequently, I’ll quote from wikipedia’s article about Buckley’s book before I get into Norman Thomas’ reaction to it.  The wikipedia article states the following:

“Buckley wrote the book based on his undergraduate experiences at Yale University. In the book, he criticized Yale and its faculty for forcing liberal ideology on its students. He criticized individual professors by name for their trying to break down students’ religious beliefs through their teaching. Buckley also states in the book that Yale was denying its students any sense of individualism by making them embrace the ideas of liberalism. Buckley argues that the Yale charter leaves oversight of the university to the alumni, and argues that because most alumni of Yale believed in God, that Yale was failing to serve its ‘masters’ by teaching course content in a matter consistent with alumni beliefs.”

Buckley believed that students at Yale were being indoctrinated into liberal ideology, and he thought that the teaching at Yale should coincide with the views of the alumni, who had oversight over the university and who largely believed in God.  From this article by Austin Bramwell, I see that Buckley even advocated that Yale alumni withhold their funding for Yale until it stopped trying to undermine student’s faith in God and the free market.  Against the possible objection that such a policy would be against academic freedom, Buckley said that academic freedom should have its limits, for many would agree that a college’s anthropology department should not be allowed to teach that Aryans are racially superior.  Buckley also contended that truth does not always triumph in the free marketplace of ideas, for Nazism won out in Germany, where people had a choice between democracy and authoritarianism.  According to Bramwell, Buckley believed that faith in God and the free market were important because they ran counter to totalitarianism—-faith in God, for example, held that there was an authority above the state.  Some of Buckley’s critics at Yale, however, held that Christianity should not have a privileged status in Yale’s instruction of students.

There are two places where Swanberg mentions Buckley’s God and Man at Yale: page 304 and page 351.  Page 304 does not discuss Thomas’ reaction to Buckley’s book, but rather it says that Thomas in 1947 advocated the sort of view that Buckley would later attack in God and Man at Yale.  Thomas was outraged by Princetonians (Thomas’ alma mater was Princeton) who thought that the Princeton faculty should “avoid partisan mention of politics” (Swanberg’s words).  For Thomas, it was wrong to deprive Princeton’s faculty of the right to express their political views, just “because they are paid by people who may not like some of their opinions” (Thomas’ words).  By expressing their political opinions in the classroom, professors were modeling citizenship, Thomas held, and this is undermined when professors are told to keep silent.

On page 351, we read the following about Thomas’ reaction to Buckley’s book:

“William F. Buckley’s book God and Man at Yale made Thomas raise his eyebrows at Buckley’s ‘virtual identification of religion with capitalism’ coupled with the hope that the Yale alumni, so largely composed of stockbrokers and corporation officials incompetent in education, would take over the university, which would mean the ruin of its educative function and the end of its freedom.  ‘To me the fear that Yale or any other American university is turning out radicals is grimly humorous,’ Thomas wrote.  ‘The contrary is conspicuously the case.'”

We see at least three things here.  First, Thomas had issues with Buckley coupling religion with capitalism.  Thomas at this point was a skeptic about God, as were a number of other Socialists, but perhaps Thomas remembered the days when he was a minister and he preached a Christianity that was consistent with social justice, and so he wondered why Christianity should be assumed to be pro-capitalist.  Second, Thomas disputed that Yale’s alumni—-who were capitalists—-had the know-how about education to take over the university and to make demands about its curricula.  And third, Thomas did not think that Yale was even producing radicals, but that the opposite was the case!

What do I think about all this?  I believe that universities should teach students about a broad array of belief systems.  Granted, anthropology departments should not teach students that Aryans are racially superior, but students should be exposed to a variety of intelligent conservative, liberal, and moderate voices, as they talk and write about what they believe are the strengths and weaknesses in the perspectives.  This is consistent with what should be two goals of education: to teach students about the world around them (which includes its various beliefs and the historical significance of those beliefs), and also to teach them to think and to analyze.  So should a professor leave his or her political and religious opinions at the door?  I don’t think so, but professors should try to teach as fairly as they can what other perspectives are, even as they offer their own opinion.  And they should make known to students resources for learning more about other perspectives.  For me, that’s what makes learning exciting: reading books!

Do universities churn out liberals and radicals?  Well, there are evangelical colleges, so I can’t make the blanket statement that academia churns out liberals!  But do universities like Harvard, Yale, etc., churn out liberals?  I’m sure that there are people who become politically or religiously liberal as a result of what they learn at college.  But there are also a number of people who leave school, get a high-paying job, and forget what they learned about social justice.  Regarding religion, I do think that there are philosophy and religious studies classes that tend to lead students in a skeptical direction.  These students may drop out of religion altogether, or they may graduate from college and conclude that they need religion—-for their comfort, to get a sense of structure, or as a way to teach their children values.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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