People weren’t accustomed to books like this in 1951. Our great universities were treated like national monuments. How dare a recent graduate charge Yale — then celebrating its 250th birthday — with hostility to Christianity and free enterprise?
“I propose, simply,” wrote Buckley — a 25-year-old Spanish teacher heretofore unknown outside the walls of Yale — “to expose what I regard as an extraordinarily irresponsible educational attitude that, under the protective label ‘academic freedom,’ has produced one of the most extraordinary incongruities of our time: the institution that derives its moral and financial support from Christian individualists and then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists.”
The reaction from the academic elite was conducted, in the words of one reviewer, “with all the grace and agility of an elephant cornered by a mouse.” One unenthusiastic observer called Buckley a “violent, twisted, and ignorant young man”; another referred to him as “Torquemada, reincarnated in his early twenties.” But even these personal attacks were not enough. His ideas were labeled “intolerant dogmatism,” “pure fascism,” an “ignorant attack,” a “philistine crusade.” Even his religion — his “special allegiance,” it was called — was dragged in.
But more perceptive critics, liberal as well as conservative, saw that this brilliant young man was calling our attention to scandals in higher education. “This is an important book,” wrote Selden Rodman in Saturday Review, “perhaps the most thought-provoking that has appeared in the last decade on the subject of higher education in the United States … Buckley writes with a clarity, a sobriety, and an intellectual honesty that would be noteworthy if it came from a college president.”
A quarter-century after “God & Man at Yale first appeared,” Buckely added an important preface in which he reviewed the furious response the book provoked — and, alas, how effectively the liberal Establishment dealt with its critics. Buckley’s preface is reprinted in full in this 50th Anniversary Edition, along with a fascinating new Introduction by recent Yale graduate Austin W. Bramwell.
A conservative star — and a movement — is born
“Without God & Man at Yale, one could fairly say, the conservative movement would not exist today. Soon after winning national attention with this controversial polemic, William F. Buckley Jr. deployed his youth, charm, and intellect to unite a motley crew of cantankerous intellectuals into a viable conservative movement. Less than a generation after Lionel Trilling famously opined that ‘in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,’ Buckley had in large part caused the liberal consensus to unravel. …
“After half a century, God & Man at Yale remains a testament to the power of one man to stand up for the truth. Few realize today what courage it must have taken for Buckley to write such a book, knowing how much it would offend the very men who had tapped him into the Yale elite. Buckley’s philosophy of ‘Christian individualism,’ which combined a distrust of the omni-competent state with a defense of the truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, remains as much the core of American conservatism — and, indeed, of the American tradition — in our own times as it did in 1951. Let us hope that fifty years from now Buckley’s exemplary defense of the American patrimony will continue to inspire.” — Austin W. Bramwell, from his new foreword to the 50th Anniversary Edition
“It was an earnest, extreme, and irreverent book, a book that, in its mockery of authority, its impetuous logic, its relentless hewing to the line of Reason, letting the sacred cows fall where they might, followed the old familiar script: campus rebel flays faculty.” — Dwight Macdonald, The Reporter
“Buckley names names, and quotes quotes, and conducts himself, in general, with a disrespect for his teachers that is charming and stimulating in a high degree. …This perhaps is the best feature of his book, certainly the most American in the old style–its arrant intellectual courage.” — Max Eastman, The American Mercury