The Yale student did not like what he heard. Sociologists derided religion and economists damned corporations. One professor pre-emptively rejected the suggestion that “workers on public relief be denied the franchise.” “I propose, simply, to expose,” wrote the young author in a booklong denunciation, one of “the most extraordinary incongruities of our time. Under the “protective label ‘academic freedom,'” the institution that derives its “moral and financial support from Christian individualists then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists.”
For William F. Buckley Jr., author of the 1951 polemic God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” and a founder of modern American conservatism, the solution to this scandal was straightforward: Fire the wanton professors. No freedom would be abridged. The socialist professor could “seek employment at a college that was interested in propagating socialism.” None around? No problem. The market has spoken. The good professor can retool or move on.
Buckley’s book can be situated as a salvo in the McCarthyite attack on the universities. Indeed, even as a Yale student, Buckley maintained cordial relationships with New Haven FBI agents, and at the time of the book’s publication he worked for the CIA. Buckley was neither the first nor the last to charge that teachers were misleading or corrupting students. At the birth of Western culture, a teacher called Socrates was executed for filling “young people’s heads with the wrong ideas.” In the twentieth century, clamor about subversive American professors has come in waves, cresting around World War I, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and today. The earlier assaults can be partially explained by the political situation. Authorities descended upon professors who questioned America’s entry into World War I, sympathized with the new Russian Revolution or inclined toward communism during the cold war.
Today the situation is different. The fear during the cold war, however trumped up, that professors served America’s enemies could claim a patina of plausibility insofar as some teachers identified themselves as communists or socialists. With communism dead, leftism moribund and liberalism wounded, the fear of international subversion no longer threatens. Even the most rabid critics do not accuse professors of being on the payroll of Al Qaeda or other Islamist extremists. Moreover, conservatives command the presidency, Congress, the courts, major news outlets and the majority of corporations; they appear to have the country comfortably in their pocket. What fuels their rage, then? What fuels the persistent charges that professors are misleading the young?
A few factors might be adduced, but none are completely convincing. One is the age-old anti-intellectualism of conservatives. Conservatives distrust unregulated intellectuals. Forty years ago McCarthyism spurred Richard Hofstadter to write his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In addition, a basic insecurity plagues conservatives today, a fear that their reign will be short or a gnawing doubt about their legitimacy. Dissenting voices cannot be tolerated, because they imply that a conservative future may not last forever. One Noam Chomsky is one too many. Angst besets the triumphant conservatives. Those who purge Darwin from America’s schools must yell in order to drown out their own misgivings, the inchoate realization that they are barking at the moon.