The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 21, 2014

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Rethinking What Universities Teach
Chuck Stetson - 07/02/12

Shortly after his graduation, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote God and Man at Yale (1951), focusing on three areas where Yale was failing as a university: (a) its intolerance of, and open hostility, to religion in its courses; (b) in economics courses, its love of big government, its teaching the “obsolescence of individualism and waning of free enterprise and capitalism,” and its disparagement of entrepreneurship, the engine of growth and prosperity; and (c) its manipulation of “academic freedom for their own ends and in such a fashion to deny the rights of individuals.” Buckley called on Yale alumni to stop “abdicating their responsibilities” and get engaged and right the wrongs that he documented.

More than sixty years later, the situation has not improved; in many ways it is worse, not only at Yale but at colleges and universities across the country. Buckley’s book addresses so many of the pathologies that we are dealing with today in America. It could be that we allowing our universities to fail to teach students what they need to know to become responsible citizens.

Religion

In the first chapter of God and Man at Yale, Buckley addresses religion at the university. He concludes that Yale, which for its first two hundred years had been led by clergymen, essentially turned its back on faith. He shows that departments including sociology, history, and psychology actively disparaged faith and its contribution to Western civilization or, in the case of psychology, simply ignored it. This attitude continues today.

The modern approach ignores the central role religion has played in Western civilization. David Aikman, the former bureau chief for Time magazine in China, noted recently that a secular scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Science said to him that the Chinese had studied the West, seeking the source of its predominance. “We did not find it in your guns, your wealth, even your natural resources,” the Chinese scholar said. “We find the secret in your religion: we believe Christianity is central to the rise of the West.” Yet many of our leading universities won’t even consider what the Chinese have found as the source of the West’s success.

In higher education, it is important that various worldviews be identified and fairly considered. How can students understand the world around them if they don’t understand worldviews? Also, when a professor has a point of view, shouldn’t that professor state it clearly so that students can understand where the professor is coming from?

In looking over some of my own notebooks from classes at Yale in the 1960s, I see that I was intrigued by the language of various professors. I wrote down lots of phrases. Unfortunately, no professor ever explained his viewpoint. No one ever gave me a framework to understand what I was being told.

Thus, several years after graduation from Yale and later from business school, I found myself incapable of making a key decision. Yes, I could write down all of the pluses and minuses on a yellow pad. I felt like a donkey starving between two bales of hay. My university education had not given me any framework in which to make a decision. My education at Yale and elsewhere had failed me.

The Free Market

The second chapter of Buckley’s God and Man at Yale is entitled “Individualism.” It bemoans the Marxist theory of economics that became ingrained in textbooks and classroom teaching in the late 1940s. To thrive after college, students had to repudiate what they had learned so that they could recover the entrepreneurial spirit.

Buckley notes that in the textbooks, economists failed to separate fact from belief. Advocating more government involvement, textbook authors had no problem making unsubstantiated assertions as to public policy. According to Buckley, these economists believed that “the individual firm, the individual himself is powerless to cope with the complexities of the economy in times of stress. The government must step in.” He shows how the economics texts took a one-sided view that government spending is good and thrift is bad. “No consideration of private property or individual economic freedom is to deter the government from spending,” Buckley explains. Even worse, “No credit is given—not even a footnote—to the serious works of serious students who insist that abridgement of freedom is an inescapable by-product of government planning.” The same held true when I was at Yale. The economics professors hovered over us in our final exams to make sure that we could properly regurgitate Keynes’s socialistic belief that government had to step in when the economy turned down.

Yet the past thirty-five years have demonstrated the power of entrepreneurship in creating jobs and wealth. Testifying before the Senate, Kate Mitchell, a director of the National Venture Capital Association, cited a study showing that in 2006, companies started with venture capital since 1971 now accounted for 10.4 million jobs, $2.3 trillion in revenues, 9.1 percent of private sector employment, and 17.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The list included Intel, FedEx, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and eBay.

As a result of this entrepreneurial activity, people at all levels of the economy have prospered: the average inflation-adjusted income in the top quintile of American earners increased 22 percent between 1993 and 2003; incomes in the middle quintile rose 17 percent on average; incomes in the bottom quintile increased 13 percent.

In contrast, when the government has tried to be the venture capitalist, it has not worked out well. Larry Summers, who served as President Barack Obama’s top economic adviser, summed up the matter well in a prescient e-mail regarding Solyndra, a solar company the government lent money to that ended up bankrupt: “Gov[ernment] is a crappy vc,” he wrote, using vc as shorthand for venture capitalist.

In God and Man at Yale, Buckley notes the economists’ assertion that there is no practical limit to government debt. For example, Professor Lorie Tarshis in his textbook claims that “the government may be said to exhaust its credit only if it is unable to borrow; and, as we have just seen, its ability to do so can never be seriously in question.” In another text, Professor Paul Samuelson concludes: “In short, there is no technical financial reason why a nation fanatically addicted to deficit spending should not pursue such a policy for the rest of our lives, and even beyond.” We should ask the people of Greece today if that is true.

Academic Freedom

Buckley also takes on the issue of academic freedom in God and Man at Yale. In a carefully reasoned argument, he demonstrates that “academic freedom” has not protected free inquiry but instead has limited discussion. In practice, Buckley says, the system ends up allowing professors to speak out on issues with impunity—even to assert their opinions as fact in classes. Buckley cites numerous examples from a wide variety of departments at Yale.

The problem has only gotten worse and it goes well beyond Yale. For example, during her inaugural address, Harvard University president Drew Faust said:

The “Veritas” in Harvard’s shield was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion. We understand it quite differently now. Truth is an aspiration, not a possession. Yet in this we—and all universities defined by the spirit of debate and free inquiry—challenge and even threaten those who would embrace unquestioned certainties. We must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt, to the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.

In fact, the original motto on Harvard’s shield was not simply “Veritas” but “Veritas pro Christo et pro ecclesia”—“Truth for Christ and the Church” which can be seen on the Harvard shield on the third floor of the Harvard Club in New York City. The dictionary defines truth as reality. Thus, Harvard University once recognized objective reality.

It is then hard to understand President Faust’s new definition of truth/reality being “an aspiration.” The very notion that truth is equivalent to reality suggests that that there can be only one truth or reality and it can hardly be “an aspiration.” The search for truth may well take place in the spirit of debate, in grappling with doubt, and in the humility of always believing there is more to learn. But in the end, truth for one is truth for all.

Ignoring the truth of physical laws has immediate physical consequences. When you step out of a fifth-story window, gravity will take you quite quickly to the ground. There are also consequences to life and society when the truths of the natural law and of universal moral law are ignored. At the very least in ignoring these laws, our intellectual life—our worldview—is a house built on the shifting sands of opinion and not on the bedrock of truth. It is therefore very disturbing that President Faust would even consider threatening “those who would embrace [these] unquestioned certainties.”

Our universities ought to recapture their role, which is not to enshrine the passing fads but to help their students lay hold of truth.

Accountability

In God and Man at Yale, Buckley raises the question of “whether or not the alumni have the power or the right to interfere if they are in disagreement with Yale’s educational policy.” He concludes that alumni not only have the right but actually have the duty to “interfere.” In the book’s concluding chapter, he urges the alumni to hold the university accountable and ensure that professors who fail to respect religion and individualism be discharged.

What can be done about this situation? Buckley focused on alumni involvement, and in some cases alumni have been able to hold university administrations more accountable. Most notably, several years ago a group of Dartmouth alumni accused the college administration of sacrificing free speech to political correctness and of abandoning Dartmouth’s historical focus on undergraduates. This group petitioned to put on the ballot its own candidates for the board of trustees, and two years in a row the outsiders unexpectedly defeated candidates whom the alumni association had endorsed.

Beyond alumni involvement, there are other things we can all do to try to hold colleges and universities accountable:

  • Before sending our children to or making a gift to a particular university, we need to inquire as to what is taught at the school. Look at the professors, the course descriptions, and the syllabi. Who are the leading faculty on campus? What is being taught?
  • When making a gift, make sure that it supports a search for truth and the development of character. Ask what the university is doing in these areas.
  • Support research of gifted professors who are truth tellers, such as Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, who developed the university’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and also the Witherspoon Institute to examine issues of faith and related civic issues.
  • Check out think tanks that study how to improve education at the university level, such as the Manhattan Institute.

Questions that are also worth asking include:

  • What specifically are colleges doing to prepare young people for leadership positions? Which courses are required? Ask for a list of the required readings. Do these readings draw on the collected wisdom of the past?
  • Is a course on Western civilization required?
  • Who are the most popular teachers? What do they teach? What is their view of Western civilization?
  • What points of view on economics are being presented? What is being taught about entrepreneurship and leadership?
  • Are worldviews identified and examined?
  • What do students study about the big questions of life—Who am I? Where did I come from? What is my purpose in life?

Ultimately, William F. Buckley Jr. demonstrates clearly that what universities are teaching is harmful to our students and even destructive to our communities and our country. We must start asking universities the hard questions on what they are teaching and why. If we are to continue sending our children, and providing financial support, to these universities, we need to get answers that make much better sense.

 

Chuck Stetson is a Managing Director of PEI Funds, a private equity firm based in New York. A graduate of Yale and of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, he has written articles for the Harvard Business Review, Pratt’s Guide to Venture Capital, The Journal of Corporate Strategy, and Trinity Forum. He created The Doubleday Pocket Bible Guide, coauthored the acclaimed public school textbook The Bible and Its Influence, and edited Creating the Better Hour: Lessons from William Wilberforce. Mr. Stetson is CEO of Essentials in Education, an educational publisher that initiated and produced the documentary The Better Hour: The Legacy of William Wilberforce, which was broadcast on PBS. He has initiated and funded research on marriage, including The Taxpayer Cost of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing, The Marriage Index, and most recently Second Chances for Marriage.

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