Guardians of the Word: Kirk, Buckley, and the Conservative Struggle with Academic Freedom
by Luke Sheahan
The Conservative Movement’s Perpetual Civil War
The conflict between advocates of the free market and traditionalist conservatives dates from the beginning of the modern conservative movement. Never have traditionalists and classical liberals comfortably shared the same space. The differences and ensuing conflicts between these two strands within modern American conservatism have been well documented. In every area, whatever the potential for practical political alliances, differences emerge between the underlying philosophies that often produce irreconcilable policy prescriptions.
In the 1950s, just as the postwar conservative movement was beginning to coalesce around several key institutions, Russell Kirk, author of the 1953 bestseller The Conservative Mind, and Frank Meyer, National Review’sbook editor, famously sparred over the role of reason and tradition, freedom and community. Meyer published a review of Kirk’sConservative Mind titled “Collectivism Rebaptized” in the July 5, 1955, issue of The Freeman, accusing Kirk of putting a traditionalist gloss on the statist status quo. Kirk responded in kind and the two exchanged invectives for the next several years. Kirk never allowed his name onNational Review’s masthead because he did not want his reputation associated with that of Meyer or others like him. Neither was convinced by the other and the conflict remains representative of the disagreements between the two schools of conservative thought.
Both factions have famously decried what both perceive as the stranglehold of the political and cultural left in academia. However, each has offered solutions based upon its own presuppositions. William F. Buckley’s 1951 book God and Man at Yale is widely considered the standard for the conservative view of academic freedom. Buckley argues that academic freedom, as it exists in the academy, is a mirage to cover for indoctrination by tenured radicals. Universities are institutions funded by the public, either through the alumni if they are private or through taxes if they are public. But the inmates control the asylum; the radicals in the faculty control the universities, and it is incumbent upon the public at large and specifically university alumni and donors to rein them in.
God and Man at Yale made it to sixteenth place on the New York Timesbestseller list and catapulted the twenty-five year old author into the public spotlight. Shortly thereafter he would agree to become the first president of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and in 1955 he would launch the conservative movement’s flagship magazine, National Review. Buckley would become arguably the most productive public intellectual of the twentieth century, publishing fifty-five books and 5,600 newspaper columns and hosting 1,429 episodes of Firing Line, in addition to giving hundreds of lectures around the world and publishing hundreds of prefaces, forewords, obituaries, and editorials. Through the magazine and his other endeavors Buckley was responsible for bringing together various strands of seemingly disparate and hostile intellectuals on the right and unifying them into a viable political movement. At its center was opposition to communism abroad and statism at home. The term “fusionism” described the tenuous alliance between traditionalists, libertarians, and various ex-leftists.
Russell Kirk published Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition in 1955, part of a life-long critique of higher education. According to Buckley, Kirk’s role in the founding of both National Review and the American conservative movement at large was essential. Neither the magazine nor the movement would have existed without him. Along with Buckley, “Kirk was the most prolific conservative author of the last century,” publishing over thirty books, over 2,000 articles, essays, and reviews in addition to thousands of columns for syndication.
Kirk’s book on academic freedom received mixed reviews. Some saw it as a ground-breaking treatment of a difficult subject and a breath of fresh air in a debate mired in paranoid histrionics on one side and dogmatic denunciations of legitimate concerns on the other. Claude Hawley described Kirk’s take on academic freedom as “refreshing whether one agrees with him or not.” In a review in The New York Times Book Review, Roswell Ham noted that, while by the book title “it would seem to offer one more dry-as-dust disquisition” on academic freedom, the book actually is broad in scope and high in quality, making a significant contribution to the relevant discussion.
Others were not so favorably inclined. Buckley denounced Kirk’s book in a review in the same issue of The Freeman that carried Meyer’s review ofThe Conservative Mind. He wrote that it “has something in it for everybody” and that “it can be justly quoted to defend virtually every consistent position in that controversy” over academic freedom. Buckley quickly realized that his review could very well repel Kirk from Buckley’s central enterprise, National Review. If Buckley was to have the young traditionalist scholar join his big-tent conservative effort, he would need to convince Kirk that he was on friendly terms with him despite their disagreements. Immediately upon publication, Buckley sent a copy of his review to Henry Regnery, whose publishing house published both Buckley’s and Kirk’s books, with a note saying,
I enclose a copy of my review of Russell Kirk’s last book, which you won’t like, nor will he. But I hope you both understand that it is done in context of a deep respect and friendliness for Russell Kirk. We simply happen to disagree fundamentally on this whole business of academic freedom.
Buckley was right; Regnery didn’t like it. Kirk, who was with Regnery when he received the review and the note, read them and, according to Regnery, made no comment. Buckley was eventually able to meet with Kirk at his home in Mecosta and convince him to write a regular column for National Review.
This article will examine the differences between Buckley’s and Kirk’s views of academic freedom and how their justifications are derived from their fundamental understanding of religion, truth, and the human person at the heart of their respective philosophies. We shall pay special attention to how the underlying principles involved demonstrate a key difference between the free market conservatism of which Buckley was a proponent and the traditionalist conservatism of Russell Kirk.
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