The Perils of Orthodoxy and Florida House Bill 999
By Stephen SchryerMarch 15, 2023
If passed, the bill will ban programs in “Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems” in state universities. It will also grant boards of trustees complete control over faculty hiring decisions and allow them to strip faculty of tenure. Six of the 13 members of the Florida State University Board of Trustees are appointees of the governor, which effectively gives Republicans veto power over who teaches in Florida postsecondary institutions. Tellingly, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a civil liberties organization (which notably receives funding from libertarian groups) that has defended conservative students since 1999, has pledged legal action against Bill 999, complaining that its measures are unconstitutional.
Florida’s tactics, however, also reaffirm an authoritarian stance on higher education that has guided movement conservatism since its inception in the early 1950s. Much of Bill 999 closely echoes a foundational text of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” (1951), which complained that most of the humanities and social science faculty at the author’s alma mater “seek to subvert religion and individualism.” He called on the university’s president to fire all faculty who did not agree to adhere to Christian and free-market orthodoxy. This orthodoxy, he insisted, should be defined by the president and board of trustees, who represented the conservative views of the university’s customers: the parents who paid to send their children to Yale, and the alumni who were taught there and expected the institution to reflect their values.
Like contemporary conservatives, Buckley believed that the academy had been taken over by liberals, and he wanted conservative intellectuals to reclaim it. This political demand informed the magazine that he founded, National Review, and indeed the entire postwar conservative movement. This movement has been and continues to be fueled by a sense of grievance: conservatives’ anxiety that they have been locked out of the academy, media, and government by a triumphant liberal establishment. As Ann Coulter complained in her 2003 book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, “They have the media, the universities, the textbooks. We have ourselves.”
Buckley’s argument depends on a model of instruction that we should pay careful attention to at this moment when conservatives are returning to God and Man at Yale as a playbook for dismantling postsecondary education. The book takes aim at the doctrine of academic freedom, which Buckley defines as the faculty member’s license “to teach what he sees fit as he sees fit.” Faculty who claim this freedom, he argues, believe that they are creating an “open contest” in which “truth will be victorious and error defeated over the long [run].” According to Buckley, however, this doctrine disguises the actual purpose of education, which is indoctrination. Every university, he insists, subscribes to an orthodoxy, establishing “limits within which its faculty members must keep their opinions if they wish to be ‘tolerated.’” The give-and-take of academic debates only makes sense when grounded in an orthodox set of beliefs that establishes guardrails circumscribing classroom conversation. The problem with Yale faculty is not that they indoctrinate but that they pretend not to do so, and not that they disseminate orthodoxy but that they disseminate an incorrect orthodoxy: left-wing ideas instead of conservative ones.
Buckley, in other words, is not interested in presenting students with conservative ideas to balance out the alleged liberal bias of Yale’s faculty, allowing them the freedom to choose between rival political philosophies. Rather, he discounts the very idea of education as a process of testing ideas. As a conservative, he believes that “all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them.” From his perspective, atheists and economic collectivists are enemies who must be defeated because they have strayed from already settled truths; otherwise, they will corrupt the youth.
If left-wing ideas are to be taught at all, they must be introduced by right-wing educators who will guide students to perceive those ideas as dangerous heresy. The classroom, he writes, should be considered “the practice field on which the gladiators of the future are taught to use their weapons, are briefed in the wiles and stratagems of the enemy, and are inspired with the virtues of their cause in anticipation of the day when they will step forward and join in the struggle against error.” Writing at the height of the Cold War, Buckley developed a pedagogical model that mirrored the totalitarianism he attributed to the Soviet Union.
This conception of education informs Bill 999. It explains the document’s attack on faculty governance and carte-blanche canceling of critical race theory and gender studies courses. These courses offer dangerous errors that must be expunged. It also explains the bill’s seemingly contradictory attempt to establish and regulate general education courses that must “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization” but “may not suppress or distort significant historical events” or include “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content.” Setting aside the bill’s racist insistence that students only learn about the West, the notion of exploring “Western civilization” while excluding the unproven and exploratory seems bizarre to anyone who studies history. This exclusion only makes sense once we realize that, for the bill’s authors, the underpinnings of Western civilization are self-evident, a series of received truths ultimately derived from God.
God and Man at Yale highlights the fantasy at work in this notion of only teaching “proven” truths about Western civilization. In his tour of Yale University’s undergraduate calendar, Buckley strategically focuses on the departments of religion, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and economics. He doesn’t touch on the physical sciences. The reason for this is obvious. At the core of God and Man at Yale is the notion that the university could be turned into a center for the dissemination of conservative orthodoxy without impacting work in medicine, engineering, physics, and so on. Similarly, even as Bill 999 insists that general education courses must not teach history in an “exploratory” manner, it stipulates that “[n]atural science courses must afford students the ability to critically examine and evaluate the principles of the scientific method, model construction, and use the scientific method to explain natural experiences and phenomena.”
This is the central fantasy of authoritarian governments that target universities as centers of political dissent: they believe they can continue to foster the technically educated class essential to a postindustrial economy without creating a socially or politically critical citizenry. After the conservative educational revolution, American universities will still produce competent doctors, nurses, engineers, and nuclear physicists. They will just stop producing left-wing ideologues who ask uncomfortable questions about the nation’s history, the divinity of Christ, or the distributive justice of unfettered markets. In other words, the principle of rigorous and skeptical testing, which is at the core of the scientific method, can be safely walled up within the technical fields, where it will do no harm to the beliefs and values of young people.
There are at least two problems with this fantasy. First, as sociologist Alvin Gouldner argued in his 1979 book The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, every university discipline nourishes and is nourished by a shared “culture of critical discourse” that “de-authorizes all speech grounded in traditional societal authority.” Destroying this culture in one discipline starves all the disciplines around it. For example, trying to run a nursing program while circumscribing all discussions of gender and race as forbidden speech will lead to substandard healthcare, even for white male Republicans like Ron DeSantis and Alex Andrade. Second, the bill opens the door for legislators to place other topics out of bounds. Bill 999, in its current form, does not prevent faculty from teaching anthropogenic climate change or evolution. Conservative activists, however, will certainly pressure legislators to introduce a bill that does so. The current bill, if enacted, will undoubtedly lead talented teachers, researchers, and students to pursue jobs and educational opportunities in other states, where they will not be subject to a government that dictates what topics are safe for them to discuss in the classroom.
As both God and Man at Yale and Bill 999 highlight, movement conservatives are paradoxically dependent on the academy they seek to devitalize and conquer. William F. Buckley Jr. wrote his book to debunk his alma mater, revealing to outsiders the extent of its departure from the religious conservatism of its Congregationalist founders and the business interests of its private-sector funders. The book, however, was enabled by Buckley’s Yale education, especially by the argumentative give-and-take with liberal and conservative scholars like Buckley’s faculty mentor Willmoore Kendall.
Buckley’s signature accomplishment after completing his degree was to found National Review, a magazine that presented itself as the conservative intellectual antidote to the liberal academy, even as it drew most of its expertise from tenured professors such as Kendall, James Burnham, and Hugh Kenner. Today, measures like Bill 999 make it look like Republican lawmakers want to transform public universities into reliably conservative institutions such as Liberty University. That is not, however, the education that fashioned the Republican elite. Ron DeSantis, like many members of the American upper class, benefited from the Ivy League, liberal education he received at Harvard University.
Stephen Schryer is professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. His forthcoming book, Conservative Circuits, explores the network of writers associated with National Review.
Featured image: Alexander Drewin, Suprematism, 1921. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Collection Société Anonyme. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery, artgallery.yale.edu. Accessed February 10, 2023.
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