Politics and Teaching
Years ago, Bowling Green State University where I taught for many years, held commencement ceremonies in the football stadium -- rain or shine.
Naturally, everyone teaching there then remembers times when rain washed away some unlucky commencement speaker’s notes. On one occasion a rain/snow mixture totally ruined my cap and gown...though I seem to remember saving the hood that indicated I have a Ph.D.
Eventually, wisdom prevailed; those running the place acknowledged you can’t count on spring weather in this part of the world, and moved them inside – though thanks to COVID-19, they were back in the stadium again last spring.
But weather wasn’t the only unpredictable thing about these ceremonies. Back in 1987, the Wise Ones of Wisdom on the faculty (not me) deemed we should nominate two distinguished citizens to receive honorary degrees -- William F. Buckley Jr. and Fred (Mr.) Rogers. They both accepted, possibly to the school’s shock, and both came and were on the makeshift stadium stage at the same time.
Virtually everyone has heard, of course, of Mr. Rogers. And if you grew up in a political, especially a conservative intellectual atmosphere, you also certainly heard of and quite possibly worshipped “WFB.” He was an American public intellectual, conservative author, and political commentator. In 1955, Buckley founded National Review, a magazine that stimulated the conservative movement in the United States and which, at the time, was the only one of its kind.
Mr. Buckley, who died in 2008, had burst on the scene at 26 with the publication of his book God and Man at Yale (Regnery, 1951) which sharply criticized the institution over the liberal views of the faculty. A World War II veteran, a devout Roman Catholic and a scion of old oil money, he criticized Yale for forcing what he said was a secular ideology on students.
He criticized professors by name, arguing that they tried to break down
students' religious beliefs through their hostility to religion, and charged that Yale was denying its students’ individuality by making them embrace the
ideas of liberalism.
Buckley also claimed that Yale was failing to serve its “masters,” the founders and alumni by teaching in a matter inconsistent with the beliefs of those worthies, virtually all whom believed in God. That was enough to propel Buckley, a patrician blue blood who talked with an accent that seemed affected, to the intellectual leadership of the American conservative movement for decades.
From my vantage point, this sounded like gobbledygook. Buckley had studied science or medicine, he might have worried less about religion in the classroom and a lot more about how aspirin can cause stomach aches.
Even a Yale undergraduate can feel a stomach ache whether God is at Yale or not. When it came to modern-day relevance, Buckley mostly studied the wrong things. So the argument about too few conservatives at universities is a spurious one only worrying the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and a few members of boards of trustees elsewhere.
None of the organic chemists I know give a damn. But what about the public schools? Should the parents have the right to tell the teachers what to teach and determine who the teachers are?
Well, let me reflect on my hometown, tiny Clymer, New York. Clymer was mostly populated by the descendants of Dutch immigrants. Most, but not all, were members of what was then the Dutch Reformed church in America. And their schools were mostly populated by their children. So, it probably would seem logical that the tenets of that church should also be taught in the schools.
Logical perhaps -- but not fair. There were a few Roman Catholics who went to the Clymer school; and whatever vestiges of Horace Greeley’s folk were left. Greeley was more or less a freethinker when he died in 1872. Did his family have to go to a school where the tenets of the Dutch Reformed Church were taught – and pay taxes for that besides?
Fortunately, even in Clymer someone figured out that church and state should be separate, and by 1950, all the religious instruction that had been part of their school was removed. I’m sure that had it come to a vote, the people in that community would probably have preferred religious instruction in their public school remain. But a higher power intervened -- the U.S. Constitution.
While Yale is not a public school, it also believed in our fundamental principle of the separation of church and state, whether William F. Buckley liked it or not. But why did Buckley get an invite from BGSU and an honorary degree?
Maybe because he was famous for being famous. But if those who invited him expected a large donation to follow, they were disappointed.
Douglas C. Neckers is McMaster Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also former Chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y. See his work at 3dscienceblog.com.