Last year I was very concerned about higher education. In fact, it seemed to me that our elite institutions were going to become no-go zones for anyone who did not toe the progressive line that moves further out by the minute. Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option presented an easy explanation and solution: See, everything is going to hell. Let’s abandon mainstream life and hunker down.
In recent months I have felt increasingly uneasy about this plan. Surely there remains a place for traditionalists of various stripes in most places. Several developments have given me cautious optimism. First, much of the brouhaha on college campuses in 2015 has either died out or changed direction. The coup at the University of Missouri, despite its president’s resignation, proved to be a spectacular failure. In March, it was reported that the university had suffered a 23 percent drop in prospective student deposits for the fall. “Safe space” culture is now lampooned all over the media (viewer discretion advised on this one). Universities have to reckon differently with tensions, or be left with a financially unsustainable echo chamber.
And then there’s Yale. Erika Christakis, whose email about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes stirred up a hornet’s nest of social-justice outrage, ended her teaching duties at Yale (let the reader understand), and her husband has stepped down from being Master of Silliman as well. She spoke quite graciously about the whole situation in this interview, which relates well to the topic of her new book. Something good may have come out of this, signaling that the Millennial activism of last fall may be something that can be absorbed into rather than destroy an institution that still has room for traditionalists. I thought that the progressive campus assaults of 2015 would produce a moment for Yale to cave on matters that all of the elite institutions are wrestling with — among them, names.
At Georgetown University, for example, students were successful in lobbying to change the names of two buildings named after university presidents who facilitated the sale of Jesuit-owned slaves in Louisiana. The University of Oxford in England (Oriel College in particular) was embroiled in a fierce debate about whether to keep a statue of Cecil Rhodes. For the time being, it stays, and my Covenant colleague Mark Clavier brushed by the deeper meaning behind this “secular re-enactment of the Protestant whitewashing of saints and sinners” in this truly wonderful post. Maybe we should rethink the names and monuments on some of our buildings; but maybe keeping them is an even better witness to cultural resiliency — even progress — than wiping them out.
Yale faced similar situations in the aftermath of last year’s tumult. Calhoun College, one of its undergraduate residential communities akin to Silliman (where Christakis lit the powder keg), was facing the prospect of a name change. John C. Calhoun, the seventh Vice President of the United States and a staunch supporter of slavery, appeared to be done for. At the same time, Yale had to decide what to name its two new residential colleges. Here an inclusive solution worthy of the ideals of a free society mostly prevailed. Calhoun’s name would stay on the old college. On the new ones there would be one name everyone could get behind (Benjamin Franklin) and a more provocative choice (Anna Pauline Murray). We would have to continue living with the unsettling reality of a college named after a white supremacist. We would also have to accept/get to celebrate the institutionalization of a progressive icon who undermined everything Calhoun was about. As a unifying agent, we get the legacy of a person of almost mythic dimensions, smiling back at us from textbooks, $100 bills, and statues that few (if any) would wish to have anything done to apart from a polish. But does this compromise reveal a deeper institutional inclusion? Is there really the possibility of future flourishing for us who dissent from the progressive ethos of faculties that increasingly self-identify as Left or Far Left?
I actually think so.
I have learned about the relatively new William F. Buckley Program at Yale, named after the progenitor of conservative activism that the American establishment eventually had no choice but to take seriously. (Many forget how vilified Buckley was when, fresh out of his undergraduate studies, he published the now famous God and Man at Yale). One of the Buckley Program’s principle activities has just about found itself absorbed into the institution. It is the annual Disinvitation Dinner, which offers a platform to someone who has been shouted down from or pressured out of speaking engagements elsewhere. Recent speakers have included the conservative columnist George F. Will and former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly.
If there is an actual debate happening at a place like Yale, it’s exciting — whether or not we happen to like George Will or any of the other speakers. If “offensive” people are talking to anyone there, it is a good thing. It demonstrates, I think, that those who differ from the prevailing ethos (particularly Christians) have overreacted by underplaying our future in relation to Western institutions.
Why not keep striving to carve out a niche for ourselves within? Why not keep on smiling and making arguments? What’s the worst that could happen?
The best that could happen, as Buckley’s career teaches us, is that one day the world will need our arguments and our hope, and we should be present to offer it. If we do it the right way, we can be agents of change. And if we get the boot, then we will bear that cross with the kind of integrity Erika Christakis demonstrated.
But if progressives want to keep people with traditional religious and political views at the table — and indeed make room where there isn’t any! — I am more than a little bit interested. Now if only someone would step up and take the mantle of Harold Bloom, future Yalies may actually be able to learn to love eternal things. And why should we not expect that someone will do just this?
And so we return to the Benedict Option. I remain convinced that Christians need to be more intentional than ever about passing on our faith, about organizing ourselves more faithfully in common prayer, and about differentiating strongly from the prevailing culture. The Benedict Option makes a whole lot of sense. But on some days, it can feel like sour grapes: giving in too easily in a time when, as our current political cycle demonstrates painfully, our institutions are completely up for grabs. To borrow from Yale’s motto, lux and veritas are surprisingly hard to stamp out.
And so I say to traditionalists (particularly Christians): Go to Yale! Speak well and take your part in the fray. Have fun. And once again, boola-boola.