Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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William Buckley Frames the Choice Between a Hockey Mom and a Harvard Law Review Editor

The exchange between Steven Hayward and David Brooks on Sarah Palin, and the broader question about who is ready for high office, got me thinking about William Buckley’s famous line about preferring to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book to the 2,000 faculty members at Harvard. A little digging at Hillsdale College’s Buckley archive established that the line first appeared in a 1960 essay for Newsday’s weekend magazine. As such, the original alternative to the Harvard faculty was a city on Long Island - the Boston/Harvard dichotomy emerged only when an edited version of the piece appeared in 1963 in a Buckley collection, Rumbles Left and Right.

It’s worth quoting the original essay - not just the line that became famous, but the elaboration of the point, which seems relevant to the argument Gov. Palin’s nomination has triggered:

"I am myself obliged to confess that I would prefer to live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Garden City telephone directory, than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University. Not, heaven knows, because I hold lightly the brainpower or knowledge or even the affability of the Harvard faculty; but because I greatly fear intellectual arrogance, and that is a distinguishing characteristic of the university which refuses to accept any common premise. In the deliberations of two thousand citizens of Garden City I think one would discern a respect for the laws of God and for the wisdom of our ancestors which would not equally characterize the deliberations of Harvard professors – who, to the extent that they believe in God, tend to believe He made some terrible mistakes which they would undertake to rectify; and when they speak of the wisdom of our ancestors, it is with the kind of pride we exhibit in talking about the accomplishments of our children at school."

The "common premise" reference is a little opaque outside the context of the essay. There are two other passages that clarify it, both of which reach back 10 years to Buckley’s first book, God and Man at Yale. The first: "To assume, as academic freedom implicitly does, that every child, every student, should in non-scientific matters begin again fresh, as though Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and St. Thomas had among them reached not one dependable conclusion, is to doubt the very structure of learning; is to doubt that there are any aims at all, aside front purely selfish ones, to education."

And the second:“Schools ought not to be neutral. Schools should not proceed as though the wisdom of our fathers were too tentative to serve as an educational base. The Ten Commandments do not sit about shaking, awaiting their deposition by some young swashbuckling professor of ethics. Certain great truths have been apprehended. In the field of morality, all the basic truths have been apprehended; and we are going to teach these, and teach, and demonstrate, how it is that those who disregard them fall easily into the alien pitfalls of communism, or fascism, or liberalism.

“There is a purpose in life. It is known what that purpose is, in part because it has been revealed, in part because man is endowed with a rational mechanism by which he can apprehend it. Educators should pass on those truths, and endow students with the knowledge of the processes by which they are recognized as such. To do this is the single greatest contribution a teaching institution can make: it is the aim of education, to which all else is subordinate and derivative. If education can endow students with the powers of ethical and rational discrimination by which to discern and give their allegiance to the great certitudes of the West, we shall have a breed of men who will discharge truly the responsibilities that face them as the result of changing conditions.”

Discussions - 5 Comments

Thanks for that, Bill. Nicely dug.

There is as much intellectual arrogance in 'allegiance to certitudes' as in failing to accept common premises. This piece reads from the 1950's, and so hardly serves to frame anything. There is a reason the pseudo-intellectual Buckley's works have been archived. He was all vocabularic 'hat' and no 'cattle'. His prothonotarial prose, with its whipstich meter and rutile vocabulary, are salutiferous examples of saponic saraband, now the object of ridicule at more sinistrorse sites.

Stertinius - you and Molly Ivins, who said of Buckley that he had a third rate mind and a first rate vocabulary. Funny, but inaccurate and unfair. Besides, Buckley was financially generous toward a poor Catholic school in New York City, for which I was and am grateful.

A little trivia about Garden City. This town (it calls itself a "village") is next door to where I grew up.
There was a famous hotel, named--mirabile dictu--The Garden City Hotel, directly across the street from the Garden City stop of the Long Island Railroad. It burned down in the 1970's and was later rebuilt. But in the 1960's, Buckley used to treck out from NYC and give regular lectures there. Hence his choice of this relatively unknown town for the antipode that would later be replaced by Boston.
Also, the original Garden City Hotel was the location of the famous incident in which George Patton, on his way to a formal dinner, saw three men abducting a woman. Pulling out his pistol, he leapt to her rescue--in full tuxedo--only to discover they were just helping her into a car.

There is a reason the pseudo-intellectual Buckley's works have been archived. He was all vocabularic 'hat' and no 'cattle'. His prothonotarial prose, with its whipstich meter and rutile vocabulary, are salutiferous examples of saponic saraband, now the object of ridicule at more sinistrorse sites.

As incredible as it may seem, no, Stertinius did not write this as intended irony. This is his normal prose style.

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