“Stover at Yale,” a serialized novel about Yale life at the turn of the 20th century, opens with a depiction of Dink Stover as one of the “chosen” in his class. A football star in prep school, he is well-known upon arrival and immediately begins to climb the social ladder that will lead to a sophomore society and ultimately into Skull and Bones. A consummate Yale man, he fairly embodies the characteristics of the “Yale type”: “first, a pretty fine type of gentleman, with good, clear, honest standards; second, a spirit of ambition and a determination not to be beaten; third, the belief in democracy.”
But during his sophomore year, after a chance encounter with a group of intellectual students outside the social elite, Dink determines that his view of Yale and of the world is extremely limited by the priorities of the social elite. So he plunges headlong into an intellectual awakening with his newfound friends, eventually abandoning his sophomore society and slipping off the “likely list” for Skull and Bones. His intellectual friends, dissatisfied with Yale and other northeastern colleges, grope to find words to explain for the problem. In the mouth of Dink’s friends, Stover at Yale becomes social commentary.
Brown, one of Dink’s friends, contends that the “function of a college has changed. It is now the problem of educating masses and not individuals… we go out, not as individuals, but as a type.” Regan, another friend, laments that the colleges “don’t represent the nation: they don’t represent what the big masses are feeling, fighting, striving for,” and he suggests that they “ought to be great political hotbeds.” The closing lines of the book are reserved for Brockhurst, the most quixotic of them all: “I dream of something else, something visionary, a great institution not of boys, clean, lovable, and honest, but of men of brains, of courage, of leadership, a great center of thought, to stir the country and bring it back to the understanding of what man creates with his imagination, and dares with his will — it will come.”
And it did. Yale gradually and then more rapidly shifted to become “a great center of thought” and a “great political hotbed” organized around an individualist philosophy. The high-water mark was the late 60s, when Yale president Kingman Brewster “sensed a telling familiarity” while reading Stover at Yale. The period was trying for conservatives. The school once called a “bastion of conservatism” by Time magazine endured riots by radicals, public defacing of the American flag and the breakdown of the WASP social order that had for so long defined and served Yale.
Thus, conservatives witnessed a social revolution that overthrew the mixed system of opinion and sentiment that had made it possible to speak of a “Yale man.” Everything was to be simplified according to the principles of autonomy and individual right. Virtue, duty, and honor were scorned, and conservatives could be excused for thinking that everything good was coming to an end.
The revolution that claimed the support of “reason” forced conservatives to find the philosophical foundation of their antipathy to such change. They found inspiration in Edmund Burke, who in critiquing the French Revolution supported the concept of inheritance against that of social contract, prescription against the spirit of innovation, aristocratic privilege against democratic theory and chivalry against the rights of men. And Burke’s valorization of statesmanship as a high calling gave conservatives a purpose and a role to play.
But the conservatives soon learned the danger of their newfound intellectualism. For in accepting Burke’s withering critique of the doctrine of the rights of men, they unwittingly came into conflict with the central idea of the American creed: the inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence. Herein lies the predicament of being conservative in America: the attempt to preserve the goods of a social order seems futile when the founding principles of that order justify its own eclipse. How, then, can conservatives aspire to political leadership in America?
Liberal enlightenment thinkers implicitly considered the state in an analogy to a maze. For them, the pre-modern state was a labyrinth full of dangers and dead ends, and a thread was needed to lead them through the darkness to enlightenment. The “rights of men” evoked by the French Revolution and the Declaration of Independence constitute their proposal for this thread. In contrast, if American conservatives aspire to political leadership, they must be especially wary of adopting this way of thinking about the state.
Classical political theorists implicitly considered the state in an analogy to architecture. Two questions — “Rule by whom?” and “For what purpose?” — suggested a variety of structures for the state. The categories of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, among others, were the result. In the Constitution, American conservatives inherit a collection of the best of these ideas, and conservatives who aspire to political leadership would do well to emphasize their wisdom.
But architecture can only provide structure; conservatives need another analogy with which to inform their policy. Expect that analogy, and more, in 2008.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.