Over the past few years, college administrators and faculty committees have been tackling a relatively new ethical question raised on campuses across the nation: What about sex between faculty members and students? Older professors can remember when the answer to that question would have been obvious. Some can even recall a time when the question would never have been asked.
Today, however, with mixed dorms and mixed roommates, how can the old-fashioned barrier that separates teacher and student be permitted to stand? After all, if engaging in sex has become a right enjoyed by all consenting adults, then what possible objection can anyone offer to a consenting student and faculty member exercising that right together? While the academy has not yet reached a consensus on this question, the fact that it has been raised at all is symptomatic of a sea change in higher education, a substantive redefinition of the idea of a university.
For generations, the university was regarded as a free market of ideas, a place where diverse opinions were encouraged and where students learned to think by weighing one point of view against another. Hence the concept of academic freedom, the doctrine that a professor had a right to express whatever ideas he championed, both in the classroom and in the community at large. This doctrine was grounded in the assumption that the academy as an institution didn’t take sides. Even Cardinal Newman, when describing the ideal Catholic university, insisted that no indoctrination take place, that the student be taught how to think rather than what to think. This view prevailed in American universities up until the 1960’s—or, at least, the academy paid lip service to it.
While faculty members came to believe that the twin doctrines of academic freedom and the free market of ideas were invented solely to protect them, these ideals protected students as well, given their intellectual naiveté and, hence, their vulnerability to manipulation. After all, the university did not exist so that teachers could prance about campuses, expressing eccentric opinions, quarreling with one another and the world. It existed to train the minds of the young. Thus, it was originally student-centered rather than faculty-centered. Somewhere along the way, professors forgot for whom the university existed.
In his 1965 book Repressive Tolerance, Herbert Marcuse became the philosopher of late-20th-century academia. In essence, he advocated the repeal of academic freedom and the suppression of all ideas hostile to social and economic revolution. As he put it, “Certain things cannot be said; certain ideas cannot be expressed; certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.” It was a typically Marxist pronouncement—blunt, arrogant, and without so much as a rhetorical bow to conventional wisdom.
This statement still seems outrageous to professors over 70 and to their graying former students. However, few current academics share this sense of outrage. Indeed, in this single sentence, Marcuse produced a new creed for higher education in America and helped to inaugurate the vision of a new institution—no longer a university in the traditional sense but an opinion mill, an arm of the revolution.
The motive behind this crushing of all dissent was the drive to recruit students in a Second American Revolution, which, in the 1960’s and 70’s, seemed all but inevitable. For generations, American students had behaved themselves—except for periodically swallowing goldfish, conducting panty raids, or jamming themselves into telephone booths. Then the war in Vietnam followed on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, and leftist professors became professional agitators, seizing on the opportunity to use students in the same way their counterparts had for decades used them in Europe and South America—to destabilize an orderly society. The students were predictably pliant; when manipulated by their professors, they always are.
Why? Because when they go off to college, young people leave a relatively complex world and enter a relatively simple one—a kingdom where abstractions rule. In that world, those who do what is most valued are the professors, with their advanced degrees, their intellectual fiefdoms, their air of certitude. A few examples of argumentum ad misericordiam, a few tales of oppression, a line or two from John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and young people charge into the streets, teeth grinding, nostrils flaring, waving whatever insolent banner their teachers hand them. So, by the late 60’s, middle-class students were rioting on campuses all over the country, heaving rocks at police, vandalizing buildings, issuing non-negotiable demands—full of carefree, self-righteous zeal.
Few people noticed that the rapid transformation of the university into the opinion mill dramatically altered the attitude of teacher to student. In the university, students were treated as ends rather than as means to ends. The integrity of their malleable minds was regarded as inviolable. Ideally, the chief aim of instruction was to nurture their critical ability to the point at which they could make judgments independent of others, including their instructors. By contrast, the opinion mill treats students as means to an end, bodies to hurl against the ramparts of authority. They are taught to embrace a prescribed view of society without considering the possibility that alternative views might have merit. In such an institution, students are rewarded for intellectual laziness, for failing to challenge received opinions, for their reluctance to ask pointed questions.
As for the subject matter, in the university, knowledge was regarded as an end in itself—a unique and discrete reality. As such, neither professor nor student could mess with its essential nature. It was not to be manipulated any more than a student was to be manipulated. It had a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In the current academy, the professor regards the materials of his discipline as means to an end. They possess only instrumental value. Thus, he has the right to torture and eviscerate them to make them work in behalf of whatever revolution he hopes to start that particular day.
In history, facts may be omitted or invented if omissions and inventions serve the cause. Subject to such malicious tampering, the past becomes simpler and simpler—its complexities eliminated through ruthless refinement until all that remains is pure propaganda.
Likewise, in literary studies, novelists and poets who do not lend themselves to misinterpretation are dropped from the syllabus. The rest are compelled to serve in the revolutionary army. Some do so willingly; others are cruelly conscripted. Jane Austen, with her 18th-century love of symmetry and order—a woman in perfect harmony with the world into which she was born—is thus transformed into a modern feminist, at war with the patriarchy, longing to tear out Mr. Darcy’s throat.
In today’s opinion mills, classes are no longer conducted as they were in universities. Professors make political speeches in class, and often do so while ignoring the discipline they are paid to teach. Some teachers ridicule or savage anyone who refuses to submit to the prevailing orthodoxy. A few even use the grade book to punish dissent. But most rely on the aura of infallibility that follows professors into the classroom and hovers above them as they lecture. They can accomplish more by quietly asserting their authority than by threats and intimidation. In the classroom, they speak ex cathedra.
In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, attending a Catholic boys’ school, is told by the teacher, a priest, that his essay is heretical. Humiliated, Stephen is forced to restate his position to conform to Catholic theology. As presented by the anti-Catholic Joyce, the orthodoxy of the school is a harsh, intractable discipline against which the protagonist eventually rebels. This is precisely the kind of intellectual bullying that goes on in thousands of classrooms throughout higher education in this country. The orthodoxy of the left is as rigid and merciless as any theology ever devised. It has its own finely tuned dogmas, its Torquemadas, its instruments of torture.
Portrait is a work of art rather than a book of wisdom, and its hero is often arrogant and wrongheaded. However, in one passage, he makes an important distinction between proper art and improper art. What he says could also be used to differentiate between proper and improper education.
The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. The arts that excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I used the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.
Stephen argues that a work of art whose sole purpose is to make an impact outside its own aesthetic dimensions has no intrinsic worth; it is a servant to sexual desire or to some commitment or cause. In higher education today, knowledge is likewise the servant of ideology, and its worth can be measured only by its impact on the body politic. Therefore, it, too, is intrinsically worthless.
Such knowledge—like improper art—also has a limited shelf life. Today, few if any literate people read novels of social protest written in the first half of the 20th century. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle may have led to government inspection of meat, as its author clearly intended, but you would be hard-pressed to find a denser, duller book on the shelves of the Library of Congress—dense and dull precisely because of its didactic purpose. Besides, who has time to worry about the meat-packing industry when we are fighting a war in Iraq and the North Pole is melting away?
You have to feel sorry for the young men and women who will graduate from such institutions with majors in women’s studies, black studies, or even English, history, psychology, and sociology. Many will reenter a world of complexity knowing nothing that is valuable or relevant or true. They will find that no one is hiring leftist demonstrators, not even MoveOn.org. Mere opinions bring nothing in the marketplace. People are giving them away all over town.
One more point. Stephen Dedalus’s linkage of didacticism and pornography suggests a link between the way today’s professors promote ideology and the question of whether professors should have sex with students. As the academy addresses this question, the debate is confused and nonsensical, a higher-decibel version of the average faculty meeting.
Few of these academics dare to make statements that might be termed “judgmental,” either about the morality of such conduct or its propriety. In the opinion mill, where sex is concerned, there are no absolutes. Some schools ban these liaisons for prudential reasons: “to avoid exploitation and lawsuits.” Others lay down guidelines: not if the student is currently in the professor’s class. The relationship must be consensual. Discretion.
Feminists tend to oppose faculty-student liaisons because they see male professors as wielding the same old patriarchal power over female students. They cite a history of exploitation, back-alley abortions, and high-strung girls leaping off bridges.
Barry Dank, professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, is outraged by the feminist arguments: “This is simply another attack against men, who [sic] they see as being powerful. It’s also an attack on young women . . . [denying them the] freedom to decide what they want and what they don’t want.” Professor Dank has organized a group called Consenting Academics for Sexual Equity (CASE) to fight for the right to have sex with students.
The feminists come closest to understanding what is going on here, though they miss the mark because they can only think in terms of their own self-serving slogans. This debate could take place only on a contemporary campus, where ideology has replaced common sense and—most importantly—where students are now regarded as means to ends. The same arrogance that allows feminists to indoctrinate young women also allows male professors to bed them.
The professor comes to such relationships with the identical advantages he enjoys in the classroom. He is a member of the ruling class, one of the heroes of this closed intellectual society. Young people are attracted to heroes. In the outside world, he would be another face in the crowd. Behind ivy walls, he is Achilles, and the blue-eyed girl on the front row is Briseis, the prize given to Achilles for heroism and then arbitrarily taken away by Agamemnon. In Homer’s epic, she has only instrumental value. In the contemporary classroom, she is likewise a prize, a perquisite that comes with an academic appointment, a thing to be used.