The unmannerly comedy of academia continues. We direct our readers’ attention to the September issue of Harper’s magazine, which features a forum on the subject of “New Rules About Sex on Campus.” The rules in question concern sexual relations between faculty and students. Should such relations be banned? Once upon a time, of course, this would have been considered a bootless question. Rules weren’t necessary: it was simply accepted that teachers shouldn’t sleep with their students. Sure, it happened: sometimes for good, more often for ill. But the general presumption was that a teacher’s authority over a student made sexual involvement imprudent at best, morally compromising at worst. In the age of the PC-police, this discreet, commonsensical approach is under attack. Indeed, the feminist-inspired hysteria over “sexual harassment” has led several colleges to consider instituting some sort of formal prohibition on amorous entanglements between students and faculty. Jack Hitt, a contributing editor of Harper’s, discussed the issue with four academics who are opposed to any such ban: Joan Blythe, associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky; John Boswell, professor of history at Yale; Leon Botstein, president of Bard College; and William Kerrigan, professor of English and director of the program on psychoanalytic studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The hero of the piece is without doubt Mr. Botstein. We say this with some surprise, frankly, since our previous encounters with this college president, scholar, musician, conductor, and cultural impresario tended to confirm the opinion voiced by the critic Tim Page, who once wrote that Leon Botstein was the sort of pretentious chap who gave pseudo-intellectuality a bad name. But on this panel Mr. Botstein emerged as a model of sanity. Near the beginning of the exchange, he pointed out that, although he opposed an official ban, he had to admit that sexual relations between students and teachers were problematic. “There is a power differential in the relationship between a student and his or her teacher,” he said. “And a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student is, in fact, at odds with the task of teaching. Before we start nailing our opponents as puritans, hypocrites, or idiots, let’s realize that we’re dealing in murky definitions that could cause problems in the conduct of teacher-student relationships.”
Yes, it sounds good. But some of Mr. Botstein’s interlocutors were having none of it. Here’s Mr. Kerrigan: “Prudery is a great offense against life. Without a sex act, none of us would be here. And whenever civilization sets out a law against a sexual practice or expression, it invariably produces a desire to break that law. That’s the way eroticism works.” How many non sequiturs, logical fallacies, and plain mis-statements can be crammed into four short sentences? Mr. Kerrigan must have come near the record. But this farrago was really only a warm-up for his sexual credo. Any parent with a daughter at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, will want to attend carefully to Mr. Kerrigan’s idea of pedagogical propriety. He begins by modestly informing us that he has been the subject (he means “object,” but never mind) of advances by male and female students for twenty-five years. The males he declines, apparently, but the females are another matter. “There is,” he said,
a kind of student I’ve come across in my career who was working through something that only a professor could help her with. I’m talking about a female student who, for one reason or another, has unnaturally prolonged her virginity. Maybe there’s a strong father, maybe there’s a religious background. And if she loses that virginity with a man who is not a teacher, she’s going to marry that man, boom. And I don’t think the marriage is going to be very good.
What arrogance! Who is Mr. Kerrigan to decide whether his students’ virginity is “unnaturally prolonged”? Besotted with a clutch of shop-worn Freudianisms, he assumes that “a strong father” and “a religious background” are dreadful psychological impediments, to be dispensed with as soon as possible. But what if his students do not happen to regard their familial attachments or their religious convictions in this light? Mr. Kerrigan presents the behavior of an academic sexual predator as a new form of altruism: only a teacher, you understand, can save these innocent charges from actually marrying the first man they sleep with—as if that constituted some terrible fate. Mr. Botstein again intervened with reason, noting his “sense of relief” that Mr. Kerrigan was “not on the faculty at my college.” He also took exception to the idea that having sex with one’s students was somehow a novel exercise of virtue.
Parents of students at the University of Massachussets, Amherst, are not the only ones who should be alarmed. Miss Blythe demonstrated that those who have children at the University of Kentucky have plenty to worry about, too. Mr. Kerrigan betrayed himself as that most common, most pathetic type of seducer—what one might call a garden-variety rake—the type who abuses his experience and position of authority in order to inveigle young women into his bed. Similarly, Miss Blythe shows herself to be a garden-variety academic immoralist, chock-a-block with the stale clichés of last year’s radicalism: those who support a ban on sexual relations between students and faculty, she said, “are people who fear real life, especially the protean power of lust. College life for them is about isolation from the real world, not an introduction to it.” Not only that, but, Miss Blythe insisted, “Most students at eighteen know more about sex than their own parents.” Would it follow that an eighteen-year-old child of Miss Blythe’s would know more about sex than she? She doesn’t say. But why, parents might wonder, should they help to employ such pedagogues as Miss Blythe?
It was at this point that Mr. Botstein began to show signs of exasperation. “Do we share some residual partial allegiance to the idea that passion and reason are in some sense at odds?” he pleaded. Miss Blythe: “No.” Mr. Kerrigan: “No, sir.” Mr. Hitt chimed in with the suggestion that “Maybe the only thing we have in common … is our genitals.” Mr. Botstein admitted that he was getting depressed. He is not the only one. There has been much scrutiny and criticism of academic life—moral, social, and intellectual~dash\ in the media recently. Typically, the response from the academy has been: “Don’t worry, all the criticism has been mounted by bigots or ignoramuses who don’t appreciate the exciting and worthwhile things we do with your twenty-odd-thousand dollars a year.” This dispiriting forum in Harper’s gives us a glimpse behind the scenes. Once again, things turn out to be far worse than one had imagined. Just how bad was summed up in the following exchange:
BOTSTEIN: Let me say this: I think sexual relations trigger a set of ethical obligations.
BLYTHE: Ethical obligations?
BOTSTEIN: Ethical obligations.
Poor boobies, they haven’t got a clue. We might very well question the advisability of instituting bans on relations between students and faculty. A ban on “teachers” like Mr. Kerrigan and Miss Blythe, however, seems far less objectionable.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 2, on page 3
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