Readers of our November issue will recall that we provided a preview of two academic conferences that took place recently at the State University of New York at New Paltz, Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Womens Sexual Freedom on November 1 and Subject to Desire: Refiguring the Body the following weekend. In the event, both conferences generated enormous public outcry, and with good reason. Masquerading as exercises in innovative scholarship, they were really celebrations of sexual perversity laced with antinomian politics. Revolting Behavior included sessions devoted to subjects like Sex Toys for Women, How to Get What You Want in Bed (an interactive workshop), Queer Sexuality: A Spectrum of Womens Experience, and Safe, Sane & Consensual S/M: An Alternate Way of Loving. Subject to Desire offered similar fare, including Vulvas Morphia, an installation by the performance artist Carolee Schneemann, best known for Interior Scroll, an act in which she slowly unravels a scroll from her vagina and reads aloud from it to the audience.
Confronted by critics who didnt think this was the very best use of tax dollars, the president of SUNY New Paltz, Roger Bowen, noted that such events were simply business as usual. No doubt he is right: but is that a good thing? Mr. Bowen disparaged his critics as philistines and bleated loudly about infringements on academic freedom and free speech. Governor George Pataki of New York, outraged that the administration of a state-funded college should condone such events, wasnt buying this: This has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with the proper expenditure of tax dollars.
Governor Pataki was right. Roger Bowen, a political radical held over from the 1960s, now finds himself in charge of a college campus. When no one is looking, he lends enthusiastic support to events like Revolting Behavior, hoping that they will further his dream of radical political transformation. At the first hint of criticism, he has one all-purpose mantra: freespeechand- ACADEMICFREEDOM. (Though he does not apply this mantra to everyone: when president of Hollins College, Mr. Bowen was a vigorous supporter of speech codes.)
It goes without saying that this mantra is dear to the heart of The New York Times, whose editorial position on such matters has long been a model of left-liberal orthodoxy. In a brief editorial called Free Speech at New Paltz that appeared November 11, the Times blustered its support of Roger Bowen and decried the rigid conservatives who are calling for his dismissal. Any university that explores intellectual frontiers, the Times editorialist wrote, will inevitably raise hackles from some part of the political or ideological spectrum.
Intellectual frontiers? Consider the pamphlet called Safer Sex Handbook for Lesbians, which was freely available at one of the twenty-odd workshops (we forget whether it was at Eroticizing Safer Sex or Safe Sex for Women Who Partner with Women). Like most such documents, this is a graphic how-to manual pretending to be an aid to public health. It featured explicit instructions (accompanied by photographs and unprintably crude language) on performing all manner of sex acts, including a section on Blood Letting Sexual Activities: Cutting Rituals, Play, and Permanent Piercings, Shavings.
When the SUNY undergraduates at New Paltz got tired of exploring the intellectual frontiers opened up for them by the Safer Sex Handbook for Lesbians, they could wander over to the workshop on Sex Toys for Women. Intellectual frontiers were being further expanded at this workshop by the owner of a New York sex boutique, who provided a show-and-tell demonstrating the use of various sexual appliances. Students who wished to continue their studies at home or in the dorm were in luck. All the devices demonstrated in Sex Toys for Women were on sale in the main lobby, right across from the table full of pornographic and semi-pornographic books, also for sale. Those who wanted to explore their intellectual frontiers another time could pick up the fully illustrated mail-order catalogue.
In fact, there was a great deal of what The New York Times described as exploring intellectual frontiers at SUNY New Paltz. At the workshop on sadomasochism, four long-time practitioners of S&M were imported from Manhattan to discuss what we might call the ins and outs of their sexual activities. Noting that they had been asked by college officials to refrain from being too graphic in their presentation, they several times invited audience members to see them after the session for more information, including information about joining S&M clubs. What was billed as an educational event seemed at times more like a recruiting effort.
The New York Times would have its readers believe that the debate over these events at SUNY New Paltz has pitted champions of free speech against censorious right-wingers. The Pataki administration endangered both free speech and academic freedom when it joined in an attack on the State University of New York at New Paltz, the Times intoned. To foreclose a topic because it makes people uncomfortable is to abdicate the universitys role as a forum for free and open exchange. A free and open exchange of what, pray tell? The truth is that the events at SUNY New Paltz have nothing to do with the free and open exchange of ideas and everything to do with a form of politicized sexual propaganda and proselytization.
Accordingly, the real question is not what students and faculty are legally allowed to say or do in public, but how well the campus of a great state university is meeting its primary educational obligations. Like Roger Bowen, the Times wants us to believe that every moral objection can be disarmed by simply invoking the talisman of free speech. This is the counsel of moral idiocy. We do not hire our educational leaders to be cultural guerrilla warriors, testing the limits of permissible behavior. On the contrary, we want a college president to articulate a vision of educational achievement and what counts as the good life. A college president who encourages his students to explore the fringes of morality instead of calling on them to become educated and responsible adults is not doing his job. The issue is not what is legally permissible but what is educationally appropriate. Revolting Behavior notwithstanding, American colleges are not yet laboratories dedicated to exploring the nether reaches of morality. They are institutions entrusted with the education of young adults. Blind to this distinction, Mr. Bowen has failed disastrously in carrying out his presidential responsibilities. Some critics have called for Mr. Bowens dismissal. They are right to have done so. He is a disgrace to his office.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 4, on page 1
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