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Lower Education

Sex toys and academic freedom at Northwestern.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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“It’s science, pal,” Professor Bailey’s defense in effect is, “and I am a courageous scientist, out there on the edge, so shut up and pass the K-Y, and grab a handful of Viagra on your way out.” Bailey’s remarks are the social-scientific equivalent of the old avant-garde blackmail. Bailey would have us know that he is doing edgy science; and the implicit blackmail here is that if we are not with him out there on the edge then we are intellectual philistines, no better than those people who, more than a century ago, attempted to scratch the paint off French Impressionist paintings or broke chairs in anger at the first performance of Le Sacre du printemps. Disagree with Professor Bailey’s views, in other words, and you are rearguard, a back number, one of those “fools in old style hats and coats, / Who half the time were soppy stern / And half at one another’s throats.”

What is of interest here is the professor’s apparently genuine puzzlement that anything untoward was going on. Was there? Let us assume that human sexuality of the kind on display is a legitimate subject of social-scientific inquiry. The question is, why bring undergraduate students, who are neither scientists nor social scientists, in on the actual research itself? Might the justification be that watching an abnormal woman with the aid of an electrical device attempt orgasm before an audience of young strangers will make the students’ own sex lives better? Or was Professor Bailey merely running a sideshow on the wackiness of human nature? Pretty flimsy, in either case.

One wonders if Professor Bailey isn’t the heir all-too-apparent of decades of misunderstanding of the meaning of academic freedom. When did this understanding break down? The rough answer is: over many years, though it took its most drastic drop during the 1960s. Academic freedom is that unwritten body of assumptions and unspoken standard of ethics that has implicitly ruled university education from its earliest days. Without going into intricate detail on particulars, it is the freedom that scholars and scientists require if they are to pursue their studies and researches and their obligation to pass on their knowledge through teaching. 

In earliest times, academic freedom’s greatest opponent was religion, which in the nineteenth century felt its tenets being violated by biblical criticism and by the findings of geology. (Darwin, fortunately, was not attached to a university, nor was the great geologist Charles Lyell, so neither required academic freedom for his researches.) Earlier in the American twentieth century, academics were often under fire for their political opinions and causes they supported outside the classroom. Academic freedom would support a university teacher who thought himself a socialist or pro-union, or held nearly any other view, no matter how far out of the mainstream, so long as he did not argue for it or otherwise inflict his views on students in the classroom. 

Northwestern has long boasted a stellar instance of the protection afforded by academic freedom by having on its engineering faculty a man named Arthur R. Butz, the author of The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry. Butz is an unembarrassed, in fact a rather aggressive, Holocaust denier, but because he doesn’t express this view in the classroom, where, as a teacher of electrical engineering, he specializes in things called control system theory and digital signal processing, his job is safe. (In a world where side effects sometimes seem greater than central ones, Butz’s position on the Northwestern faculty may even be said to have been good for the Jews. Partly owing to him, wealthy Jewish patrons have installed a Holocaust studies chair at Northwestern, and other Jewish alumni have set up Jewish centers of study at the school. One can almost hear them muttering, above the scratching of the pen upon their checks, “I’ll show that S.O.B. Butz .  .  .”) Meanwhile Butz, through the sufferance of academic freedom, keeps his job, and rightly so. 

Academic freedom, though, works two ways. While it protects university teachers from outside forces that would inhibit them, it also sets a standard of conduct on what doesn’t deserve to be protected by academic freedom. In “The Demand of the Academic Profession for Academic Freedom,” Edward Shils wrote about this subject with great force and subtlety. Along with much else, Shils notes that academic freedom might be rightly abrogated “from a genuine conviction that [a scholar’s or scientist’s] research is unacceptable according to strictly intellectual standards,” and that “academic freedom is primarily the freedom to do serious academic things without obstructions imposed with other intentions in mind.” Academic freedom, as Shils also notes, is a specialized right that is “hedged about by obligations and conditions.” Some of these have to do with academic behavior on the job, for not alone in dreams but in freedom begins responsibility. 

When I began teaching at Northwestern in 1973, the smoke had not yet cleared from the student revolution. I recall at the time hearing gossip about a teacher who was sleeping with one of his students, and when I checked with a friend on the faculty, he confirmed that it was likely true. “Do many younger professors sleep with their undergraduate students?” I asked this same friend. “I don’t know many who don’t” was his rather casual reply. 

Does sleeping with one’s undergraduate students come under the shield of academic freedom, or was it instead an academic perk, or ought it, again, to be admonished, if not punished by dismissal? Although a youngish bachelor at the time, I eschewed the practice myself, chiefly because I thought sleeping with one’s students was poor sportsmanship—fish in a barrel and all that—and my own taste happened to run to grown-up women; I also thought it was, not to put too fine or stuffy a point on it, flat-out wrong. I wondered, too, if in its taking unfair advantage—a teacher after all has the power of awarding grades to students—it wasn’t an obvious violation of academic freedom, and not merely crummy. 

Someone wishing to argue the other way might say that, by the end of the 1960s in America, there were not all that many college girls who could any longer be considered innocent. In these sexual transactions, they might go on to argue, it wasn’t always clear who was seducing whom. That such an argument can be made shows how the culture impinges upon the university. In an earlier age, the university preferred to think itself as outside of, and if truth be told superior to, the general culture of the society in which it functioned. 

For many people today, the more the culture impinges upon the university the better. From the 1960s and perhaps well before, they longed for the university to reflect the culture by being more open, democratic, multicultural, with-it, relevant. These people have seen their longings come to pass. Pursuing the old ideal of the university existing in splendid isolation, a place for the cultivation of the mind, where scholarship is garnered in tranquility and important scientific research done without the pressures of commerce or government—this ideal, the ideal of Cardinal Newman and Matthew Arnold, is no longer available. “There are no culture wars,” Irving Kristol is reported to have said. “They’re over. We lost.” In those wars, the fall of the university was equivalent to the battle of Aegospotami in the Peloponnesian War: After it, Athens, and American culture, was never the same. 

One of the most important things that departed from higher education with the old ideal of the university was intellectual authority. One of the first changes I noticed from my own undergraduate education when I began teaching at Northwestern—and this is certainly not true of Northwestern alone—was all the junky subject matter being taught. Courses in science fiction, in the movies, in contemporary or near contemporary writers already consigned to the third class, along with many courses that sounded more like magazine articles in quite boring magazines. At an earlier time, a powerful department chairman might have put the kibosh on the notion of courses on the Beat Generation or on secondary women writers or on soap opera as drama or on graphic novels or on videogames for the good reason that such things were insufficiently serious. Not any more. No powerful department chairmen any longer existed—democratic departmental procedures had done them in—nor is there anything like a rough general consensus in the contemporary university about what is serious in the realm of culture and ideas. Who is to say that the films of Steven Spielberg are less important than the plays of Shakespeare, or for that matter that Shakespeare himself wasn’t gay and a running dog of capitalism into the bargain? 

Nor are there any figures higher up the academic ladder who can be counted upon to call a halt to the nonsense. No provost such as Jacques Barzun at Columbia, no university president such as Robert Hutchins at Chicago, now exists. If one is hard-pressed to name a single university president today, it is chiefly because none has much to do with actual education. The last major university president to concern himself with the educational content of his school—with appointments and with what was actually being taught—was John Silber of Boston University, and his efforts were far from appreciated by a large portion of his faculty. The contemporary university president’s main tasks now, as everyone knows, are to siphon off money from the rich and put out little fires with wet public-relations blankets. 

Higher education used to be an elite endeavor. The acquisition, in Matthew Arnold’s formulation, of “the best which has been thought and said” was what it was supposed to be about. But one has to have the authority to know what really is best, and confidence in the belief that acquiring it is decisive. This, somehow, was lost. And once it was, great subjects in the university curriculum were increasingly replaced by hot ones; just as often, traditional subjects were corrupted by politics in ways that constituted a frontal assault on academic freedom, though not many people in the university seemed either to notice or much to mind. 

Not long after I began teaching at Northwestern there arrived in the English department in which I taught a woman teacher committed, in a full-time and lifelong way, to a personal radical political program. She taught literature on strictly Marxist lines and organized a student political group to which she openly recruited students, inviting them to her home for May Day dinners and carefully cultivating them in other ways. (Some of these students appeared in my classes, and a glum and predictably dogmatic lot they were.) Everybody knew about this, but no one said a word in protest of a teacher proselytizing students for her own political causes. Did they so misconstrue academic freedom, I used to wonder, that they thought telling her to knock it off would interfere with her rights, or were they worried that doing so would seem bad manners? 

Things went along in this way for a few years, when the teacher, with her student acolytes, organized a shout down of a Nicaraguan contra speaker visiting the campus. One of her students threw a red liquid—animal blood? nobody knew for certain—at the man. Afterwards, she told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune that the speaker had no right to be on campus; that, in fact, he deserved to die. When asked about the freedom of speech, she said that it didn’t extend to such a man. 

Because of the publicity this response evoked, a faculty committee was formed to investigate the incident and censured her behavior. The censure carried no penalty; quite the reverse, it made her a heroine of sorts on the campus. Eighty-five faculty members, chiefly from the humanities and social sciences, signed a petition protesting the censure. Later she was recommended for tenure by the English department and by a faculty panel and the arts and sciences dean—tenure that was denied only at the very end because the then-provost of the university, an old-fashioned liberal named Ray Mack, said he could not grant tenure to anyone who was on record not believing in free speech in a university. She departed Northwestern for that Valhalla for sixties radical teachers, Rutgers University at Newark, where she remains today. 

That so many of the faculty at Northwestern had no qualms about her proselytizing students is noteworthy. But then there is always faculty ready to back up the most egregious behavior of colleagues. In the case of J. Michael Bailey, the Chronicle of Higher Education chimed in with an article by an assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College named Laurie Essig, who finds the Northwestern sex scandal, as we now say, a great teachable moment. Professor Essig is of the view that shaking things up, attacking the status quo, is of the very essence of education, what the whole enterprise is really about. 

“Clearly,” Essig writes, “this ‘live sex act’ triggered a national conversation about what we can and cannot look at.” She goes on to ask “what is it about the fact that there were people there on the stage that makes it different than a film with a sex scene or a book with a sex scene? .  .  . Why are we so damn uncomfortable with sex that is not mediated by film or text that ABC, CNN, and all the rest of the media outlets can’t stop talking about it?” Essig even wonders if “the live sex act had occurred between a straight, vanilla, normatively gendered and married couple, would we have cared as much?” She concludes: “These all seem like important questions and questions that can be asked because a professor allowed something to happen in his classroom and triggered a national debate about the dangers of sex and education getting into bed together.”

Professor Essig joins Professor Bailey as one of the university’s shock troops. A student I talked with, who had earlier taken Bailey’s human sexuality course and who did not otherwise speak harshly of him, noted that he seemed more than normally pleased to shock his audience of students. Does Professor Bailey, one has to wonder, thrill to his own acts of épater les bourgeois? Does he, so to say, get off in his combined role as Pied Piper, Krafft-Ebing, and the Diaghilev of the kinky?

Because of the great ruckus that his sex demonstration caused, Professor Bailey later allowed that, if he had to make the decision to stage the sex demonstration again, he probably wouldn’t do it. But then he remarked: “Those who believe that there was, in fact, a serious problem have had considerable opportunity to explain why: in the numerous media stories on the controversy, or in their various correspondences with me. But they have failed to do so. Saying that the demonstration ‘crossed the line,’ ‘went too far,’ ‘was inappropriate,’ or ‘was troubling’ conveys disapproval but does not illuminate reasoning.”

Allow here a small attempt at illumination. Because a subject exists in the world doesn’t mean that universities have to take it up, no matter how edgy it may seem. Let books be written about it, let research be done upon it, if the money to support it can be found, but the nature and quality and even the sociology of sexual conduct—all material available elsewhere in more than plentitude for the truly interested—does not cry out for classroom study. Students don’t need universities to learn about varying tastes in sex, or about the mechanics of human sexuality. They don’t need it because, first, epistemologically, human sexuality isn’t a body of knowledge upon which there is sufficient agreement to constitute reliable conclusions, for nearly everything on the subject is still in the flux of theorizing and speculation; and because, second, given the nature of the subject, it tends to be, as the Bailey case shows, exploitative, coarsening, demeaning, and squalid. 

Difficult to understand how an expert in the field such as Professor Bailey missed the obvious analogy, but in the demonstration he arranged for his students the poor woman is little better than a prostitute, the students pathetic johns-voyeurs, and he himself, quite simply, the pimp. A curious role for a university teacher to play, but I guess it’s a living.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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