Education and Entertainment; University and Community
(Note: this post uses terms and discusses situations that are borderline NSFW.)
Strange things are happening at my dear alma mater. There is a controversy of unknown size crewing around a post-class demonstration of a “fuck-saw” on a woman. Attendance was voluntary and none of the demonstrators were students, or affiliated with Northwestern in any way, but it was still an event approved by J. Michael Bailey, a Northwestern professor in a Northwestern classroom. While reactions from outside the university have ranged from bemused mockery to vague horror, no one at the university seems to know how to respond. The administration, I suspect, is treading water until its lawyers figure out whether any law or code was actually violated; students, even those who disapproved, seem to be confused by a handful of details: there was no compulsory attendance; everyone was informed ahead of time; and participants were consenting. It’s the attitude best encapsulated by Professor Bailey’s initial, glib response that, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but watching naked people on stage doing pleasurable things will never hurt you,” and that he was too busy to issue further comment until the end of the week. That is, no one was hurt—and the worst that could have happened was discomfort—so how can we actually condemn it even if we disapprove?
All of this (rather embarrassing) blathering by everyone involved completely misses the point. Fine. No one was harmed; we’ll even grant in this argument that perhaps this managed not to violate any Evanston city ordinance. All that legality and immediate harmlessness indicates is that such a demonstration can be held. The more important question is whether it ought to be held. And this is question is tied quite firmly to the question of the purpose of a university.
Bailey asserts that the demonstration served an “educational” purpose. Even if it was educational, what type of education does this demonstration provide? What, precisely, is it capable of teaching other than a method for mechanically stimulating a woman? Does it teach about sexuality? Sexual ethics? (I’d be willing to argue that it can’t do these any better than either a traditional lecture—or a class that reads Tolstoy, Proust, or, what the hell, even Philip Roth.) Its educational value is entirely “practical”: it’s just college-level sex-ed. And while sex and sexual ethics are not and should not be forbidden topics in the university, sex-ed is not within the university’s umbrella of responsibility.
I am, perhaps, giving short shrift to the full defense that’s been offered. The demonstration was a last minute thing; the performers/participants/panelists were originally hired to discuss, among other things, the question of female ejaculation. The demonstration, then, was educational because it was an attempt to prove that this can occur. (Except, unless I’ve misread something, it seems to have failed on this count.) And, as we know, last-minute public experiments are the best method of scientific inquiry. A presentation of evidence that had been gathered and analyzed would have been educational. The original purpose of the after-class session—to discuss—would have been (and, according to students, was) more educational.
And yet: no one was hurt, no one was forced to watch it and, indeed, Bailey’s survey indicates that, “the students “enjoyed [the demonstration] and thought [it] was a singular college experience.” Well, of course they did. For the same reason that people used to show up to the (now thankfully defunct) annual screening of porn in the campus’ largest auditorium. It’s graphic. It’s sexual. It’s entertaining. Intentionally or not, the purpose served by this demonstration, or any such, is not education. It’s entertainment.
This is symptomatic of what the social sciences and the humanities too-frequently do wrong. (The hard sciences, to my knowledge, are much better on this count.) They think they see the writing on the wall—in some cases, it is, honestly, there—and in response either panic and circle the wagons, or give in to a growing sense that students must be enticed—and that the best way to do so is to offer entertainment and amusement rather than intellectual challenge. These were the courses my peers were excited about taking. It is also why two of my most serious professors, both fantastic lecturers, repeatedly berate their classes for being too content to sit and listen to the man at the front talk like it’s a TV show, rather than engaging with what’s being said. Students are lazy, yes. But this laziness—this expectation of being entertained rather than challenged by a “good” (rather, “cool”) class—is to no small degree encouraged and confirmed by at least a handful in the faculty and administration.
“Fuck-saw” demonstrations are an abandonment of a professor’s responsibility toward his or her students, and for more reason than that they’re “entertainment” rather than genuine education. The university, and the faculty, are also parts of a community—local and national along with intellectual—and have obligations to all three. Their students, too, are members of these communities. I’ve tried to leave the second half of my objections—those based on sexual propriety—out of this post, because I’d rather argue about education than about sex. But looking at this in terms of the university as citizen of a community requires taking propriety and social mores—as opposed to simple practice—into account. The university has a responsibility, as a member of these communities, to both behave with citizenship and demonstrate it for its students. At times, this responsibility will require it to object to and vehemently oppose the actions of the community-at-large. At times, its intellectual obligations will put it at odds with the community-at-large. This case falls into neither category. Calling it a matter of academic freedom is meaningless—not merely because there was nothing academic about it. Freedom, academic or not, requires responsibility, an understanding of when one must place limits on oneself. Profanity for profanity’s sake is adolescent. Professor Bailey—and in this I doubt he is alone in the realm of the American university—admits to several moments of doubt and apprehension, all of them having to do with the response of those outside the classroom: the local community and the school administration. These were concerns of responsibility; ignoring them as unimportant because some vague conception of a limitless “freedom” that trumps all is adolescent.