G-d and Man and Sex (!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part I
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here. This is part one of a three-part series.
Writing in the January 2013 edition of Imprimis, a monthly publication of Hillsdale College,* 2009 Yale graduate Nathan Harden offers up a brief recollection of his experiences at the elite university, particularly his exposure, in 2008, to the degradations of Yale’s Sex Week, a 10-day biennial program of interdisciplinary sex education designed to pique students’ interest in the subject “through creative, interactive, and exciting programming” (as if college students needed special programming to reinforce their interest in sex).
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Vivid Pictures founder and CEO Steve Hirsch, pornography legend Ron Jeremy and stars Monique Alexander and Savanna Sampson, VH1’s The Pick-Up Artist’s Mystery and Matador, Comedian Stevie Jay, relationship expert Pepper Schwartz, Ian Kerner (author of She Comes First) , Pure Romance Founder and CEO Patty Brisben, leading love and relationship experts Dr. Helen Fisher and Logan Levkoff, and more.
The Week’s seminars offered students a opportunity not only to hear lectures about love, sex, and intimacy and to learn about the use of enhancement products for more fulfilling sex, but also a chance to question well-known porn stars about the adult entertainment business and presumably anything else.
Harden’s encounter with Sex Week so horrified him that he went on to write a book about it entitled, in a nod to his intellectual hero, William Buckley, Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad.** Buckley, of course, had his own disheartening experience at Yale way back in the late 1940s, which he chronicled in first book, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’, first published in 1951.
Young Buckley set off for Yale convinced of two things: the necessity of Christianity and faith in G-d as a foundation for the good life; and the notion that free enterprise and limited government had served America well up until his time and would continue to do so long into the future. He expected these convictions to be buttressed by Yale and to find within its walls allies against the evils of secularism and collectivism. In his introduction to the book, Buckley contended that:
the trustees of Yale, along with the vast majority of alumni, are committed to the desirability of fostering both a belief in God and a recognition of the merits of our economic system. I therefore concluded that it was the clear responsibility of the trustees, as our education overseers, to guide the teaching at Yale toward those ends.
Unfortunately for Buckley, the trustees didn’t see their duties in quite those terms. Instead, they fell back on the quaint notion of “academic freedom,” which dictated that faculty members should be able to teach what they wanted to teach without espousing a particular ideology. Buckley, however, regarded academic freedom as an irresponsible educational attitude that produced an “extraordinary” incongruity; that is, that Yale, an institution founded and financed by “Christian individualists” devoted itself “to persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists.”
That in itself was bad enough, but underlying Yale’s liberal embrace of academic freedom was a corrosive moral relativism that posed a grave danger to a country engaged in a protracted Cold War with the forces of communism. Buckley believed that the battle between Christianity and atheism was of paramount importance as was the struggle between individualism and collectivism. And, even once the country had won the battle against communism, other crucial battles would arise and require support from the nation’s universities. As such, there was no room for impartiality in the college classroom, for presenting to students all sides of an issue as if each side had equal validity and then allowing students to choose which side to pick.
In Sex Week, Harden sees the same moral relativism at work. Nearly sixty years after Buckley graduated, Yale’s liberals were still trying to refashion American politics and culture, but now they weren’t merely endorsing atheism and collectivism, they were also acting to promote a “radical sexual agenda.” Harden despairs that
. . . Yale as an institution no longer understands the substantive meaning of academic freedom—which requires the ability to distinguish art from pornography, not to mention right from wrong—is a sign of its enslavement to the ideology of moral relativism, which denies any objective truth (except, of course, for the truth that there is no truth).
Under the dictates of moral relativism, no view is any more valid than any other view, and no book is any greater or more worth reading than any other book. Thus the old idea of a liberal education—that each student would study the greatest books, books organized into a canon based on objective criteria that identify them as valuable—has given way to a hodgepodge of new disciplines—African-American Studies, Latino Studies, Native American Studies, Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies—based on the assumption that there is no single way to describe the world that all serious and open-minded students can comprehend.
Harden has found a flashy new object–Sex Week–around which to organize his jeremiad about the depravity and dysfunction he sees as typical of modern campuses. But like Buckley, he believes this depravity comes at high cost: “To the extent that Yale and schools like it succeed in producing leaders who subscribe to the ideology of moral relativism—and who thus see no moral distinction between America and its enemies—we will likely be disabused of this false sense of security all too soon.”
Harden, and even Buckley, are not the first writers to draw attention to the issue of moral relativism on campus. Critiques of the moral relativism of the modern university have a long pedigree, dating back to at least the early 1930s when Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler created a firestorm at the University of Chicago by trying to introduce a Great Books program to provide an overarching structure of learning to the research-oriented school. (More on their efforts in Part II).
The late 1980s and early 1990s also saw a rash of books***, mostly by conservative writers, decrying the degenerative effect of liberalism and radicalism on American college education. Most prominent among these works was the late Allan Bloom’s surprise best seller, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987). Bloom, a University of Chicago classicist and professor of political philosophy, noted of his students that the only things that unified them were “their relativism and their allegiance to equality:”
The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society. That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged–a combination of disbelief and indignation: “Are you an absolutist?” … The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to open-mindedness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating.
Bloom’s book is an 382-page indictment of the kind of openness described above. For him, such openness has been stripped of its political, social, and cultural context rendering it meaningless. “Cultural relativism destroys both one’s own and the good.” It reduces Western culture to just one culture among many, no better or no worse. The “recent education of openness” has forsaken prejudice, forsaken judgments of good or bad:
It does not demand fundamental agreement or the abandonment of old or new beliefs in favor of natural ones. It is open to all kinds of men, all kinds of life-styles, all ideologies. There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything. But when there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?
When The Closing of the American Mind hit the book shelves, conservatives were quick to claim Bloom as one of their own. But reality, as usual, is a bit more complicated. As Jim Sleeper points out, Bloom (unlike Buckley before him and Harden after him) hardly fits the mold of a movement conservative. Bloom’s critique of cultural relativism still left room for him to warn that liberal education was threatened as well by ”proponents of the free market,” whose promise of social well-being ”no longer compels belief,” and by religious belief that, ”contrary to containing capitalism’s propensities, as Tocqueville thought it should, is now intended to encourage them.” Sleeper further notes that:
Bloom argued that our capitalist economy and liberal-democratic order turn civic virtue to mercenary ends. To cultivate ”the use of reason beyond the calculation of self-interest,” he contended, ”it is necessary that there be an unpopular institution in our midst that . . . resists our powerful urges and temptations.” That unpopular institution was the university. Surveying with nuanced regret what he saw as the failures of religion and of the Enlightenment (whose rationalism had collapsed into fascism or Communism), he hoped to rescue a classical Greek pedagogical tradition that wove eros and intellect into the love of knowing and the love of natural virtues.
Whatever their political bent, critics of moral relativism on campus tend to share a certain view of the university as more than simply a place to learn the stuff necessary to get a good job (a view that probably unites a substantial number of students). Instead, they see the university as an inculcator of cultural and moral values, hence their desire to see college education organized around some central core of ideas or canon of works believed to express the highest ideals of humankind. Of course, what works should comprise that canon and how any such works should be taught are subjects open to bitter debate.
The next installment of this series will explore one such debate, the so-called Chicago Fight of the 1930s, which raged around the attempts of University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins to introduce a Great Books curriculum there. (Bloom himself was an undergraduate and graduate student at Chicago toward the end of Hutchins’ tenure as president.)
The third part of this series will look at whether it is possible, or even desirable, to impose some overarching scheme on college education, and whether universities should even attempt to provide a moral or cultural context to their students.
* Hillsdale College is perhaps best known for its refusal to accept federal funding of any sort, even in the form of student loans, as a means to keep itself free from government interference. All students are required to take its core curriculum, which includes reading of the Great Books.
** Harden is now a columnist for the online version of Buckley’s publication, the National Review.
*** These works include E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know; Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education; and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus.