Amidst cries of alarm about the rise of censorship and the decline of academic freedom, a California professor has bowed to public pressure and dropped certain homework options in a course he teaches. The controversy is a case study of how the absence of a private citizen's self-restraint subverts healthy traditions of public restraint.
The professor at Cal State Long Beach, who yesterday was suspended for 30 days from his job, had allowed students in his course on the "psychology of sex" to fulfill homework requirements by engaging in group sex, extramarital sex or homosexual sex. His prior permission had been required for that option. It is unclear -- but fascinating to speculate -- by what criteria permission had been granted or withheld. Some taxpayers are not amused and are not apt to be mollified by the remaining list of homework options, which include dressing in drag for a day, or taking "field trips" to homosexual bars and bathhouses, and nudist camps.
The Los Angeles Times reports -- and by golly, I believe it -- that the professor "is under attack by evangelical Christians." But surely broad church pagans and nondenominational atheists and everyone else should be incensed about the degradation of higher education. Everyone loses when sensible people begin to ask about higher education, "What, pray tell, is it higher than?"
Speaking of his now-abandoned homework options, the professor says: "The idea is not to go out and do some kinky things just to see what they're like, but to see a change in your behavior and your feelings." He says: "It can be a very powerful growth and learning experience."
Well, yes. New sexual behavior is, indeed, apt to involve new feelings. But by the same logic, getting drunk, or getting mugged, can be a "learning experience." If feeling something is by definition, learning something, then indigestion is educational (and perhaps the stuff of college credits at Cal State Long Beach).
The Long Beach professor has offered a peculiarly lurid manifestation of premises that are more prevalent than most persons realize. Those premises make sense if, but only if, there's no higher imperative than pleasure, and no authority higher than the individual for reckoning the value of particular pleasures.
According to those premises, the idea of learning should be unmoored from the traditional sense -- indeed, from any sense -- that among the universe of things that can be experienced, there is a hierarchy of things eligible to be part of higher learning, properly understood.
Any idea of hierarchy is nowadays vulnerable to derogation as a sign of "elitism." That word did not even appear in the American Heritage dictionary published just 13 years ago. But it is now part of America's cultural baggage. Antielitism makes education incoherent because education is inherently elitist, in the defining of it and the delivering of it.
The world is divided, by no means evenly, between those who believe, as I do, that the proper aim of education is primarily to put something -- learning -- into students, and others who believe that the primary aim of education is to let something -- "feelings," or "the self," or "authenticiy," or something -- out of students. If the task is "putting in," putting in a legacy of learning refined over the centuries, the legacy must be sifted and selected from. That is an aristocratic task; it is the business of intellectual authority, not political democracy.
The American genius for tempering democracy, for embanking its passions within institutional restraints, for preventing arbitrary mass willfulness, is nowhere more impressively demonstrated than in the protestations extended to academic institutions. The depredations of the McCarthy era were sporadic, random, short-lived and represented no systematic government policy. The broadest and most comprehensive infringements of academic autonomy have been inflicted recently, and by liberal political forces. The intrusion of political values into sensitive, core academic decisions, such as faculty hiring and tenure decisions, has been justified in the name of "affirmative action" for government-approved minorities.
As a former professor, and the son of a former professor, I appreciate the value of academic freedom. As a student of politics I fear the intrusion of popular passion into academic settings. But when a respected liberty is arrogantly debased into taunting license, lacerating the feelings of the community that pays the bills, the community will, one way or another, find its voice.
Vox populi, vox dei? Not likely. When incensed about ignorant abuses of academic privileges, the populace is not apt to be temperate or discriminating. Extremism outside the academy will mirror that within.