Devon, PA. Mark T. Mitchell’s powerful essay on Jane Austen in the age of porn coincides with an interesting news item on Inside Higher Ed. A group called the Young Conservatives of Texas have helped craft legislation which would require any Texas public university with a center for “homosexual” students (or those with any other predilection from the contemporary smorgusboard) also to sponsor a center for “heterosexual” students. The legislation has passed the Texas House as part of a larger budget bill.
It is evident from the article that neither the group nor the legislators take the proposal seriously. Their intention is to create a hurdle that no university would wish to jump, and that, therefore, the universities will simply closed down these centers of self-esteem and identity politics for good. Further, it is evident that the writer of the article expects this project to provoke the right minded liberal, and that this intended audience will respond to “mock” legislation with mockery of its own. No doubt the comment-board will fill up with facetious notes on the “poor oppressed” straight male following the boilerplate of comments about “poor oppressed whitey” that appear anytime a news item calls attention to the systematic process of racial discrimination that is “affirmative action.”
Fair enough. I can see the grounds for laughter on both sides.
But, if state university systems really did want to cater to the concerns of attentive parents, they might revisit the Texas legislation once sobriety has been restored. While universities normally have centers and resources for those who have been victims of sexual assault — a trend that will likely continue so long as the numbers regarding sexual assault and rape on campuses continue to be pumped up artificially — I have never seen a university that made any serious effort to help students with the difficult duty of living chastely in the usually decadent environments of the contemporary campus.
When higher education is done well (which is rarely), it consists of education into the mystery of Truth and initiation into the ethical traditions that help us best to live in its light; the intellectual life consists of the work of the intellect as part of a particular way of life, and so is as much an ethical as it is a speculative project. But undergraduate students are typically thrown into an environment of debauchery and juvenile freedom in which the only “adult” presence is some boob from the health center handing out condoms. Far from being a supplementary or even over-reaching service, it seems close to the core mission of universities to help students navigate these ugly and dangerous waters in hopes that they might get though the “consequence-free” “green room,” and into the adult world of courtship and marriage with as little to regret as possible.
I am a college professor; I have no intention of sending my children away to school, so long as the present environment remains typical. Indeed, I would not even then.
Aside from the distressing frequency of rape in college communities (and those numbers remain significant even once one has stripped away the thick padding of statistics that note what is, unfortunately, par-for-the course these days: drunken sexual encounters), the general “hook-up culture” that Mitchell describes, and which Jeffrey Polet has discussed elsewhere in greater depths, pretty well guarantees that students will emerge from their education with, in the terms of Austen, their senses disordered and their sensibilities coarsened. I know a number of parents who are terrified of sending their children away for this reason, and perhaps universities would be putting their tendency to pander-to-public-relations to good use for once in instituting an office to help students practice the virtues of temperance, chastity, and modesty in a climate that will surely put them to the test.
I should add two notes before concluding.
First, it is true that undergraduate education has always been typified by a certain kind of debauchery. There is a reason that gown-and-town riots were frequent in medieval Oxford, after all — and, as I recall, Blessed John Henry Newman makes reference even to the moral squalor that tended to pullulate around the academies of the ancient world. I would welcome the prospect of reevaluating the model of education among groups of coevals altogether — a reevaluation for which the old one-room school house provides a prototype, and which contemporary homeschoolers have undertaken with great success and little attention.
Second, I recall buying a kit for growing sea monkeys when I was a child. As those of you who also had them will likely recall, the instruction book was a veritable thicket of scare-quotes, e.g. “You’ll ‘love’ your ‘sea monkies’! Just put them in their water ‘jungle’ and see how they ‘play!’” It provided an early lesson in what happens when one violates a judicious use of punctuation. Unfortunately, our age’s sexual epidemics and decadence are such that I find it impossible to discuss them without employing more than a gentleman’s share of quotation marks. I “ask” the reader to “forgive” me.