Inside Higher Ed: Sodom, Gomorrah…Yale?

By Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed

August 28, 2012

Nathan Harden has left little to chance on people making the connection between his new book and perhaps the best-known critique of Yale University, God and Man at Yale. Harden played with that title for his own, Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad (St Martin's Press/Macmillan), and the foreword to Harden's book is by Christopher Buckley, the son of the late William F. Buckley Jr, the author of God and Man at Yale.

Harden, a 2009 graduate of Yale who is making a name for himself writing for conservative publications, makes clear in the book that he loved his educational experience. But he criticises student activities (formal and informal) related to sex, and argues that an anything-goes attitude about sex devalues relationships, devalues and embarrasses women and leaves many students lonely (even if they are having plenty of sex). He writes at length about Sex Week, a series of events organised by students, not the administration, that have featured explicit sexual content. Harden makes much of a recent investigation of Yale by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, although that inquiry has now led to a settlement that left officials from that unit praising the university for the policy changes that it has instituted.

Via email, Harden responded to questions from Inside HE about his book.

Q: Your book describes a lot of events on campus that might shock or offend many people. But how much of the Yale student body is truly wrapped up in the extremes that you describe? Doesn't your own experience suggest that it's quite possible for Yale students to reject these extremes and to still get a great education?

A: Like most people, I arrived at Yale with the idea that it was an elite institution dedicated to serious intellectual pursuits, with the ultimate aim of training our nation's cultural and political leaders. I never imagined it would be a place where, for instance, corporate interests from the porn industry would be given a platform to market their products in the classroom. Nor did I anticipate that I would one day take my international relations final exam next to a former Taliban official - a young man whom the university had invited to study at the university while our nation was literally at war with his comrades. Many students strongly objected to these extreme aspects of the Yale education. What's more important to realise, however, is that these extreme examples are symptoms of a deeper loss of intellectual purpose. And that loss certainly has cheapened the education that my fellow students and I received.

Q: Yale, like most universities, gives students many options for creating student groups and organising student activities, and it also gives great leeway to professors in formulating courses, to guest speakers in their presentations and so forth. Is it fair to describe events such as Sex Week as being about "Yale" when the administration hardly sought or promoted these events?

A: In my view, it's unacceptable for Yale officials to wash their hands of what goes on in Yale classrooms. Take Yale's Sex Week, for example. Yale's officials say they have no responsibility for it. Yet I witnessed Yale faculty distributing porn and sex toys to students with my own eyes. Furthermore, if a group of students wanted to host a "Holocaust Denial Week" or a "We Hate Gay People Week", Yale officials would never agree to host such events on campus, and rightly so. Academic freedom, rightly understood, doesn't mean that any agenda is appropriate or worthy of university sanction. How does something like a graphic how-to lecture on oral sex support the mission of Yale University? Whatever students do or say in the privacy of their dorms is one thing. But what happens in the classroom - Yale officials are responsible for that.

Q: To what extent do you think the environment at Yale reflects higher education generally, or elite residential higher education?

A: It's impossible to account for Yale's current failures without talking about the culture of elitism that permeates the place. I come from a very modest economic background, and I was particularly struck by the sense of elitism I found when I arrived at Yale. Most Yale students are very friendly and unpretentious. Yet there is a sense on campus that the normal rules don't apply. Call it the Yale bubble, if you will. Yale is a place of privilege - full of wealth, power and prestige. Some of Yale's leaders believe that normal academic standards don't apply there. Nevertheless, Yale's integration of the for-profit sex industry into its academic life has been widely emulated, both by elite peer institutions such as Harvard and Brown, and by many less exalted state universities in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, to name a few places. And, as for more typical academic disciplines, Yale has long functioned as a leader in the spread of revisionist literary theories and academic fads that emphasise political correctness over objective inquiry.

Q: A list of Yale's student organisations shows just about every political, religious, cultural view - and many student interest groups. How could you eliminate support for the sort of activities you dislike without limiting the free expression of all kinds of students who want to form various groups?

A: As I mentioned before, what students do on their own time is one thing; what goes on in the classroom is another. If someone promotes an agenda that demeans others or violates the human rights of others, that's where you have to draw the line. Some Yale women have no problem with violent S&M porn, in which women are beaten and mocked for the pleasure and profit of others. For many, however, such a thing is deeply demeaning when Yale gives it a de facto endorsement by hosting it as if it were just another educational event. Likewise, some people had no objections when Yale employed an Arabic professor who openly praised Hamas and Hezbollah and signed his name to a petition that sought to boycott Israeli academics. But I had a problem with it. Because I don't think you can uphold academic freedom by employing someone who seeks to suppress the academic freedom of others.

Q: Were students better off in the era of in loco parentis?

A: Ironically, decades ago, social life was more strictly governed than it is today; yet students came to Yale feeling and acting much more like adults than they do now. Certainly that was true of William F. Buckley's generation. Many of them had just returned from the war. They had seen and done things that my fellow students and I couldn't imagine. Buckley's critique in God and Man at Yale was focused not so much on Yale students and their social lives but on Yale's academic leaders, whose "extraordinarily irresponsible educational attitude" he found so alarming. That's my focus as well. Yale students don't need den mothers or chaperones. They need academic leaders who are committed to serious academic inquiry. They need academic leaders who are willing to take responsibility for what happens in the classroom.

Q: What is your advice to the leaders of Yale and similar universities on how to respond to the issues you outline in your book?

A: Yale's leaders spent much of the past year responding to a federal Title IX investigation by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which followed a string of high-profile sexual harassment and sexual assault incidents at the university. The school got off with a slap on the wrist. But I think right now is an appropriate time for Yale officials, students and alumni to ask themselves how things got this bad. Maybe the fact that Yale has pushed forward with a radical and bizarre sexual agenda for the past 10 years is part of the answer. That agenda, ultimately, has no logical relation to Yale's proper mission as training ground for America's future leaders. Yale, today, is a university without a clear sense of why it exists. Yale's self-proclaimed mission to educate the nation's best and brightest implies a special responsibility to educate them well. Yale serves a vital role in our nation's political and cultural life. It has an important intellectual legacy to uphold. It needs leadership that understands and values that mission, and has the boldness to pursue it. That's what Yale so clearly lacks today.

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