Love on Campus

By William Deresiewicz
The American Scholar, Summer 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

ALook at recent movies about academics, and a pattern emerges. If the image of the absent-minded professor stood for benevolent unworldliness, what is the meaning of the new academic stereotype? Why are so many of these failed professors also failed writers? Why is professional futility so often connected with sexual impropriety?

The answers can be found in the way these movies typically unfold. The alcoholic, embittered, writer-manqué English professor who neglects his family and seduces his students is a figure of creative sterility, and he is creatively sterile because he loves only himself. Hence his vanity, pomposity, and selfishness; his self-pity, passivity, and resentment. Hence his ambition and failure. And thence his lechery, for sleeping with his students is a sign not of virility but of impotence.

Perhaps the most significant fact about the new academic stereotype and the narrative paradigm in which it is typically situated is that they are a way of articulating the superiority of female values to male ones: of love, community, and self-sacrifice to ambition, success, and fame.

So why are academics regarded as the most appropriate instrument for this lesson? The representative academic is always a professor of humanities. Of course, there are plenty of science professors in movies and books, but they are understood as scientists, not professors. Say the word professor, and the popular mind conjures up the image of a quotation-spouting bookworm. And it is that figure who has become an object lesson in the vanity of ambition.

There are larger reasons for the rise of the new academic stereotype. The existence of academia irritates Americans' insistence on equality. At the same time, as American society has become more meritocratic, people want that advantage for themselves or their children. Universities are playing an ever-more conspicuous role in creating the larger social hierarchy that everyone wants to climb.

But the one respect in which the new academic stereotype departs most radically from current reality has to do with sex. One of the things nearly all professors in movies and novels have in common is that they sleep with their students.

Why has this idea of universities as dens of vice arisen in the last few decades? First, coeducation. Coed colleges have existed since the early 19th century, but the great wave of coeducation at the nation's elite private schools did not hit until the late 1960s. Another upheaval was under way by then: the sexual revolution. Suddenly, professors had access to large numbers of young women, and just as suddenly, young women were asserting their sexuality with new freedom and boldness. People drew the inevitable conclusion.

The situation is heightened and made ironic by two other recent developments. The baby-boom generation has put pressure on universities to revert to acting in loco parentis. Professors are surrogate parents, and the raising and casting out of the specter of the sexually predatory academic may be a way of purging the anxiety that transaction evokes. But the feminist campaign against sexual harassment has turned universities into the most anxiously self-patrolled workplace in American society.

Still, the relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy is an intimacy of the mind, or even an intimacy of the soul.

Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction. But the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught.

All of this was known to Socrates, the greatest of teachers. The Symposium, in which the brightest wits of Athens spend the night drinking, discoursing on love, and lying on couches two by two, is charged with sexual tension. But Socrates wants to teach his companions that the beauty of souls is greater than the beauty of bodies.

Can there be a culture less equipped than ours to receive these ideas? Sex is the god we worship most fervently; to deny that it is the greatest of pleasures is to commit cultural blasphemy. In any case, how can you have an eros of souls if you don't have souls? Our inability to understand intimacy that is neither sexual nor familial is linked to the impoverishment of our spiritual vocabulary.

But sex and children, sexual intimacy and familial intimacy, belong to us as creatures of nature, not as creators in culture. After Rousseau and Darwin and Freud, we've become convinced that our natural self is our truest one. To be natural, we believe, is to be healthy and free. Culture is confinement and deformation. But the Greeks thought otherwise.

For the Greeks, the teacher's relationship with the child was more valuable and more intimate than the parents'. Your parents bring you into nature, but your teacher brings you into culture. Natural transmission is easy; any animal can do it. Cultural transmission is hard; it takes a teacher. But Socrates also inaugurated a new idea about what teaching means. His teaching wasn't cultural, it was counter-cultural. Teaching is a subversive activity.

This is the kind of sex professors are having with their students behind closed doors: brain sex. What attracts professors to students is not their bodies but their souls. Young people are still curious about ideas, still believe in their importance, their redemptive power. Socrates says in the Symposium that the hardest thing about being ignorant is that you're content with yourself, but for many kids when they get to college, this is not yet true. They recognize themselves as incomplete, and they recognize intuitively that completion comes through eros. So they seek out professors with whom to have relationships. Teaching is about mentorship, not instruction.

The Socratic relationship is so profoundly disturbing to our culture that it must be defused before it can be approached. The eros of souls has become the love that dare not speak its name.

AR  From my experience at both ends of teaching at university level, I can confirm that this eros of souls is really what it's all about. Igniting that love of ideas makes it all worthwhile. People who confuse this with physical sex are getting it all wrong.