We know them from class: they are smart, often male, and they tend to sit in the front of the room, close to the lectern. They are well read, well-informed, and they raise their hands before speaking. They come before class and stay after. They always have something to say – but they do not ask real questions, questions that seek honest answers. They are deeply committed to proving a point and making arguments. After a few exchanges you appreciate their lack of curiosity. By the end of the semester, you inevitably wonder: What was the point? Was the course, for this student, merely an opportunity to argue? And inevitably, you question the value of the educational experience. What was accomplished?
Nathan Harden strikes me as such a student. Intelligent, home schooled, and so keen on getting into Yale University that he applied three times, Harden had high expectations. Inevitably, he was bound to find college disappointing. His disaffection runs deep as he recounts in mostly lurid detail in Sex and God at Yale. He is angry and much to his frustration (and for us as readers), he is compelled to go to the source of his anger again and again. Yale, in his eyes, is not about shaping minds to reach for the transcendent. It is, instead, a liberal cesspool of mindless sexuality, political correctness, and moral relativism. The primary source of his disapproval is Sex Week, a biennial event created by students in 2002 as a “sex positive” way of providing discussion, information and exploration of sexuality.
Subtitled “Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad,” Harden’s work uses Yale’s “Sex Week” as a jumping off point for a range of criticism. He finds pornographic culture, misogynistic and demeaning, all around him – and especially at Sex Week. He sees Yale as pandering and worryingly without the courage to take a moral stance. He bemoans the loss of an earlier time when higher ideals and values dominated the college’s culture. The book chronicles his visits, discussions, and complaints about an endless series of talks, presentations and events at Sex Week. Most problematically, the event literally seems to be in bed with pornography industry. Yale is his primary target, but Harden’s disappointment is profound and broad. He extrapolates from his college to contemporary culture. He wants intellectual and moral leadership, which he links with God, from his college.
It is not an enjoyable, informative, or particularly provocative book. Harden’s tone, his limited vision, and stridency overwhelm observation and leave little room for exploration. It is bitter and reading it is a chore. One wishes that he could have been more open, more curious, and more interested in how to navigate questions of institutional support or responses to students’ sexuality in a shifting environment. Or more on ways in which gender equity is shaping behavior and identity. Instead, it is mostly screed. I believe, though, that Harden still makes a relevant point about what colleges should and should not endorse.
Sex Week as a Yale sanctioned event is now no more. It was banned by Yale president Richard Levin in 2011, who referenced its close relationship with the pornography industry. Harden’s book and the related media interest no doubt played some role in the decision. Students have continued to organize “sex positive” events without administrative support, and “sex weeks” take place at other colleges.
The interesting issue is not Sex Week, Yale’s response, or even Harden’s diatribe (a book that ultimately, is of a particular moment and falls short of offering long-term analysis). Instead, it is why Harden’s book was published in the first place and why different groups became so invested in this student-organized event at an Ivy League college. Regardless of whether you believe that Yale is Gomorrah or a vibrant college committed to healthy self-expression and dialogue, many people care passionately about what is and is not part of Yale culture. Harden thought it mattered tremendously. So do many others, some of whom who have little or no connection with the institution.
We all have high expectations for institutions of higher education. We see them as more than training sites for future employees, as more than organizations that play organized sports, as more than schools. They embody and live out our values, our truths, and our hopes for future generations. In other words, the question of Yale’s moral preeminence – or that of any other institution of higher education – is a vitally important issue. Our mission of education and engagement of young adults is a precursor of our collective future. What takes place in our colleges is freighted with expectations. This is why sexual behavior and what colleges endorse, allow and prohibit matters.
Regardless of whether we read Sex and God at Yale, agree with it or reject its argument, the impetus behind the book has merit. Harden is right to set the bar high. Those of us who work in higher education should welcome the responsibility. It is an important charge. Colleges are designed to foster the exchange of ideas, whether we like them or not. High expectations for ourselves and the members of our community is a tremendous opportunity – even as it comes with more than a fair share of arguments and criticism.