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Sex, Yale, and the Myth of Value-free Education

My new book, Sex & God at Yale, covers many of the shabby low points of sex at the university: Live nudity in the classroom, oral sex seminars, masturbation how-tos and other examples of dedicated folly. But it’s important to focus on  the underlying problem I address in the book. Simply put:  Yale, along with other leading universities, has used academic freedom as an excuse for abandoning academic standards.

I’m not the first to level this charge. In God & Man at Yale. William F. Buckley famously accused his alma mater of hiding behind “the superstitions of academic freedom.” That was more the sixty years ago. World War II was a recent memory. Buckley was upset that Yale employed professors who busied themselves promoting atheism and communism–ideologies which, he suggested, undermined the liberty that enabled Yale’s academic enterprise to carry on in the first place.

Buckley’s more profound critique was to point out the hypocrisy of Yale’s claim that academic freedom forced it to treat all views equally.  “I should be interested to know how long a person who revealed himself as a racist, who lectured about the anthropological superiority of the Aryan, would last at Yale” Buckley wrote. Of course, we all know the answer to that.

In a similar vein, I ask in my book whether we would expect Yale to approve the use of its classrooms for events dedicated to degrading blacks or dehumanizing Jews. No, that’s something we would never expect to see. There are some ideologies and agendas that do not fall within the wide bounds of academic freedom at Yale. And these examples demonstrate that Yale’s officials do not truly believe that they are bound to hire faculty or host events without regard to moral content or intellectual merit.

Yale does uphold some standards as limits to academic freedom But over the past decade, when it comes to a great many of the sex-related events that were offensive, degrading to women, and academically irrelevant, Yale officials piously stated that they have an obligation to open up their classrooms to all this. So academic freedom compels them to allow women–but not racial minorities– to be degraded? I sat in a classroom and watched a film of a man beating a naked woman and calling her a whore and a slut. Most such events were organized by students, but with the close support of the university administration. Nevertheless, in the news media, Yale officials repeatedly denied the level of official oversight, university funding, and faculty coordination that such events entailed. In my book, I expose Yale officials’ attempts to wash their hands of what goes on in their classrooms.

Hosting junkets for corporate interests in the sex industry was Yale’s innovation–something now imitated by many other universities around the country. The end result for Yale was a sexual climate so radical that a series of high-profile cases of sexual assault and harassment came as no surprise. These cases forced a federal Title IX investigation last year. In response, Yale instituted some reforms. Yet it still hosted for-profit interests from the sex industry back on campus again for its biennial Sex Week this past February. So I’d say they haven’t learned their lesson.

In the book, I detail a host of other examples of academic negligence–all being the natural consequences of Yale’s abandonment of high academic standards. Yale’s blind devotion to political correctness and moral relativism is on full display. I recall how Yale’s art department approved a phony senior art project that was supposed to consist of the blood and tissue from numerous self-induced abortions. Is that really supposed to pass as the crowning academic achievement of a Yale student’s career?

I ask how it is that Yale invited a former Taliban official to study at the university–a man who was a leader in a regime that slaughtered dissidents, and tortured and oppressed women. Does academic freedom demand that Yale admit tyrants as students? Was Yale trying to combat Islamophobia? All I know is that I ended up taking my International Relations final next to that man, while his comrades were fighting American troops in Afghanistan.

While Yale’s sexual imbroglios may be getting all the headlines, it’s Yale’s hypocrisy, in the end, that I hope readers ultimately comprehend. The introduction of violent porn and the hosting of commercial sex companies seem to be so at odds with the values of women’s equality and academic independence (free from corporate interests) that Yale professes to uphold.

Yale, like most elite universities, has plenty of problems one could tackle–its political biases, its embrace of race and gender studies as dominant intellectual forces, its dismissive posture toward religion, even its weak core requirements. But ultimately, I wrote my book with a simple aim–and that was to expose the lie behind Yale’s governing principle. Yale’s leaders say they must not impose a moral order–that’s the myth of unqualified academic freedom.

An elite university is a place for serious intellectual work. Ultimately, academic freedom has never meant that all ideas are worthy of a platform. In that light, the debasing of the Yale education that I witnessed looks less like academic freedom and more like administrative indifference.

The truth is, Yale does impose values; they just aren’t the right ones.


Nathan’s new book, Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad (St. Martin’s), was recently named a New York Times Editor’s Choice pick.

(Cross-posted from MindingTheCampus.com)

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