Hedonism or Performance Anxiety?

I literally jumped up and down with excitement when I read this article over at First Things (Okay, yes, I’m a nerd, but you should read it, too). Helen Rittlemeyer (a Yale alumna) trashes Nathan Harden’s book about Yale’s sexual culture (which is one reason I liked the article so much–my own take on Harden’s book is here), and in so doing significantly changed my views on the state of morality at elite college campuses.

One point Rittlemeyer makes is that promiscuity at Yale, with its biennial “Sex Week” festivities (and presumably at other elite schools like Duke, which is having its own anatomically explicit “how-to” discussions next week) is not a product of hedonism, although it may have been in the 60’s and 70’s. Nowadays it’s a product of performance anxiety (hehe). Elite students treat romance just like everything else they’ve done in life so far—it’s something to study and practice.

The most important thing about this, I think, is that the old framework for the conservative critique of college culture, about moral relativism, nihilism, etc., is at least partially outdated. For elite students, there is an ethical code and it is strictly socially enforced. The virtues it espouses are not the traditional ones, having been replaced by tolerance, public service, and limited forms of sexual ethics (“No means no,” etc.). They have values, just liberal ones, as Rittlemeyer says, “with all the earnestness and all the moral blind spots the term implies.”

In other words, we’re not dealing with rebels like we used to be. Today’s students aren’t especially interested in throwing off the values they were raised to uphold. We’re dealing with good little liberals, many of whom may even have conservative tendencies. Rittlemeyer suggests a large number of students may act in accordance with traditional values if only the social structures (esp. strategic guidance from a few adults) were in place. She also mentions a few other “nudges,” such as single-sex dorms, that might give traditional values a leg up and significantly improve campus culture.

Read the whole thing, por favor.

Duke Cheston

Writer/reporter for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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