The Seedy Underbelly of the American College

Last week I posted a blog that referenced Vigen Guroian’s important 2005 article in Christianity Today, Dorm Brothel: the new debauchery and the colleges that let it happen, in which Dr. Guroian referred to the atmosphere of the modern American university as a “sexual carnival” that is “deforming” the attitudes of young men towards sex – and the opposite sex. In turn, the young women who attend our colleges and are thrown into this carnival-esque world of debauchery become little more than trophies. Or, as Dr. Guroian so eloquently put it, “in most American college coed dorms, the flesh of our daughters is being served up daily like snack jerky. No longer need young men be wolves or foxes to consume that flesh. There are no fences to jump or chicken coops to break into. The gates are wide open and no guard dogs have been posted. It is easy come and easy go.”

In my post I summarized Dr. Guroian’s article by writing this:

“…In the classroom young women are told they should approach their intellectual lives with an eye toward the future, with the drive and purpose to shatter the glass ceiling so many college girls face, yet in their dorms, in their relationships, in the world outside of the classroom they are told they should perceive themselves and their bodies, their sexuality, with a casualness that suggests that what they do in bed has nothing to do with what happens outside of it. Hence, they can without shame have sex one bed over from some boy’s watching room mate, uncovered and not concerned about what they are showing of themselves. Or, as Dr. Guroian wrote, “They begin to imagine–though few entirely believe it–that they can use (that is, abuse) their bodies as they please for pleasure, and that choosing to do so has nothing to do with their academic studies or future lives. In reality, they are following a formula for self-disintegration and failure.”

This, he argues, is the “grisly underbelly of the American college.” And that we accept it is inexcusable.

Not 48 hours after this post was published, reports began to leak claiming that a young Duke alum named Karen Owen had created a 40-plus page PowerPoint presentation called “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics,” a list of thirteen Duke athletes with which she claims to have had sex during her undergraduate years, including details about the inception and quality of the encounters. In the “background” slide of this PowerPoint, Miss Owen claims that she created the slide show “to create evaluation materials for such encounters…hopefully allowing for future maximization of enjoyment of such procedures.”

Apparently the slide show was intended solely for the eyes of close friends and was created as a joke. However, unfortunately for the men in question and, of course, for Miss Owen, one of those friends forwarded it to more friends and, as such things are prone to do in this web-based world, the presentation went viral. It was eventually picked up by the website Deadspin, a sports centered TMZ-like website, and has since been shared by virtually every gossip or sports site on the web.

Miss Owen has since apologized, saying that “she would never intentionally hurt” any of the men who were included in her list.

Now, I don’t mean to pile on the poor girl who I can only imagine is in a pretty difficult spot right now. However, her apology speaks to the very problem that Dr. Guroian points out in his article. Her assumption, when she created the presentation as well as now is that what she does “in the bedroom” has nothing to do with what she does with the rest of her life. Our schools, it seems, are fostering such a shortsighted way of thinking. See my above comments about Dr. Guroian’s article.

Our culture – and this is not limited to the liberal world of American higher ed – is obsessed with the human as a fragmented being. We separate and categorize our lives. Our academic pursuits are related to our sexual appetites only inasmuch as they both play a part in determining our future, in determining what kind of career success we can have. And, in fact, much of what I have read chastising Miss Owen has read something like this: “Well, shoot, look what’s she has done with her life; now how can a potential employer take her seriously.” Yet, if that’s all we are concerned with then it seems that she has done a pretty fine job of finding a line of work. Harper Collins has reportedly contacted her about a potential book deal and a number of websites have apparently discussed the possibility that she publish an online journal. Sex sells, especially when it’s done in the face of some kind of “establishment.”

Yet, what’s troubling is perhaps not so much Miss Owen’s actions themselves, although they are disturbing. What is most troubling is the fact that our universities continue to act as if they have nothing to do with the behavior of the students who sleep in their halls – or have sex in their library stairwells. They act as if they have nothign to do with the tragic death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman who recently jumped off a bridge after his roommate videotaped him having sex with another man, as if they have nothing to do with the scandal that surrounded the Duke lacrosse team a few years ago, as if they have nothing to do with any of the other scandals referenced in a list such as this.

Kids will be kids, I guess. Boys will boys and girls will be girls and what can we do about it, they say. How can we be to blame, they ask.

But they are. And no, I’m not forgetting Miss Owen’s own indiscretions; this particular issue is her fault. The issue at large, the disease that infests our colleges, is not. And until our colleges begin to re-think their missions such stories will continue to pop up. Until they provide a pedagogy that leads to the unity of the student’s person-hood, soul and body a like, that allows for the fully integrated human, such sad cases will continue to arise. For now they seem content to send out mass emails warning of the dangers of the internet and social networking, as Duke did, as if this will somehow fix the problem. Seems more like warning people of the dangers of drinking dirty water when a flood is roaring towards them.

Karen Owen’s story has been touted as one of female empowerment, as a warning about the world of cyberspace, as a reminder that young people should choose their sexual partners wisely. Boy are we missing the point. Perhaps it, and the much more sad story of Tyler Clementi, should serve as warnings and reminders about what our universities have become. As Dr. Guroian wrote, this is the “grisly underbelly” of the American college; or, if you will, it is the seedy, sordid underbelly of the place we send send our children to be nurtured, of the place into whose hands we entrust our children.

Let me leave you with the powerful conclusion to Dr. Guroian’s article:

Young men and women are being enticed to think of themselves as two selves, one that is mind and reason in the classroom and another self, active “after hours,” that is all body and passion. They begin to imagine—though few entirely believe it—that they can use (that is, abuse) their bodies as they please for pleasure, and that choosing to do so has nothing to do with their academic studies or future lives. In reality, they are following a formula for self-disintegration and failure.

This is the grisly underbelly of the modern American college; the deep, dark, hidden secret that many parents suspect is there but would rather not face. The long-term damage to our children is difficult to measure. But it is too obvious to deny. I remember once hearing that the British lost the empire when they started sending their children away to boarding schools. I do not know whether anyone has ever seriously proposed that thesis. I am prepared, however, to ask whether America might not be lost because the great middle class was persuaded that they must send their children to college with no questions asked, when in fact this was the near-equivalent of committing their sons and daughters to one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno.

I have lived long enough to understand and be thankful for the fact that the sins and indiscretions of youth may be forgiven and overcome. Nevertheless, the behavior of our American colleges and universities is inexcusable. Their mendacity is doing great harm to our children, whom we entrust to them with so much love, pride, and hope for the future.

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