Thursday, July 12, 2007

Brain Sex

Here's something we all need to talk more about: eros in the classroom. I was reminded of this just recently by an excellently written article in The American Scholar by Yale professor William Deresiewicz entitled "Love on Campus." (If you haven't read the piece already, please stop and read it now. The references follwing will make more sense that way... as will the title of this post.)

For the most part, Professor Deresiewicz is upset with the current cinematic trend that portrays professors--especially humanities professors, as he points out--as lascivious, alcoholic, pathetic, amoral predators desperately trying to give meaning to their meager lives by sleeping with their students. According to Deresiewicz, this stereotype has (unfortunately) replaced the older caricature of professors as absent-minded and bumbling, but philosophically astute and ethically noble. He lists the offending films, almost all of which I am sure will be familiar to readers of this blog: The Squid and the Whale, The Life of David Gale, Little Miss Sunshine, One True Thing, Wonder Boys, We Don't Live Here Anymore, A Love Song for Bobby Long, Terms of Endearment, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...

Professor Deresiewicz offers some interesting insights about how and why this new stereotype has taken hold. Maybe all of the current screenwriters are really ex-humanities-grad-students with a little too much ressentiment. Or maybe these films reflect the resentment by the larger American populist mind toward academia, which depends on elitism and intellectualism, and in which everyone is most certainly not equal. Or maybe we should blame coeducation for putting men and women in the same place at the same time in the first place. Or maybe its the fault of the baby boomers, who expect professors to act in loco parentis for their coddled, spoiled, oh-so-precious children.

However, the most interesting argument in Deresiewicz's piece comes near the end, where he writes:

Still, there is a reality behind the new, sexualized academic stereotype, only it is not what the larger society thinks. Nor is it one that society is equipped to understand. The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship, but the professor isn’t the one who falls in love. ... This is the kind of sex professors are having with their students behind closed doors: brain sex. And this is why we put up with the mediocre pay and the cultural contempt, not to mention the myriad indignities of graduate school and the tenure process.

Of course, Deresiewicz's argument also includes all the perfunctory references to Plato's Symposium that one might suspect. But he ends with a real winner. He writes,

The Socratic relationship is so profoundly disturbing to our culture that it must be defused before it can be approached. Yet many thousands of kids go off to college every year hoping, at least dimly, to experience it. It has become a kind of suppressed cultural memory, a haunting imaginative possibility. In our sex-stupefied, anti-intellectual culture, the eros of souls has become the love that dares not speak its name.

I say: Bravo, Professor! Bravo!

So, any of you sex-crazed, Godless, pinko professors out there have a comment?

1 comment:

Chet said...

That's really a fascinating article, particularly insofar as he accounts for genesis of the confusion surrounding this intellectual eros, in its inadequate approximation by physical eros and familial eros. And I also like that last few sentences.

Although I must say, I haven't been attracted to my students' minds almost ever. Their bodies, occasionally, although the vapidity of their minds (or so it may seem to me) dispels any of the other eros.

In truth, I think I am more in love with the experience of thinking, and it only seems infrequently to be abetted by the conversation with others. For me, I am happiest, at times, when I am enthralled in a book that I can't put down. The intellectual life, as Aristotle said, is the easiest and most pleasurable to sustain.