The Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor is one of the busiest border crossings in the world. Here, customs and immigration agents need to be able to tell almost immediately whether a person is a threat to the homeland or if they’re a harmless day-tripper to the casinos located either side of the river. Agents learn to set priorities. You might be forgiven for assuming that these priorities are grounded in common sense—bombs, drugs, weapons, one would think, would top the list of the most confiscated items. After all, these are things that can do actual harm and pose a real and present danger to citizens on either side of the border.
No, the most confiscated item by U.S. Customs and Border Control is, in fact, a chocolate confection beloved by kiddies the world over but forbidden to American children—the Kinder Egg. European and Canadian children can be trusted with a small toy encased in an edible chocolate shell, but American children are judged far too delicate (or perhaps dim-witted?) to discern what is a credible edible before they turn five.
This tradition of cosseting children continues in many forms well into adulthood. Under federal health law, for example, American “children” continue to be children well into their mid-to-late-twenties, even if they are married with children of their own. A similar attitude pervades American higher education and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Canadian higher education as well.
Even the most repressive regimes on the planet have never been successful in dictating romance and sexual activity. Does anyone actually believe that there are no homosexuals in Iran? Indeed, who one falls in love with and has consensual sexual relations with remains one of the few freedoms that are respected in most societies worldwide. However, extended adolescence seems to be the norm in North American higher education. We cannot reasonably expect the same “children,” unable to discern the difference between chocolate and plastic, to choose their own sexual partners, can we? The result? In loco parentisrun amok.
In addition to speech codes, in loco parentisis perhaps one of the most damaging ideas to have hit higher education since Socrates drank hemlock (who, incidentally, was executed for corrupting innocent youth). Western civilization seems to have made a devil’s bargain, sacrificing free inquiry and freedom of speech and association for a bubble-wrapped soft-serve “education” that merely prolongs the already extended adolescence of Western youth. Call this woman cynical, but sometimes I think that the modern American university exists merely as a means to keep a large segment of the population out of the job market long enough to drive down our often shamefully high unemployment figures.
So much lip service is paid to being tolerant, inclusive, multi-cultural, and politically correct, but so little respect given to love, the one (and perhaps only) experience that unites the entire human race. Celebrated on campuses continent-wide when it “transgresses” notions such as “gender binarism” and thumbs its nose at “phallocentric patriarchy,” love is suddenly
considered as abusive as the relationship between predator and prey when it concerns professor and student.
The absurdity of this double standard is plainly apparent in the numerous equitable relationships formed between people of sometimes widely differing social, educational, generational, and economic status throughout every other sector of society. Why the academy feels itself to be so delicate and precious as to be unable to cope with such relationships is beyond me. Have we turned into such hothouse flowers that a consensual relationship between two adults is so threatening to us that the mere suspicion of it sets into motion the automatic machinery of ostracism and punishment? Is it better for us to assume that adults are capable of making their own decisions, or to assume that students need to be saved from . . . themselves? And in many cases, the love of their lives? Whether they like it or not?
Considering the new draconian measures adopted by American colleges and universities against faculty-student relationships, the trademark essay of Cristina Nehring in Harper’s Magazine (“The Higher Yearning: Bringing eros back to academe,” September 1, 2001) is as poignant today as it was a decade and a half ago. “Power differentials” are not always automatically on the professor’s side. Regarding the moral difficulty of legislating which power differentials are acceptable in adult relationships, Nehring writes,
“If there is ‘power’ in academic rank, for instance, there is power in youth too—in physical attractiveness, in energy. There is power, even, in yet-to-be-fulfilled promise—power in time. To the extent that such legislation succeeded, it would be a disaster—a reactionary dystopia, a hierarchical hell to which the way had been paved with liberal intentions.”
I married the love of my life, whom I first met at age 16 in Rhetoric and the Great Books 101, whose tweedy appearance initially reminded me more of Freud than the actors and musicians my peers would have idolized, and whose wit charmed me and made such an impact on my consciousness that twelve years ago, having attained the age of 18 and no longer his student, I was thrilled to have been asked on a date. We have been together ever since.
The history of literature is full of beautiful, intellectually and physically spirited relationships between teacher and student. Perhaps our romantic history was in the back of my mind as I chose John Donne’s love poetry as the subject for my honors thesis at the U of Michigan. Written from a place of persecution, loss of reputation, and loss of his career after his love affair (and elopement) with his student came to light, I saw in his passionate verses a mirror of our own lives: “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.” That these four-hundred-year-old words sound fresh to us today is, and ought to be, a source of shame for academia.