Sometimes, to illustrate the point that Americans could stand to eat more fruits and vegetables and consume smaller portions, we'll see a photo or news item about some festival out in Real America where the tradition is to eat a whole deep-fried pig on a popsicle, covered in nacho-cheese sauce.
Joseph Epstein announces (thanks A&L Daily!) the End of Higher Education because some prof at Northwestern, after warning his class beforehand, went all Monty Python (NSFW of course) on his class, presenting a live sex act. (How anyone can mention this story and not "The Meaning of Life" is beyond me.) Epstein includes in his curmudgeonly rant, for extra curmudgeon points, one supposes, a letter he had written previously to the president of Northwestern, where he himself had been a prof, complaining about the choice of Stephen Colbert as commencement speaker. Because unless students fall asleep hearing someone hold forth on new developments in microbiology, it's not educational. No matter that Colbert, aside from being "in the cant phrase, a fun speaker," is a political force in our culture, someone who will likely show himself to be historically significant, and whom graduates would likely remember having heard speak for years to come, in the way they wouldn't if an especially good stand-up comic got the gig. Colbert is Pop Culture, Epstein is Team Classical-Music-and-Foreign-Films, which is all we need to know.
He goes on to fault the sex prof for... researching sex; maintaining a website about his family; writing a book that "apparently argues" something not so outlandish that Epstein couldn't be bothered to skim or have an intern look at to verify; and wearing "leisure cut" jeans, whatever that means. While there seem to be some valid complaints about the prof's ethical behavior, up to and including l'Affaire Dildo, there's no need to throw legitimate research into human sexuality out with the this-particular-prof-has-issues bathwater. Or so one might think.
Epstein, however, is prepared to dispose of the entirety of academia as it currently exists. He goes off on the question of profs sleeping with students in the name of academic freedom - a fad, if it ever was one, in the 1970s, and certainly not in today's climate of (thank god, on this issue especially) extreme professionalization. Epstein sees the post-1968 moment not as a blip, but as the beginning of a slippery slope culminating in every class as an orgy during which, in fine George Costanza manner, everyone is simultaneously eating pastrami and watching television. He then goes on to explain to the curious reader that, while he sure had opportunities, he as a prof preferred an older woman. Well, that's crucial information. This, in turn, segues into the question of 18-year-old females' virginity or lack thereof in the late 1960s...
Forgive me if I'm getting a bit lost in all this - the article is at this point hopping seemingly at random between various Conservative Critique of Education talking points. Too much fluff, not enough Shakespeare! Slutty coeds! Marxist literary criticism!
Oh, but Epstein meanders back to a point, and his point is that sex is not a valid subject for research. Not that live sex acts in a classroom are about provocation and not education, which would have been reasonable, but that sex is in some mystical realm of the unknowable:
Students don’t need universities to learn about varying tastes in sex, or about the mechanics of human sexuality. They don’t need it because, first, epistemologically, human sexuality isn’t a body of knowledge upon which there is sufficient agreement to constitute reliable conclusions, for nearly everything on the subject is still in the flux of theorizing and speculation; and because, second, given the nature of the subject, it tends to be, as the Bailey case shows, exploitative, coarsening, demeaning, and squalid.Note again the leap from 'dildo action in class=bad' - something I'd imagine most would agree with - to a blanket condemnation of all academic study of human sexuality.
I know I told Rita that my principal objection to anti-modernity is its tendency to be barely masked nostalgia for a time when it was OK to be a bigot, and I do hold by that. But with Epstein, it's all about the curmudgeonliness, no hint of veiled anything, and it's still damaging. Academia needs thoughtful conservative critics, thoughtful critics of the new, but what we get instead is undirected, clichéd nonsense about how things sure ain't what they used to be.