Commitment to Excellence Becomes Commitment to Ignorance

If Germany can teach courses on the Holocaust, and Egypt can learn to love democracy, and China can realize that capitalism is necessary to grow their economy, can’t the U.S. actually tolerate the teaching of human sexuality?

The latest American institution to answer “no” is Northwestern University in Chicago. Generally an excellent, almost progressive institution, they’ve abruptly canceled one of the most popular courses on the entire campus, Professor Michael Bailey’s class on Human Sexuality.

The cancellation is the climax of what started as a small, harmless—and unusual—lapse in Bailey’s judgment. Because it involved sexuality, of course it was transformed into an enormous controversy.

In one of the optional, after-school, late-evening sessions that made the course so comprehensive, an outside speaker recently discussed sex toys. She then offered to demonstrate one, the surprised Bailey agreed, and the speaker did, in fact demonstrate.

Let’s note that everyone there was over 18, everyone was there voluntarily, and students were told in advance the material might be challenging to some. About 25% of the 600 students chose to attend. Most importantly, no one in the class complained. But someone outside the course decided to impose their values on adult students and a highly-honored professor, sending ripples through the system.

The story then unfolded with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy: the administration over-reacted, and went into damage-control mode. Northwestern University President Morton Shapiro said he was “troubled and disappointed” by the sex-toy demonstration, and called for an investigation (he didn’t bother talking to Bailey).

Without even waiting a decent interval, the President took what he believed to be the “safest course”—canceling sex. You decide if there’s an issue of academic freedom: Psychology Department chair Dan McAdams said that the decision to cancel the course “was made higher up than me at the central administration level,” which is almost unheard of.

It’s a familiar story: a few noisy people get frightened or angry, and a gutless institution cancels sex research, or sex teaching, or sex publishing, or sex peer counseling. The only thing that Northwestern couldn’t cancel is the fact that most of its students are having sex—regardless of the quality of their education.

It’s disgusting: the idea that canceling sex will soothe more people than it will anger.

Of course, this is no isolated incident; it’s simply the American way.

In 1948 and again in 1953, Alfred Kinsey’s career at Indiana University was repeatedly threatened because he researched and published world-changing studies of human sexuality. In 1998, top researchers from Temple, Michigan, and Penn were actually condemned on the floor of Congress for their ground-breaking, peer-reviewed research on adult-child sexual contact. Ten years later, the University of Minnesota Press was “externally assessed” and forced to cancel the contract of one of its books when the state legislature and national media ferociously attacked Judith Levine’s book as endorsing pedophilia.

(Fun fact: One of the loudest to demand the book’s cancellation was then-state assemblyman Tim Pawlenty, who later admitted he had not read the book. Think his mob brutality will come up in the Presidential debates?)

After 20 years, there are tens of thousands of students who have taken one of Bailey’s sexuality classes. In fact, there are a quarter of a million living alumni of Northwestern. Which of them (which of you?) will write to President Shapiro and challenge his assumption that getting rid of sex is the safest response to ignorance and fear?

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