Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Brain Sex is What's Really Going on Between Professors and Students, Right?

Crystal sent me this very interesting and thought provoking essay, "Love on Campus" on the kind of intimacy that can occur between the professor and student, and how that intimacy has been perverted or misrepresented in popular culture. William Deresiewicz begins by recounting the various Hollywood films that foreground the middle-aged, washed up, humanities professor who illustrates his impotence by taking advantage of young, nubile, and impressionable co-eds. Deresiewicz spends some time trying to make sense of why such a stereotype of the humanities professor seems to dominate the popular culture. His analysis is somewhat interesting, although I am not sure I follow him through all of his moves, i.e. this reflects parental anxiety as they hand of their kids to what they hope will be the in loco parentis of the college campus, the anti-intellectualism of Americans, screen writers pissed off at their English profs, etc.

What really interested me about the essay was Deresiewicz' discussion of the "brain sex" kind of intimacy of the professor-student relationship that seems so foreign and hard to digest by the popular imagination. Consider these paragraphs:

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.

Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will s ometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification. But the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught. Teaching, Yeats said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket, and this is how it gets lit. The professor becomes the student’s muse, the figure to whom the labors of the semester — the studying, the speaking in class, the writing — are consecrated. The alert student understands this. In talking to one of my teaching assistants about these matters, I asked her if she’d ever had a crush on an instructor when she was in college. Yes, she said, a young graduate student. “And did you want to have sex with him?” I asked. “No,” she said, “I wanted to have brain sex with him.”

I’m not saying anything new here. All of this was known to Socrates, the greatest of teachers, and laid out in the Symposium, Plato’s dramatization of his mentor’s erotic pedagogy. We are all “pregnant in soul,” Socrates tells his companions, and we are drawn to beautiful souls because they make us teem with thoughts that beg to be brought into the world. The imagery seems contradictory: are we pregnant already, or does the proximity of beautiful souls make us so? Both: the true teacher helps us discover things we already knew, only we didn’t know we knew them. The imagery is also deliberately sexual. The Symposium, in which the brightest wits of Athens spend the night drinking, discoursing on love, and lying on couches two by two, is charged with sexual tension. But Socrates wants to teach his companions that the beauty of souls is greater than the beauty of bodies.

And just as he finishes educing this idea, in walks Alcibiades, the most beautiful young man in the city. Alcibiades was the brilliant bad boy of late fifth-century B.C. Athenian politics, a cross between Jack Kennedy and Jimmy Dean, and Socrates must have known that he was the most interesting student he would ever meet, because Socrates’ love for him was legendary. But it wasn’t the kind his beloved imagined, and Alcibiades complains about how the older man, after bewitching him with divine conversation, would refuse to touch him. The sexy young student had fallen, to his amazement, for the ugly old teacher. At last, Alcibiades tells us, he contrived to get Socrates alone — let’s call this office hours — only to discover that all his teacher wanted to do was engage in more conversation. The “eros of souls,” in Alan Bloom’s Platonic phrase — “brain sex,” in plainer language — is not only higher than the eros of bodies, it is more satisfying.

Can there be a culture less equipped than ours to receive these ideas? Sex is the god we worship most fervently; to deny that it is the greatest of pleasures is to commit cultural blasphemy. In any case, how can you have an eros of souls if you don’t have souls? Our inability to understand intimacy that is neither sexual nor familial is linked to the impoverishment of our spiritual vocabulary. Religion still speaks of the soul, but to the popular mind, at least, it means something remote from our earthly self. What it should mean is the self, the heart and mind, or the heart-mind, as it develops through experience. That’s what Keats meant when he called the world a “vale of soul-making.” And because we’re unequipped to understand the soul in this sense, we’re unequipped to understand Socrates’ belief that the soul’s offspring are greater than the body’s: that ideas are more valuable than children.

Another blasphemy. If there’s one god our culture worships as piously as sex, it’s children. But sex and children, sexual intimacy and familial intimacy, have something in common — beyond the fact that one leads to the other: both belong to us as creatures of nature, not as creators in culture. After Rousseau and Darwin and Freud, and with evolutionary psychology preaching the new moral gospel, we’ve become convinced that our natural self is our truest one. To be natural, we believe, is to be healthy and free. Culture is confinement and deformation. But the Greeks thought otherwise. To them, our highest good is not what we share with the animals, but what we don’t share with them, not the nature we’re born with, but the culture we make from it — make, indeed, against it.

That is why, for the Greeks, the teacher’s relationship with the child was regarded as more valuable and more intimate than the parents’. Your parents bring you into nature, but your teacher brings you into culture. Natural transmission is easy; any animal can do it. Cultural transmission is hard; it takes a teacher. But Socrates also inaugurated a new idea about what teaching means. His students had already been educated into their culture by the time they got to him. He wanted to educate them out of it, teach them to question its values. His teaching wasn’t cultural, it was counter-cultural. The Athenians understood Socrates very well when they convicted him of corrupting their youth, and if today’s parents are worried about trusting their children to professors, this countercultural possibility is really what they should be worried about. Teaching, as Neil Postman says, is a subversive activity — all the more so today, when children are marinated in cultural messages from the moment they’re born. It no longer takes any training to learn to bow to your city’s gods (sex or children, money or nation). But it often takes a teacher to help you question those gods. The teacher’s job, in Keats’s terms, is to point you through the vale of soul-making. We’re born once, into nature and into the culture that quickly becomes a second nature. But then, if we’re granted such grace, we’re born again. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his mortal soul?

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. I know perfectly well that not every professor or every student feels this way or acts this way, nor does every university make it possible for them to do so. There are hacks and prima donnas at the front of many classrooms, slackers and zombies in the seats. And it doesn’t matter who’s in either position if the instructor is teaching four classes at three different campuses or if there are 500 people in the lecture hall. But there are far more true teachers and far more true students at all levels of the university system than those at its top echelons like to believe. In fact, kids who have had fewer educational advantages before they get to college are often more eager to learn and more ready to have their deepest convictions overturned than their more fortunate peers. And it is often away from the elite schools — where a single-minded focus on research plus a talent for bureaucratic maneuvering are the necessary tickets to success — that true teaching most flourishes.

What attracts professors to students, then, is not their bodies but their souls. Young people are still curious about ideas, still believe in them — in their importance, their redemptive power. Socrates says in the Symposium that the hardest thing about being ignorant is that you’re content with yourself, but for many kids when they get to college, this is not yet true. They recognize themselves as incomplete, and they recognize, if only intuitively, that completion comes through eros. So they seek out professors with whom to have relationships, and we seek them out in turn. Teaching, finally, is about relationships. It is mentorship, not instruction. Socrates also says that the bond between teacher and student lasts a lifetime, even when the two are no longer together. And so it is. Student succeeds student, and I know that even the ones I’m closest to now will soon become names in my address book and then just distant memories. But the feelings we have for the teachers or students who have meant the most to us, like those we have for long-lost friends, never go away. They are part of us, and the briefest thought revives them, and we know that in some heaven we will all meet again.

The truth is that these possibilities are not quite as alien to American culture as I’ve been making out. Along with the new stereotype that’s dominated the portrayal of academics in film and fiction in recent years has come, far less frequently, a different image of what a college teacher can be and mean, exactly along the lines I’ve been tracing. It is there in Julia Roberts’s character in Mona Lisa Smile, in the blind professor who teaches Cameron Diaz’s character to love poetry in In Her Shoes, and most obviously, in Tuesdays with Morrie, that gargantuan cultural phenomenon. Robin Williams offered a scholastic version in Dead Poets Society. But we seem to need to keep the idea, or at least the person who embodies it, at a safe distance. Both Mona Lisa Smile and Dead Poets Society take place in the 1950s and at single-sex schools. Cameron Diaz’s mentor and Morrie Schwartz are retired and dying. 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.
This last paragraph is particulary interesting, since Deresiewicz argues that when the popular culture does a good job representing the intimacy between professor and student--the flame that ignites the students' soul--the plot is set in the 1950s in single-sex schools. I have never noticed this before and now find myself bothered by this. I agree with Deresiewicz that this kind of intimacy exists, and that students seek it out. I have indeed encountered all sorts of students seeking out someone to open their world, their minds, and their souls to ideas. They don't always come knocking on my door, but certainly they seek out my colleagues.

And, I also agree with Derewiecisz that this kind of passionate exchange between professor and student is indeed what keeps many of us in this lousy profession. There is nothing more intoxicating or satisfying than knowing you have opened a world to a student and that you have helped inspire their passion for ideas--it is much better than money.

However, before turning this over to you to discuss, I do have to point out that I do think that affairs between students and professors occur all the time and that they are not always the impotent grasps of washed up middle-aged male humanities professors. I have seen plenty of women scoop up their young, nubile students--men or women. I have also seen young women students seduce male faculty. And, I would say, that my favorite part of the Symposium is how lusty, how sexually hungry Alcibaides is for Socrates. Alcibaides, perhaps, represents a kind of eros that is left out of the other speeches, the profound aching for a particular lover that is only intensified when it is unrequited. This kind of sexual longing seems to grow out of the professor-student relationship as well and I don't think it is at odds with the "brain sex" model that Deresiewicz is expounding on. It can co-exist with it and then, it is up to the players involved whether they exploit it or let it simmer . . . .