Professor as Pimp, Education as Voyeurism?
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By John von Heyking, March 15, 2011 in What is Education?

Joseph Epstein has some sensible comments on the case of psychology professor, J. Michael Bailey, who had a woman demonstrate the use of a sex toy before his undergraduate class.  Epstein uses this “teachable moment” to reflect upon how little academic freedom means these days on account of the confusion in higher education as to the nature of education.  Instead of being intellectual authorities, universities, and their professors, have now become pimps, and university presidents their enablers.

Readers of this blog are well aware of the deterioration of the academy over the past several decades, but two observations are in order.

First, Epstein identifies the dead-end into which educators have put themselves, which has implications for how society understands the activity of science.  Bailey of course accuses his critics of being anti-scientific troglodytes.  He is doing research, after all!  But his pseudo-apologia amounts to little more than claiming that his critics have bad taste, which is the claim made by the avante-garde.  Thus, he defends science not on the basis of its contribution to knowledge or even wisdom, but because it conduces to taste.  But taste for what?  Something greater evidently than the base tastes of the bourgeois, but what that “greater” consists of seems to be literally nothing, in the deep sense of nihilism.  As Epstein observes, “Does Professor Bailey, one has to wonder, thrill to his own acts of épater les bourgeois? Does he, so to say, get off in his combined role as Pied Piper, Krafft-Ebing, and the Diaghilev of the kinky?” Science, like avant-garde art, can only justify itself by tweaking the tastes of those it purports to serve.  Not a long-term strategy for success.

Second, Epstein’s observation about the educator as pimp reminds me of a comment that Seth Benardete makes about Socrates, in the Lysis, Plato’s dialogue about friendship.  In that dialogue, Socrates seems keen to draw the pathetic Hypothales away from the young Lysis – for himself, it seems.  Benardete suggests there is something pimp-like about Socrates’ behavior.  This is a longstanding claim made of Socrates.

One of the keys to thinking clearly about the meaning of education, using the model of Socrates perhaps, is to distinguish clearly between genuine knowledge and sophistry. The need to do this is presented with great urgency in Plato’s Republic;  Glaucon and Adeimantus urgently request Socrates to teach them the difference.  Failure to make this distinction breeds currently prevailing confusion over whether educators are pimps, and our students are voyeurs.  But, as the Republic forces us to ask, can such a distinction be taught to people who have not experienced that distinction?

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2 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Mar 16, 2011 at 7:38 am

Great commentary. I also would suggest to read Paul Rahe's article, "The Intellectual as Courtier" (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Intellectual-as-Courtier/126640/), which also touches upon this topic.

Orion on Mar 20, 2011 at 11:26 am

This is pretty good. One thing that I have noticed in higher education is a very consistent misdirection. Alot of canon that had been held on to for a very long time was thrown out and faculty are suddenly left with nothing at all to replace it with. This naturally leads to a laissez faire approach that unsurprisingly leads to youth with no direction and no belief system.

I would say that this isn't simply a problem simply of higher education. It starts from one day one in elementary school. You have schools that are not really aimed at a curriculum but instead as sustaining themselves as employment centers. More time is going to logically be spent at union meetings working out logistics that created a useful holistic curriculum for students. The programs set up to offset this, like No Child Left Behind, just end up standardizing everything and further treating children like machines.

about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.