The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
8.3 (Summer 2008)
Coeds and Literacy
courtesy of artrenewal.org
The Vanishing Cultivated Girl and Her Replacement: From Reading Novels to Talking Trash on Campus
Thomas F. Bertonneau
I begin with three vignettes, the veracity of which my patient readers will accept on faith…
First Vignette. It is the end of the semester in my “Western Heritage I” course, an undergraduate “general education requirement” that I teach as a large-enrollment enterprise, with over a hundred students in the auditorium. Even with the help of a graduate-student teaching assistant, keeping order in the classroom has required a massive and annoying investment of the teacher’s energy. Students come late, complain about lost points due to missed quizzes, shuffle in their seats, and—most distracting of all—talk during the lecture. It is women, far more than men, who offend in this manner, although men are not free from the vice. To allay student fears about the final examination, I have agreed to spend the last two days of the semester summing up the major points of the syllabus and offering reminders about what we have read during the semester. (Some, who have not done the reading, mistakenly think that by taking notes during these concluding sessions, they can fake their way through the examination.) I am carefully making my way through an outline, tying Homer to the tragedians, the tragedians to the philosophers, Greek literature to Latin literature, and pagan civilization to the early Christian discourse that it at last produced. I find that I cannot keep the thread intact. Something is addling my concentration. I cock an ear and discover the source. From the moment I began, two young women sitting halfway back in the auditorium and close to the right aisle (from the lecturer’s perspective) have been chattering to one another in loud stage whispers. I shoot them a disapproving look. The chattering continues, as if no one else were present. I shoot them another look and clear my throat. No result. Finally, I must stop my lecture and address the two of them directly, with a mandate to cease gossiping or take their palaver out of the classroom. Both girls make it clear by their expressions that they feel put upon and abused.
Second Vignette. It is a more recent semester. Again I am teaching “Western Heritage I,” but in this little story the actual course plays only a small part. The public schools have a hiatus, so my twelve-year-old, a seventh-grader, is with me on campus. He sits through a lecture on Virgil while reading a book about UFOs. When the class-time has elapsed, he helps me pack up my chattels and we begin to walk to my next class, on the other side of campus. In the crush of students we find ourselves walking next to a female undergraduate engaged, like eighty percent of other students, in a peripatetic cell phone conversation. The young lady is well dressed—in the female equivalent of “junior executive.” She walks briskly, oblivious of anyone’s co-presence in the public space. Her dialogue grows excited. She is complaining to a sympathetic listener about one of her instructors, who has apparently assigned what she believes to be too much reading and who grades, as she sees it, harshly. “He f—ing thinks nobody’s got other things to do,” she says loudly. “Well, I’m f—ing not going to let him push me around. I’m f—ing going to report this f—er to the dean.” In three sentences, she has inserted sailor-talk into her speech four times. At the second usage of the Anglo-Saxonism, I give her a disapproving glance. At the fourth I say loudly, “Thank you for sharing that with my twelve-year-old.” She drops back, looking more irritated than ashamed, avoiding my eyes.
Third Vignette. Often it is in the freshman composition course that I have closest contact with students. Here, still a bit intimidated by the college experience and not yet cynically inured to education, students tend to show themselves most naïvely and candidly. Insisting that students share with me for consultation two drafts of each of their four formal essays gives me the opportunity actually to talk to them individually many times during the semester. Undergraduates come to college today with less literacy than ever. As a rule, functional illiteracy little bothers the men—they imagine other spheres than the intellectual in which they might demonstrate some kind of prowess; women generally show themselves more amenable to constructive discipline in the domain of their written expression and generally make better progress than the men. “Better,” however, means in comparison to a paltry norm. This semester (Fall 2007), the best writer, and the most mature eighteen-year-old in the class, is a young woman whom I shall call, by a chain of protective associations, “Veronica.” No opportunity presents itself that would let me discern much about Veronica’s background. She distinguishes herself from others, however, by doing the reading that I assign (most skip it) and by always turning in her required draft-versions of the paper; again, many fewer basic-language deformities mar her prose than is the case with other students. She has a mien of some awareness, a careful way of speaking, and a measure of poise, as previous generations would have named it. Veronica can make, rudimentarily, a logical and evidentiary argument, something few of her peers can. Her range of references shows much restriction; she has read a little—more than other freshmen, but nothing challenging or brave. I think to myself: Veronica might be much more intellectually and culturally developed than a jejune education has made her—and she is unaware of the possibility.
More than one commentator in recent years has bemoaned, and rightly, the decline of masculinity in college students. In place of the aspiring young man who seeks to add lettered cultivation to his purely physical development, the male undergraduate has become, for the most part, an infantilized, marginally overweight, video-game-obsessed consumer of rap music. In his sartorial habit and demeanor, he resembles the slaphappy imbecile played to perfection by Huntz Hall in the old Bowery Boys comedies, right down to the invariable baseball cap worn at any angle except brim-forward, as the haberdasher sensibly designed it. He might be de-sexed or not yet sexually determined (this will be in parallel with his infantilism), or he might be crudely and pornographically sex-obsessed. What he avoids is balance. In class he tends to the surly, but a noticeable admixture of effeminacy often emasculates even his surliness. A male student once told me, when I asked him in accordance with my rules for classroom decorum to remove his hat, that he couldn’t do so because he was, as he said, “having a bad hair day.” He intended this as a meaningful remark. Asked why he has come to college, the typical male student cannot say, unless he recites the empty formula about “earning a big salary” when—or rather if—he graduates. Another characteristic of contemporary college males is that their numbers have steadily decreased over the last decade. Fewer men come to college than ever before; more men than women drop out before completing a degree.
The blame for this etiolating of masculinity lies not solely on the men themselves, although they contribute to it by making choices that they could make otherwise. Rather, for twenty-five years or more the American nation, in its public schools and through its commercial mass-culture, has been deliberately censuring real masculine behavior and deliberately feminizing males. I wish to explore, however, not the emasculation of young men, as catastrophic as that is, but instead its corollary: the equally enormous de-feminizing of females.
Do comparisons run to unfairness? So be it. In my graduating class at Santa Monica High School (1972), I knew many already formidably cultivated young women. They were, for one thing, readers. They read books on the bus traveling to and from school –the usual girl’s fare of Jane Austen, but also surprising things like the Tolkien trilogy, just then issued in paperback. By the tenth grade, Diane S—— had finished the last installment. They read Demian, Siddhartha, and The Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. They read The Stranger by Albert Camus and Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. They read Love Story by Eric Segal, too, but this had its context in their other literary involvements; it never defined them. Then they read John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which no boy did. In Mr. Johnston’s Senior Honors English course, they sustained their part in the discussion and often left the boys looking like they had little to say. One really had to compete with Regine W—— or Janet M—— or Ruth K—— in the endeavor of interpretation. Those girls sang in the chorus or in the smaller Madrigal Society, or they played an instrument in the school orchestra. They had their favorite Top Forty hits, I’m sure, but they could appreciate a symphony concert or a song recital. When an exhibition of Impressionist paintings came to the Los Angeles County Art Museum on a weekend, Regine and Janet and Ruth would come to school on Monday eager to talk about it. I once spent a memorable afternoon with Regine in the Huntington Gardens , whose grassy and flowery beauty she grasped much more vividly than I. Again in college, at UCLA, despite the pull still exerted on adolescent habits by the descent into Hippiedom of the previous few years, one yet encountered straight-backed girls, well dressed, well read, and serious in their spiritual pursuits.
The privilege fell to me of dating such a girl, stately in her possession of Episcopalian form, during my sophomore year. Elizabeth (“Liz”) A——, who later earned a law degree, played piano (Bach and Mozart), spoke French, and did not find an Ingmar Bergman film foreign to her experience although she could equally well laugh her heart out at a Woody Allen movie. Among their accomplishments Regine and Elizabeth knew how to dine. Their interest in cuisines embraced the adventurous, and both knew to stand to let the lad seat them. I can imagine neither of them eating a fast-food chimichanga, the very name of which suggests barbaric engrossment. In the incipient wisdom of my early thirties, right in the shrillest Harridan days of academic feminism, I had the luck to marry a genuine lady of the same species as Regine and Elizabeth.
Maleness impels me to the usual sex-related interest in women, including frankly the coeds in my classes. I don’t say that I fancy them, as a predatory humanities professor of my UCLA days was known to do serially. (As he grew older, the girls grew younger and younger.) Indeed, most of these nymphae exert moderate repulsion by virtue of their personal qualities or, as it might well be, their amorphous lack of definite personality and their culturally bereft condition. Nevertheless, at an organic level, the presence of young ladies solicits a mixture of curiosity and protectiveness that informs my sense of them despite reason. Plato says that Eros is intrinsic to education, so perhaps that ubiquitous Platonic Eros acts to make my innards kick in. I expect the males to avoid humane discipline like a plague; I expect them to behave and speak crudely and to mumble their lame I dunno’s when addressed in the interrogative. Emotionally unmoved by them, I have learned to shrug my shoulders at their “slacker” imperviousness to edification. For the coeds, although facts militate against it, I stubbornly await a freshening of the wind, a calm sea, and a prosperous voyage. In respect of them, the thought whispers to me: There is a physiological beauty in this girl that ought to be matched by intellectual formation; a bit of genuine knowledge might refine her expression or positively alter her posture somehow. Elizabeth, my sophomore-year girlfriend, and my wife Susan, in their common upright and clear-eyed self-presentation, furnish the ideal. Perhaps a prospect of discovery will loom. The ship of this hope usually breaks its keel on the Siren-Rocks of classroom reality, as in the first of my three vignettes. Men in their grimacing apathy sleep during class or stare at the ceiling. Whispering to one another lies outside their repertory of offenses. No longer a rare intrusion, the chattering girls turn up ubiquitously, holding forth in private parliament during the lecture, while registering alarming non-susceptibility to rebuke.
Chatterers constitute a describable sub-category within the larger realm of the de-feminized. As befits their particular annoying quality, they usually correspond to raw girlishness. They are more likely than not to be the youngish-appearing puellile girls clad in dresses rather than jeans and with curls or “done up” hair rather than the straight shoulder-length tresses that define the default of current coed coiffure. They come in pairs, naturally, and must typically be sorority sisters or dorm-room co-dwellers or off-campus apartment sharers. Their chattering is at once narcissistic and aggressive. It is narcissistic for being utterly selfish and anti-social. The mindlessly prattling pair shows obliviousness to the distinction between the outdoor space of the quadrangle and the indoor space of the lecture hall; or worse yet, it is not obliviousness but willful contemptuousness towards the indoor space of the lecture hall, which they claim as theirs by treating it in what manner they will. They also show obliviousness or contempt towards the presumptive presence of other students—although in actuality these might be few—who seat themselves with the intention of listening to and following the lesson. Their girlishness or even little girlishness belongs to the calculation of the behavior: it functions as camouflage, as if to say, “my innocent appearance preempts chastisement and shame on him who thinks me guilty.” The guise puts me in mind that a year or two ago, MTV ran a series of hour-long programs called Sweet Sixteen, which featured pathologically spoiled adolescent girls who extort their wealthy and indulgent parents for lavish birthday parties. The birthday girls all exhibited that same Barbie-Doll-like false femininity.
Chatterers are that kind of girl. Their irremediable self-absorption freezes them, in their moral and intellectual (non-) development, at the seventh-grade level. Chatterers are aggressive for being relentless in their rude behavior and directly challenging in their appropriation of time and attention. I like occasionally to show films connected the readings that I assign. Nowadays, however, turning down the houselights inevitably operates as a sign for the gossipers to commence their obnoxious volubility. More than once I have suspended the screening to say, “Girls, you need to stop your private conversation now and pay attention the movie.” Who ever became a college teacher expecting to monitor habits as disruptive as these? The frequent visible gut-response of the miscreants is volcanic indignation that can barely contain itself from Krakatoa-like eruption.
Chatterers disqualify themselves as feminine by a deliberate choice to sustain infantile behavior into what should be the beginning of their adulthood and, considering that they have accepted the invitation to attend college, their Bildung. I only once had to rebuke male chatterers. This happened when I taught extra courses one semester at a so-called community college. The two offenders were effeminate “Goth” males in Marilyn Manson makeup and garb, which inclines me to classify them as belonging to a distinctly female phenomenon. Chatterers contribute maliciously to the larger breakdown now happening in society between the exterior forum and the interior sanctuary. Stand-up comedians have long since made the loud cell phone user a staple of their routines. It’s barely funny any more. Movie theaters routinely run announcements at the beginning of the program begging people not to talk during the performance and asking them to turn off their cell phones. An old phrase, “chattering like fishwives,” whether fair or not, ascribes audible insouciant prattling to the lowest, most unformed constituents of womanhood. Fishwives presumably read few books. Incessant talk militates against absorption in letters, a task requiring the discipline of silent concentration. Incessant talk militates against paying attention to road traffic, too. When driving on or near campus, one must keep an eye peeled for students, mostly women, who think that they can chatter inanities and negotiate left turns at the same time. Chattering signifies a recursion in contemporary society of pre-literate oral behavior unrestrained, however, by the village decorum that provided every European language with the justifiable equivalent of the succinct French phrase, taisez-vous, Mesdames!
People who chatter in class in violation of good taste and derail a formal procedure probably abuse cell phone technology too and annoy others by that abuse. The trespasses run together in a syndrome along with much else. It is not only loud private conversations out of place in public areas—it is also text-messaging. I have scolded ten times more women than men for text-messaging during class, another dissolution of courtesy and social order that has reached epidemic proportions and yet another deformation of the female character. Text-messaging no more signifies literacy than does chattering, reducing grammar and syntax to a pidgin and restricting topics to those within a domain of insipidity. Inveterate text-messaging probably stunts the mind just as fully does inveterate video-game-playing or television-watching. One form of linguistic, and therefore also of mental, stultification is the lapse from polite into vulgar language. I would point to the new crassness of female speech as another outstanding element in the low-class behavioral koine characteristic of the de-feminized coed: on the one hand, mindless yadayada even during lecture, and on the other, le patois des mâtelots and the yob-talk of soccer hooligans.
My physio-chemistry makes me liable to crises of low blood sugar. Fortifying myself with a meal before pitching into two or three straight class-periods of lecturing is a habit I carefully observe. A creature of the campus, I take a sandwich or a bowl of hot soup in the dining commons where students and faculty members sit at table where they will. This makes the luncheoner privy, without intentional eavesdropping, to many simultaneous conversations during a forty-five minute leisurely repast, and it opens access to a fair sampling of student locutions. I exclude the male bull sessions that one might overhear. Again, one expects these to occur at a low cultural level with many sexual and scatological references. It is the women, among whom I used to think that hope might lie, who interest and disappoint me. The cell-phone talker in the second vignette has innumerable clones as far as her speech habits are concerned. While it no longer surprises me to hear the s-word or the f-word distort the tongue of a cosmetically noticeable twenty-year-old, the contradiction in it has not yet ceased to shock me. I estimate that seventy per cent of coeds casually employ excretory and fornicating vocabulary in their conversation. They use the s-word and f-word not merely now and then, by way of Jack Tar emphasis, but constantly, at least once or maybe even many times in every single sentence. No verbal gesture being devoid of some indexical function, even if semantically it were empty, constant female trash-talking must point to something.
It points to some obvious things. The feculence of commercially mediated so-called popular culture grows more immune to overestimation with the passing seconds. Sixteen years ago, MTV, the long-time mass-instructor of our wretched youth-culture, ceased devoting itself to music videos (the genre it had pioneered) and began devoting itself to the mendaciously named enterprise of reality programming, so-called. As pandering virtuosity, the template of all such entertainment, The Real World, showed cynical genius. Producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray recruited groups of kids in their early twenties to live together in a house while cameras filmed every aspect of their lives. The casting directors knew what they were looking for: a combination of libidinousness and resentment that would lead to tension and hostility among the cohabitants of the dwelling. They valued a capacity for resentment at least as much as they valued willingness to copulate on camera. The introductory voice-over put it this way: “This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped—to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real… The Real World.” One element of mendacity is that no one who has never started being polite can stop being polite. The sound-track bleep, which covers up a normatively impolite utterance, but only barely, belonged as staple to the reality-programming formula from the beginning. The sound editors cleverly gestured in the direction of discretion while leaving the matter of vocabulary-related limitation entirely clear. The expletives signified to the audience (high school students), by a moronic but powerful code, that the college-age students on display in the half-hour episode had liberated themselves into an adult existence bravely beyond parental supervision. No one stood in danger of having his mouth washed out with soap.
The Real World never caused the vulgarization of coeds, although, of course, it has regularly reinforced a pervasive hard-meretricious comportment in young women. The importance of The Real World lies in its having so blatantly revealed a connection between the free usages of four-letter profanity, debased sexuality, and perfervid resentment. The producers clearly aim the show at high school girls and freshman coeds, who take behavioral hints from it. The Real World and its spin-offs merely crystallized a trend that already existed. Coarsened language proliferated in movies almost immediately after Hollywood’s abandonment of the vestigial production code in the mid-1960s. Faye Dunaway’s eponymous gun moll in Bonnie and Clyde (1968) swore only a little (some timid hell’s and damn’s) although she behaved like a whore; whereas the same actress’s “Diane Christensen” in Network (1976), an aggressive female TV news producer, had a ceaselessly peppery mouth, including the f-word. All the girls in The Real World, whether they have ever seen Network or not, take their model in Dunaway’s Christensen, played as a seething mass of executive resentment and inchoate ambition. The archetype has seeped into the culture, not as an apotropaic fright, but rather as a profitably imitable set of cues. The theme of resentment plays a role in Sweet Sixteen, too. One of the birthday girls blithely tells the camera, “I want my party to be bigger than anybody else’s so that all the kids will know how rich I am.” Fear of inferiority drives the display. Resentment enters the pattern by definition: if they so much as think their status is higher than mine, then my status is effectively diminished and theirs is increased. The girl resents the presumed self-evaluating higher status of others.
The girl inserting profanity into every sentence on her side of a peripatetic cell phone conversation—if “conversation” were the word—in my second vignette has descended as deeply into resentment as she has into profanity. She dresses in the severe “Lady Executive” style and thus imitates the Dunaway-Christensen archetype, whether she knows it or not. I recall to the reader the occasion of her ire: one of her instructors had evaluated her below her own estimation. The reactive antics of a female student enrolled in my “Western Heritage I” course in a recent semester equally well demonstrate the depth of resentment with which the feminism-inspired, MTV-vulgarized coed readily responds to the smallest perception of under-evaluation or “unfairness.” The course carries a high enrollment-cap of 140 students. During the semester under discussion, 135 students had enrolled in the course and even at the end of the semester, after some attrition, 117 students sat at the final examination. The campus logistics people assign the course to a big auditorium with so much seating capacity that, even with 140 students, there are scores of seats remaining. This creates a pedagogical problem that I have learned to address immediately when the semester begins. Many students try to be present in the lecture minimally by finding a place in the back and off to one side. I require students to shift their seats to create a compact audience up front. I use a mixture of mild coercion and non-corrupting bribery to draw students to the front rows, especially, pointing out that an empirical correlation exists between sitting up front and receiving a higher evaluation than the norm.
On one occasion, as class began, several seats remained open in the front row. I urged students to fill in these seats and a few complied. I had scheduled a quiz, which I then administered. I usually let the students score their own quizzes, but before collecting them, I said, “The students sitting in the front row may give themselves two additional points.” The justification was twofold: to reward those who had been willing to come forward and to create future competition for proximity to the lecturer.
At the next class-meeting a girl came down front while I was setting out my notes and otherwise preparing for the lecture to say that she wanted to talk to me about her quiz. In fact, she wanted to talk about the two extra points that I had given to the students seated up front. This lagniappe for the bold had obviously obsessed her since the last class meeting; she characterized it as “punishing all other students.” I explained to her that rewarding some after inviting people, as it turned out, to be rewarded, was not at all the same as punishing others; I reminded her that every time I took roll in class, once or twice a week, I gave a point to those present and none to those absent, and that this meant that by the middle of the semester she, who at least attended class consistently, had received far more than two “free points.” She would have none of it. She demanded that I add the two points to her score. I answered that I hadn’t the slightest inclination to do so, but that if she wanted to she should feel free to take her complaint to my department chair. My poor chair! She first sent him a 1,500-word email message filling in the details of her outrage, and then harangued him in his office for ninety minutes. As he is as sane as she was not, her ferocious self-advocacy made no more impression on him than it did on me—or rather it made the identical impression of a little ego-monster whose college career was likely to be one hyper-emotional crisis after another. He did get her to assent weakly to his characterization of my ploy as a “brilliant pedagogical maneuver.”
After that, she remained a morose presence four or five rows back from the front, never saying anything, and acquitting herself on quizzes with a C+ average. She took no more interest in the course material, in other words, than any other detached participant in the class. Neither to me nor to the chair did this girl use bad language, but I remain relatively certain that she used it about me to her friends, supposing she had any.
Many men in the class must have regretted, as acutely as the girl did, not coming down front at my behest. I know that a large number of men enrolled in the course resented having to fulfill the “general education requirement” in the humanities that “Western Heritage I” satisfies, and felt no particular fondness for me. It strikes me as a sign of the times that a coed rather than a male student took the initiative to act on her baseless feelings of humiliating punishment and deprivation. I cannot remember when last a truculent male student tried intimidating me over a justly deserved low grade or for any other reason. The same girl also complained that my reading-list for the course “didn’t have enough women writers on it,” adding a distinctly ideological cast to her dissatisfaction. I pointed out to her that in Classical letters there isn’t an abundance of female authors, but that my reading-list included Sappho of Mytilene and my syllabus indicated lectures on Diotima, the teacher of Socrates, and Lady Julia, the cultured wife of the emperor Septimus Severus. Indeed, my first day’s lecture devoted lengthy discussion to an image, recovered from a house at Pompeii, of a young Roman woman either reading a letter just received or writing one to a friend. This image has long enamored me. It represents an ideal of literacy for men and for women, mute though it is. I urge my students, all of them, to aspire to the condition of that long-dead girl. I ask them to read The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, a Second Century Latin novel that roundly, if comically, condemns licentious behavior and makes a roundabout case for prudence in matters erotic and for purity of mind, as far as this is attainable for mere mortals. In my decade of teaching this novel, no female student has ever had the wits to draw a link between the pornographic milieu described by Apuleius and the engrossed sexual life that plays out on campus, signified in part by scores of young women who worry not at all about being overheard talking like an Apuleian puta.
A coed enrolled in my “Twentieth Century American Novel” class a few semesters ago exemplifies the indiscreet and shameless way that college females nowadays talk and what carelessly they say to people of mere casual acquaintance. I taught in a classroom next door to my office. Students usually congregated in the common area outside the classroom in the twenty minutes or so before class. One day I saw this particular coed, in conference with a friend, outside my office. She and her friend, also female, kept glancing at me. Finally they both came to my office and the student said to me, “I’ve been on the pill since I was sixteen and for the last six months I haven’t had my period.” I must have visibly flinched. I rallied myself sufficiently to inquire, “Why do I need to know this?” I should have said, “I don’t want to know this, so please reserve any further details.” The student then said, because I had inadvertently given her the opening: “My period just started. It’s really, really heavy.” The friend nodded. “It’s really heavy,” she amiably testified. The student said: “I hope you won’t mind if I skip class today. I think I need medical help.” I agreed, and hoped fervently that I would never see her again. Her unsolicited divulgences resembled the careless f— you’s of the strolling cell-phone talker in that they indicated complete obliviousness of any distinction between personal and professional or private and public. If she had simply said to me, without explanation, that she felt ill and preferred not to come to class, I could not have taken exception.
She had told me in so many words, apparently imagining that I wanted to know, that she had been sexually active since high school, had been medicating herself with hormonal prophylaxis just as long, and had recently experienced an organic dysfunction of the most intimate sort. Later in the semester, she argued with me about a question of extra points on a quiz that would not even have altered her final grade had I yielded them to her. It fit the pattern.
Is the set of resentful, trash-talking or casually divulging coeds the same as the set of rutting girls, the ones who, far from criticizing male sexual grossness, have agreed to go along with it on the feminist-abetted assumption that whatever boys do girls can do just as well or even better? The two sets overlap, and the overlapping represents more than an accidental statistical convergence. The bad language, the cynical and aggressive attitudes, and the lack of spiritual interest: these things betoken the dominance of bodily function over intellectual aspiration within the realm of campus life. As the Greek mystics said, “Soma—sema,” “The body is our grave.” In an essay of some currency called “Dorm Brothel,” Vigen Guroian argues that the sexualization of youth-culture and the increasing coarseness of academic life have combined with an abandonment of the old in loco parentis principle to create a campus atmosphere especially inimical to young women. Guroian writes: “The lure and availability of sexual adventure that our colleges afford is teaching young women… to pursue sexual pleasures aggressively. Yet, based on my own conversations and observations, there is no doubt that young women today are far more vulnerable to sexual abuse and mistreatment by young men than when I was a college student, simply because the institutional arrangements that protected young women are gone and the new climate says everything goes.” Guroian follows up with this: “In the new culture that our colleges incubate and maintain, everyone is a ‘guy.’ Everyone is ‘familiar.’ Young men and women who have never seen anyone of the opposite sex naked or in underwear, other than family members, now must get used to being seen by and seeing others—perfect strangers—in just such a state. Everyone is available to everyone else. It would be antisocial not to be.” A USA Today story from December, 2007, seems to confirm Guroian’s assessment: “College students, including young women, are far more accepting of pornography than their parents, a shift that might be related to easy access to porn on the Internet, a study reports today.”
Guroian has described the morass of campus life accurately. Pursuing sex aggressively the girls certainly are, maybe more obsessively than the boys—now feminized and de-sexed—used to do. I doubt, however, based on the tone of female trash talk, that the phrase “pursuing sexual pleasures” quite adequately defines late adolescent women, for the emphasis in it falls on “pleasures.” Most of these girls are merely hustling and grubbing, for the status that they think “hooking up” endows on them and for grades better than the ones that they objectively deserve because here, too, they glimpse the dim Grail of badly defined status. Pace Guroian, a Christian gentleman of the old school and a friendly if casual acquaintance, women must acknowledge just as much responsibility for the moral-sexual collapse as do men. Where I teach, the administration is almost entirely female, from the president through the provost down to the dean. The student “Health Center” has not ceased handing out condoms or prescribing hormonal prophylaxis. The practice is this: the pharmacist gives the condoms to the girls so that they can give them to the boys. If the girls were truly victims, they would be massively complicit in their own victimization. Colleges abet and excuse the trollop-life, but the wider culture teaches it before young women arrive at college. They learn the lesson eagerly. They appear to me to be participating in the contemporary rush of the masses to the lowest levels of mentality and mien, seeing in orgasm one more entitlement.
Nevertheless Guroian does hit the nail squarely on the head when he observes—and it constitutes a genuine linguistic observation—that “everyone is a ‘guy.’” In restaurants, invariably the college-girl waitresses greet mixed parties not with “Ladies and Gentlemen” but rather with “Guys.” “Hi, my name is Tiffany. What will you guys be having for your beverage?” The word guy comes from the Italian Guido, used as a proper noun. Its provenance is theatrical. It designates a low-class male character in a farce. His antics trespass on decorum and so provoke the risible outrage of haughty supercilious self-over-inflating co-characters in the play. So they also produce audience-laughter at the haughty co-characters. A guy is a Bowery Boy, set loose from the proscenium; he is Huntz Hall, but he is Huntz Hall as a porno-film player, and nowadays a Guidezza goes with him, even dominating him in the action.
Around the year 100 A.D., Claudia Severa was probably thirty years old, living in the fortress town of Vindolanda near the northern march of Rome’s Britannic province. Claudia’s husband, Aelius Brocchus Severus, officered the watch over the Pictish lands beyond the frontier. The gentle-lady’s letter to her friend, Sulpicia Lepidina, is, as Chris Scarre writes in his Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome, “the earliest known writing in Latin by a woman.” “Claudia Severa to her Lepidina,” reads the letter, “greetings: I send you warm invitation to come to us of September 11th, for my birthday celebrations, to make the day more enjoyable by your presence. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius greets you and your sons. I will expect you, sister. Farewell sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and greetings.” The manuscript, a mere torn fragment of a page, reveals a lovely, readable cursive hand. In the word “dearest,” which she addresses to Lepidina, Claudia uses the Greek kappa, making the spelling karissima. Perhaps as a girl she had a Greek tutor. Everything about this precious remnant, recovered from ruins adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall, suggests the possession both of grace and of a determination to uphold canons of civilized life in what must have amounted to harsh and trying conditions. September on the border likely brings clement weather, but the true autumn of October and November would see rain, cold winds, and perhaps even snow. London and Bath, the Britannic centers of Imperial life and therefore of civilization, lay distantly to the south; Rome, mentioned occasionally by letter-writers from the town, lay even more remotely. Aelius had served previously in Pannonia; it is unknown whether Claudia was with him then.
Not too long before Claudia Severa wrote the lovely missive inviting Lepidina to her birthday celebration, the parents of a young girl of Pompeii commissioned a portrait of their daughter to grace one of the many frescoed interior walls of their splendid house. Frescoes deteriorated rapidly in the humid climate and once every few years, householders needed to arrange the repainting of the interior décor. This implies that the artist painted the image not too long before the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., to the otherwise catastrophic results of which we owe the fortuitous preservation of the artifact. This is the image about which I lecture in “Western Heritage I” on the first day of class. My comments will gain meaning through acquaintance with the picture. Here it is…
This young Roman woman, whom I guess to be in her late teens, embodies the Platonic form of the cultivated girl. In the 1970s, the same portrait used to grace the cover of the black-spine Penguin edition of The Nature of Things by the Roman Epicurean poet Titus Carus Lucretius, no doubt because the young lady strikes even the casual viewer as modeling the “Love of Wisdom.” I bought the book when still in high school largely because of the image. The young woman gazes, as she contemplates words in her tablet, into the true “Nature of Things” in its substrate. Perhaps the moment catches her quietly considering a letter from a friend, or perhaps she is writing such a letter to one of her “sisters” in correspondence. Whatever the case, she might profitably have patented her femininity; she might even more profitably have patented her humanity, for these attributes imbue the graphic record of her with a benign and hopeful aura. The tip of the stylus pressed against the lower lip sets the tone and provides one of the central symbols of the Gestalt. The young woman is profoundly literate and she is, as her eyes tell us, a thinker. The link with Epicureanism, fostered by the old paperback, is not necessarily spurious. The Epicureans, who had a strong following in Pompeii and Naples, set great store on learning, as on the exercise of the mind; they also acknowledged the intellectual and spiritual equality of women with men. The young woman’s purple robe signifies the nobility of intellectual endeavor, for purple is the royal color par excellence in the ancient world.
Order and measure sign themselves forth from the image. Again, Epicureanism valued the careful arrangement of life and moderation in it, holding these desiderata in common with Platonism and Stoicism. The lower tip of the stylus, the ring on the young woman’s left hand, and the apex of her upper lip thus form an isosceles right triangle, symbol of geometry and of rationality as measure. The notion of measure reminds us also of Plato’s metretike ethike, or “calculus of morals.” For here is an individual who can begin to gauge her own mind and gauge the consequences of actions and omissions. The soul is deep, said Heraclitus; it is of subtle matter, said Epicurus. The young woman’s eyes, indices of her soul, give wide entry to the visible world. The fine brows emphasize the intelligent, almond-like shape of the eyes. The earrings avoid ostentation; they set off the straight-nosed face without calling attention to themselves. The coiffure shows the art of the hairdresser, but it betokens nothing vain; cut short, rather than Venus-like in long tresses, the dense curls suggest a chaste demeanor. The net of golden filigree appropriately crowns the head, in harmony with the purple vestment. A Victorian novelist might have invented a Bildungsroman around this image, interpreting its subject as a Stoic, a Platonist, an Epicurean, or even an early convert from one of these doctrines to Christianity, and plotting out a life for her with marriage, children, crises both of the family and the civitas, and finally of old age and death. Echoes of the young woman of Pompeii indeed turn up everywhere in Nineteenth Century fiction.
In William Dean Howells’ Rise of Silas Lapham, for example, the Laphams have named their daughters in a Classical spirit: Penelope, the older, and Irene, the younger. Howells contrasts the two considerably, endowing Penelope with wit and a largely self-acquired education, and making her, among other things, an inveterate reader. Irene has borrowed Middlemarch from the Athenaeum library but only Penelope has read it. Irene does not lack in virtue, but intellectual disposition plays no role in her personality: she misinterprets a meaningless act of young Tom Corey’s when he visits the site of father Silas’s new house, disastrously building up on her error a full romance concluding in nuptials. When the Nemesis of disillusionment comes for Irene, it comes hard. Tom, as it turns out, fancies Penelope, precisely for her intellectual qualities. Among contemporary actual college girls one meets only a few, a shrinking number, of Penelopes; of Irenes contrarily a full selection remains in offing. Many, lacking the context of a traditional Protestant (or any other) home life, have succumbed to the malaise of the ambient cultural toxicity. Parents no longer name their daughters after Greek wives or empresses or saints; they name them Tiffany and Brittany, often spelled Brittny, or some other analphabetic cuteness.
I sometimes ask the Brittanys whether they know the origin of their common name. It is the same origin as in the surname Bertonneau and it designates the Imperial province where Claudia Severa lived. A Penelope knows this, or is at least capable of appreciating it; an Irene knows it not and cares not about appreciating it. The “Veronica” of my third vignette hovers somewhere between Irene and Penelope, closer to the former than to the latter, but nearer the latter than most.
Veronica stands for herself but she also subsumes a few other coeds who have passed through my classroom over the last decade and a half. They share the trait of coming from religious backgrounds, in some cases merely vestigial and in others intact and robust. One, whom I knew while teaching in Michigan, came from a branch of the same movement that yielded Seventh Day Adventism, although this chapter of that phenomenon seemed to have shaken off the some of the fervent quirkiness of its self-isolating cousin and to have cleaved more closely to civilized life. But it did disdain television and it did insist that children behave in an orderly manner and show respect to elders. The absence of television found its healthy compensation in an abundance of thoroughly random books. In sum, this girl had avoided the taint of popular culture long enough to acquire some real culture. She exhibited the propensity, on hearing about something that promised interest, to go to the source and, when puzzled (as she once admitted being with respect to Charles Baudelaire) to seek tuition. At one point, she read a reference to Mozart’s Requiem, acquired a recording of it, and listened to it obsessively. As I earlier wrote, I had the chance to glean only a little of Veronica’s background. But because she has an Italian surname—Upstate New York boasts a large Italian presence—I assume some exposure, grandparental at least, to Catholicism. That she catches a few religious references in one or two of the essays that I have assigned for freshman composition bolsters me in the supposition.
I don’t care, really. That’s the pattern, for what it’s worth. Veronica fits the pattern in this way, too: that she convincingly claims not to be a watcher of television and does not join with the other students in the class in gushing forth with reminiscences when invited to respond to some television-reference. On the other hand, she carries the burden when I quiz students orally on the required reading, so much so that I must ask her to shift the onus to others because they have leaned on her too heavily.
Where the other students can produce only one and a half or two typed pages when the assignment calls for four, Veronica turns in five or six. Veronica has meaningfully researched a fourth and final essay, exploring the difference between cults and honest religion; it runs to seven or eight pages. Compared to what other students write—never mind confining it to the other coeds—Veronica’s essay stands out as rising toward the mature in its handling of adequately defined concepts. Other students turn in cliché-ridden prose on novel, startling theses such as smoking is bad, drinking and driving is a bad combination, and professional athletes shouldn’t use steroids. The language corresponds neither to grammar or syntax and exhibits misspellings galore; one sees in it no evidence of any interest on the part of the writers in the educational opportunity of gaining mastery over their prose. The writers have downloaded most of the “research” from un-vetted websites and have cut and pasted it onto the page, often in different font from the rest of the typescript. In better circumstances than those provided by the contemporary college campus, Veronica might catch a glimpse of her intellectual star and begin her struggle through discipline to reach it. It could still happen against the odds, but the mainsail of my faith flags rather than billows before the wind. To wend her way to her metaphysical goal of spiritual homecoming, the lady-Odysseus must navigate the contemporary campus-equivalent of Sirens, Cyclopes, Circes, and Scyllas. What are these?
There is the insipidity—or worse, the nihilism—of the fragmented curriculum now in place in our state colleges and universities. The potentially cultivated girl who arrives on campus at eighteen years of age fronts something less than a well delineated educational prospect. The freshman composition course, once an entré into humane studies, is entirely unreliable. The girl might luck her way into a section of the course captained by a genuinely literate and mature instructor, or she might find herself in one of the sections supervised by a graduate student tenuously in possession of a Master’s Degree who is not much more literate than she is. Worse yet, she might find herself in the Cyclops Cave of the Marxoid-multiculturalist or feminist composition instructor who proposes, not at all pedagogically, to reduce the conceptual range of vision of students to a hysterical binarism of devils and angels. It will have nothing to do with reading and writing, nothing to do with the human spirit, and everything to do with the inculcation of “right attitudes.” Once beyond freshman composition, the student is ten-fold more likely to be stuck under the semester-long supervision of the Manichaean specialist in this or that field of doctrinaire resentment. What used to be called breadth requirements in actual humanities and sciences nowadays consist largely in a shotgun blast of indoctrination by the usual liberators and consciousness-raisers with chips on their shoulders. No college student, male or female, nowadays escapes The Vagina Monologues.
There is also the spiritual bane of Guroian’s “Dorm Brothel,” and beyond it the even deadlier bane of the Culture Brothel of manipulative mass-entertainments and perverse behavioral (non-) expectations. Quite apart from the pornography of contemporary cinematic diversions, consider the proliferating sado-masochism of the movies. A notably successful series of films carries the general name of Saw. The original Saw appeared in 2004, and the producers have already sent Saw IV into the cineplexes. Here is the Amazon.com product-description of this movie in its DVD incarnation: “Saw dives right into the depths of the madness… opening with our killer’s current victims, two men chained on opposite ends of a filthy restroom, a body in the center clutching a cassette player and a handgun. Each man is given a tape to play, which provides him with a nice dilemma to ponder during his captivity. The background of the killer and the events leading up to the men’s current situation unfolds nicely during narrated recollections and well-placed flashbacks, while the actual motive stays hidden underneath the obvious delight the killer derives from the simple pleasures of torture.”
Ah, filthy restrooms and the simple pleasures of torture… I know about Saw because a coed once enthused to me about it. It would hardly have surprised me to hear fulsome praise of what amounts to a snuff film from one of my culturally deprived male students. When I ask students what films they have seen in the past semester, Saw or its equivalent usually figures in the response, with female students praising items like Hostel or Turistas, which feature the kidnapping and torture of college students on vacation. What else? The college town where I live and teach supports a thriving tattoo industry. The local yellow pages list seven tattoo parlors within walking distance of campus. In the same town, the number of public houses per capita is a long-standing cause of civic shame. Two years ago a popular mayor lost his job and went to jail for arranging an assignation with two underage girls. But why go on? The familiarity of our vices obviates any need for repetition.
Critics will accuse me of being a middle-aged gray-haired English professor suffering from acute reminiscences of lost love and a Pygmalion complex. I deny the accusation: that is to say, while I am 53, gray-haired, and an English professor (for whatever that’s worth), I am not suffering from a bout of misplaced sentimentality. I see in no coed any Eliza Doolittle. The destruction of femininity—an immense cultural achievement—and the functional illiteracy of the female college graduate are the final nails in the coffin of social decency because women, as mothers and wives, have traditionally fulfilled the central civilizing function in the community.
Maybe the thong-wearing, trash-talking, tattooed, unlettered, resentful, bed-hopping, cell-phone-addicted twenty-year-old will miraculously transform herself into a paragon of nurturing graciousness, but I have always felt skeptical about miracles. She will more likely become one of millions of embittered divorcees propelled to middle-level management by affirmative action wondering in a fog of confusion why her life now seems empty. Seems? “Madam, I know not seems.” The life will truly be empty, for nothing substantial will ever have nourished its inner formation. The men in the singles bars that she frequents will exist at an even lower level of refinement and awareness than she does; they will revolt her, but she will be unable to articulate the reason for it. She will content herself with half-remembered formulas of resentment from her “Women’s Studies” course, but those will never assuage her suspicion of total vanity. Resentment and vanity are one and the same. For what it is worth, my wife gives expression to an even deeper pessimism than my own. She would probably, had she written this essay, have used stronger terms than mine in many cases. Have I really reserved my pen? Yes. I suffer from an ingrained reluctance to say diminishing things about women, but on the principle of candor I have nevertheless striven to say what I see.
Dr. Thomas Bertonneau is Secretary of The Center for Literate Values and a steady contributor to Praesidium. He teaches English at SUNY-Oswego.