Art of Education and Education as Pornography?

Monty Python

Is it as difficult to know the difference between education and idiocy as it is between art and pornography?

This week, for better or worse, Northwestern University has been front and center in trying to articulate the nuances of both. After a lecture class on Human Sexuality, Professor J. Michael Bailey hosted a student-optional panel discussion on Networking for Kinky People. Two of the guests offered to provide a live demonstration of sex with a power tool. Bailey told the press afterwards that at first he hesitated, presumably about the appropriateness of showing a live sex act to students in a university hall. But then, Bailey thought, “I could not come up with a good reason, and so I said OK.” A man, a woman, a power saw adapted to hold a dildo, and three minutes of pleasure for, at least, her and him. (the woman)

As news spread over the next two days, the university felt obligated to issue a statement: “Northwestern University faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial and at the leading edge of their respective disciplines. The university supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge.” It took until the following the day for university administrators to react more in a “WTF?!?” mode. The university president, Morton Schapiro, questioned Bailey’s educational approach and judgment, and promised to investigate. After all, when one is paying $56,006 per year, one wants a clear articulation of educational value, right?

Bailey, who has been teaching at Northwestern for twenty-one years, has not exactly helped his own cause.

In speaking with the Chicago Tribune about the reaction to the sex-toy show, he said, “I have a thicker skin than most people, …but I’m feeling the nail through the skin right now.” (Here’s a free lesson professor: when you are taking on conservative attacks, it’s usually not a good idea to compare yourself to Christ.)

He went further to note there wasn’t that good of a reason to allow it in the first place, “If I had to bet, I would bet I will not be doing this again, either because of my decision or someone else’s. And that’s fine. It’s not like I think this is a necessary part of understanding kinky people.” Oh. Now we know. A reading would have been as good, and less messy.

In a statement he issued to the university community explaining his choice, he wrote:
“I organize optional events. These events primarily comprise speakers addressing interesting aspects of sexuality. This year, for example, we have had a panel of gay men speaking about their sex lives, a transsexual performer, two convicted sex offenders, an expert in female sexual health and sexual pleasure, a plastic surgeon, a swinging couple, and the February 21st panel…” Ok. But then why didn’t he have the gay men or the swinging couple have sex on stage?

He also couldn’t resist whining about all the work he puts into these gatherings: “I arrange them at considerable investment of my time, for which I receive no compensation from Northwestern University.” Other than his salary for teaching, I guess.

The student newspaper, Daily Northwestern, which by the way is one of the best student papers in the country, printed Bailey’s apology. He wrote that he won’t do it again. But, he couldn’t resist slapping down everyone who might disagree with him: “Those who believe that there was, in fact, a serious problem have had considerable opportunity to explain why: in the numerous media stories on the controversy, or in their various correspondences with me. But they have failed to do so. Saying that the demonstration “crossed the line,” “went too far,” “was inappropriate,” or “was troubling” convey disapproval but do not illuminate reasoning. If I were grading the arguments I have seen against what occurred, most would earn an “F.” Offense and anger are not arguments.” I guess that brings an end to a discussion about grade inflation at America’s best universities.

Northwestern is a great university, especially so for journalism and the performing arts. Many students and colleagues have rallied around Bailey for his right to academic freedom, for his willingness to engage students in uncomfortable topics, and for his devotion to the scientific study of his discipline.

However, he might want to spend more time helping us understand the educational value of his approach rather than attacking his critics. After all, you don’t have to be a prude to ask the simple question, “Why?”

In a more enlightened vein, Professor Bailey could be acting less like a victim and more like a teacher.

He could be a guide to realizing the difference between a porno show and scientific study. In fact, the word “pornography” didn’t begin to be seen as its own category of artistic expression until the 19th century when it was used as a term for teaching about sex in the academy. From Bailey’s point of view, would a Victorian literature class on the era’s suppression of the erotic be incomplete without a live demonstration of their sexual practices?

Our festival inspiration comes from the Dionysus festivals, which were run by the government. In addition to the tragedies, the festivals celebrated comedies with vulgar language and lots of sex references. A popular part of the event was the parade of phalluses. The festivals were purposeful and artistic representations of the community’s shared life and culture from the gods to the gutter. Ovid’s Art of Love, which is required reading at most universities for classics studies, describes a wide range of sexual intrigues, positions, and to be sure, insights. Today’s universities have plenty of sex, even without power tools. There is a long history of understanding the difference between art and pornography.

Art is about revelation and enlightenment, as well as entertainment and erudition. Is it too much ask the same of the academy?

- Bill Reichblum

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