‘If students want to learn biology and art history in an environment where they needn’t worry about being offended or raped, why shouldn’t they?” It takes a certain sort of academic mind to write that sentence — as though being offended and being raped were in the same continuum of experiences — and Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School has just such a mind.
Professor Posner, taking a very broad view of universities’ obligation to act in loco parentis on behalf of college students who are, in his view, still children, argues in Slate that campus speech codes and micromanagerial rules of student conduct are desirable inasmuch as college-age people cannot be trusted to behave like adults: “Youngsters do dumb things. They suffer from impulse control. They fail to say no to a sexual encounter they do not want, or they misinterpret a no as yes, or in public debate they undermine their own arguments by being needlessly offensive. Scientific research confirms that brain development continues well into a person’s 20s.” My colleague Katherine Timpf considers his argument in light of extant social sanctions against “pissing people off” here, but the deeper implications of this line of thought deserve further exploration.
Rules governing age and the related issue of moral responsibility — what is sometimes known as the “age of reason” — are by necessity arbitrary and imperfect. We have all met 15-year-olds who exhibit the maturity expected of well-adjusted adults, as well as 40-year-olds who never quite got there. Teenagers are not undifferentiated commodities. But we have for some decades now been attempting to harmonize age-based rights with age-based responsibilities: It rightly struck many people as both wrong and unseemly that young men deemed old enough to be drafted to fight and die in Lyndon Johnson’s war were denied the right to vote for or against Lyndon Johnson. The results of the 26th Amendment have not been uniformly salubrious for the republic, but a situation that was at the very least incongruous — and arguably unjust — was thereby remedied.
Similar oddball situations persist. The Army’s Ranger School is full of young men training to be elite soldiers who are nonetheless considered too young under the law to legally purchase a sidearm in a gun shop, and a great many men and women bearing arms in Iraq and Afghanistan were forbidden from legally bearing arms at home. That’s an idiosyncrasy of U.S. gun law — not an intolerable one, but one that should be addressed. What is more than idiosyncratic and less than tolerable is that a person of a certain age who might in one context be a veteran might in another context be considered a child, one who needs university administrators to keep him safe not from violence or mistreatment but from encountering views that he finds distasteful. This must surely seem strange to the men and women who returned from the battlefield to the college campus, and to those college students who are raising children of their own.
There has always been a murkily demarcated period between childhood and adulthood. The attenuation of formal and informal child labor in the 20th century, along with the emergence of widespread automobile ownership and the cultural changes that brought, brought about the arrival of a previously unknown human type: the teenager. “The invention of the teenager was a mistake,” Judith Martin observed. “Once you identify a period of life in which people get to stay out late but don’t have to pay taxes — naturally, no one wants to live any other way.”
Taxes are the least of it. Stanley Baldwin might have foreseen this when he denounced “power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”
The age of sexual consent in the United States is typically between 16 and 18 years of age. Here, the United States is predictably conservative — until recently, the legal age of consent in Spain was 13, while in Germany it is 14. At the same time, about half of the undergraduates at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Monroe College in the Bronx, and many comparable schools are 25 years old or older. At the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, about 95 percent of the undergraduates are 25 years old or older, according to U.S. News and World Report.
What this means is that on the matter of sexual responsibility, the period between the investment of formal legal rights and the assumption of moral responsibility is not an ambiguous year or two, but a decade or more.
That situation — personal autonomy without personal responsibility — is of course a guarantee of disaster. We tell our special snowflakes that everything is permitted, and then send them into an environment in which every other special snowflake has been given precisely the same message, and then we’re surprised when this works out to the happiness of no one. Thus we have such developments as the highly questionable account of Columbia’s mattress-bearing protester, Rolling Stone’s phony University of Virginia rape story, an epidemic of false rape accusations and similar hoaxes, often undertaken with nakedly political ends in mind — none of which, contra Professor Posner, is the act of a child.
The universities’ response to this has been to develop a perverse brand of neo-Victorianism. All is to be “sex positive,” there is to be no “slut-shaming,” campus groups will celebrate pornographers and prostitutes under the banner of empowerment — and, at the same time, sexual conduct is to be policed at a level of intrusive detail not dreamed of by the likes of Roger Chillingworth. It’s as though a Roman orgy were being orchestrated by the ghost of Andrea Dworkin.
If Professor Posner is correct that people in their 20s are children, then we should treat them as children, meaning no sexual consent, marriage, bank account, driver’s license, vote, military service, credit card, or any other feature of adulthood until they are able to manage as adults. Conversely, we could begin treating them like adults at 18 — arbitrary, but as good a defining point as any — with the understanding that adults must sometimes endure being offended, that they understand that a sexual encounter involving two people may also involve two distinct sets of motives, that when they suffer a crime they must go to the police, etc.
What cannot stand — because it cannot support the weight of its contradiction — is a social arrangement under which 22-year-olds can go from leading Marines or raising children to being children by simply crossing the street onto a college campus.
Alexander the Great was tutored at home by Aristotle, and so blessedly had no need of a dean of students. He conquered most of the known world before the average American can get a MFA in creative writing. This isn’t progress.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent of National Review.