A few years back, columnist David Brooks (who will, as it happens, be the commencement speaker at Brandeis University this year) wrote a piece about campus rape in which he suggested that the best approach to preventing such incidents was the approach that colleges took prior to the sexual revolution.
Back in the good old days, Brooks wrote,
educators … understood that when you concentrate young men, they have a tropism toward barbarism. That’s why these educators cared less about academics than about instilling a formula for character building. The formula, then called chivalry, consisted first of manners, habits and self-imposed restraints to prevent the downward slide.
There’s a lot to object to in this, starting with the suggestion that all men have the impulse to rape, and that the best of us are merely taught to restrain it. But there’s one bit that I’d like to address as a historian of American higher education.
As it happens, I recently acquired a copy of the Berry College Handbook for Women, published by the college’s women’s student government in 1956. Berry was (and is) a co-ed private college in rural Georgia, exactly the kind of place that you’d expect to find Brooks’ “formula for character building” in action.
And what does that handbook say about dating? It says this:
DATES — Girls may have dates on Sunday afternoons from 2:45 to 5:00 PM, at parties, movies, and other social events and also at the college store between classes. When girls are coming from the college campus, boys do not escort them farther than the ‘parting of the ways’ which is on the road between the Recitation Hall and Mother’s Building. There must be no dating in out of the way places. Petting is not permitted.
Self-imposed restraints? Hardly. This was a world of strict gender segregation. At Berry College in the fifties, male and female students weren’t permitted to be alone together. Ever.
On today’s campus, students are given near-total freedom to socialize in private. That freedom is grounded in the belief that college students have sufficient character to use that freedom responsibly. It is also grounded in the belief that people best learn how to regulate their behavior when they are given the opportunity to regulate their behavior.
On the typical American campus of the fifties, students were not taught self-restraint — they were restrained, and they were punished when they were caught circumventing those restraints. If they learned anything about how to behave behind closed doors, it was at great risk, and in defiance of the mechanisms employed to keep them apart. If a female student at Berry College in 1956 consented to be alone with a guy in circumstances that made sex possible, she was in violation of school rules. She was in danger of expulsion. Every man on campus knew this, and that knowledge gave the worst of them great power.
If a woman was treated badly in such circumstances — if she was raped, if she was coerced, if she was abused, if she was humiliated — she was vanishingly unlikely to speak out. And there wasn’t even any way to have an open discussion about what it meant to be “treated badly” — the campus rules permitted no public dialogue about sexual ethics, no opportunity to arrive at communal understanding about how to behave and how to expect your partner to behave, no space in which to forthrightly compare expectations and experiences.
This world that Brooks pines for is a world of stifling rules and unequal punishments. It’s a world of shame and exploitation. It’s a world of ignorance and silence.
It is a world that generations of students heroically fought to be freed from.