As a result, Kipnis herself became the subject of a disturbingly opaque investigation, although she was soon cleared.
Then she wrote about Exactly what happened between the philosophy professor and his two students is not all that material to Kipnis’s argument: She is more concerned that the new university strictures permit only one view of student-faculty relationships, when in fact, like most human connections, they sprawl across a bewildering spectrum.
Yet at the root of this queasy dynamic was genuine intellectual excitement.
His class set off a series of firecrackers in my understanding of books, ideas whose impact I can still recollect vividly.
Surely desire and love have flared between teachers and their adult students since pedagogy began, but most of it has been invisible.
Until recently, Western education at almost every level was a same-sex activity, open mostly to men of the upper classes, so it stands to reason, that most student-teacher affairs have been between men, even if they’ve left few historical records.
In February, for example, Harvard announced that it was banning all consensual “romantic or sexual” relationships between faculty members and undergraduates, regardless of whether the student is enrolled in any of the professor’s classes or is even in the same department (although faculty can still date graduate students if they don’t supervise their work).
These and other revisions of university codes followed the announcement last year that the Department of Education would be investigating 55 colleges and universities for “possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints” under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
“Bona fide harassers” ought to be punished, she insists, but in the current climate, “the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life” are being treated the same way as quid-pro-quo demands for sexual favors in exchange for grades and letters of recommendation.
Kipnis’s essay, titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” drew ire by challenging our propensity for viewing professors in relationships with students as sexual predators, a view that Kipnis regards as hopelessly reductive.
Except, that is, at the very beginning, in ancient Greece, where, according to Daniel Mendelsohn, who often writes on classical antiquity, there was a “literary rhetoric,” much like the medieval ideal of courtly love, surrounding the relationship between a boy and an older man.
“It has to do with an archaic custom for the military training of the aristocracy where you send a young recruit with an older guy out into the hills,” he told me.
Students sometimes nurse crushes on their teachers, and teachers sometimes lust after their pupils; these are facts of life so commonplace as to have become the ultimate cliché: a porn motif.