The arsehole, writes philosopher Aaron James, is someone who “allows himself to enjoy special advantages in social relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” At the other end of the spectrum is the fully cooperative person who recognizes others as equals and therefore acts respectfully. From my perspective I was being respectful to the archaeologist: the real disrespect, it seemed to me, lies in assuming your interlocutor needs to be treated with kid gloves. And if I broke the no-follow-up rule, well, that was down to a failure of self-control rather than an entrenched sense of entitlement: This is where the fun begins, I wanted to exclaim. Looking around the room, however, it was clear that I had already pooped the party. I had spoken out of turn, but more importantly I seemed to have revealed myself as the kind of person who is willing to embarrass a colleague to make a trivial point.
Every now and then a starry-eyed academic reminds us that there is something called Eros and that we have to be careful not to sacrifice it on the altar of conventional morality. A recent essay in the Boston Review is the latest instance of this genre. The writers, Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran, two junior Yale professors, warn that “in our current rush to respond to sexual harassment claims with effective actions, we may be engaging in … a moral panic.” They hope that the classroom remains a “safe space” which leaves room for “ambiguity”, and that we have to recognize that “we and our students are embodied beings.”
How should liberal arts students be selected? These days, so attest the high school counselors, the people with the best overview of what actually happens in admissions, colleges rely much more, and much too much, on standardized test scores. They are easy to use, and seem to promise an accurate measure of something, though no one really can define what that something is. They impress U.S. News (and presidents and, sadly, faculties). They don’t seem to have anything to do with the likelihood that anyone is going to be able or want to devote time and serious thought to whatever we think the liberal arts are. They are coachable, and like so much else in the process, offer families with more money for coaching yet another advantage.