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BOOK REVIEW: ‘ Sex and God at Yale’
“Sex and God at Yale” is a title that just demands your attention. Sex sells, and when you plug God into the equation, the result is a Shakespearean human struggle played out on Yale’s campus — rightly described by the author as the “cradle of American presidents.”
But the middle-aged, liberally educated reader about to indulge in sexual reverie set against a backdrop not unlike the one Aaron Sorkin brought to life in (the Harvard-based) “The Social Network” will first take pause. “Hey, wait a minute! Didn’t William F. Buckley Jr. write a book about Yale with a somewhat similar title?” Yes. Yes, he did.
Bill Buckley’s now legendary “God and Man at Yale” carries a more world-historical formulation of what was going on at Yale than “Sex and God at Yale.” This is Nathan Harden’s point. In the 60 years that separate Buckley from Mr. Harden, the experience at Yale has devolved from the ascendant intellectual liberalism of Buckley’s day to the solipsistic “just do it” postmodernism of today.
The connection between the authors is blessed by Christopher Buckley, who put his family name behind “Sex and God at Yale” by bringing his own unique wit to the foreword. Bill Buckley himself credited the success of “God and Man at Yale” to the introduction penned by John Chamberlain, the most respected literary critic of his time. Mr. Harden thought wisely in his choice of Chris Buckley.
“Sex and God” at Yale goes into shades of gray detail on Yale’s Sex Week — a weeklong celebration in which the student body is invited to let the lids off its youthful ids. Sex Week turns out to be a pretty big show. Several panels are held every day, and the bacchanalia sometimes spills over into 11 days. As you would expect, sex is a popular subject with the young, and when it is done in such a stylized way, you get a barn-burner of a freshman-year advertisement. It gets noticed: “National media descend upon the campus to chronicle the strange mix of lewdness and Ivy snob appeal.” An alternate title for Mr. Harden could have been “Girls Gone Wild at Yale.”
With a daughter competing her heart out in high school for a place in the Ivies, I was reminded of the old definition of a neoconservative: a liberal with a 16-year-old daughter. Within the pages of Mr. Harden’s salacious page-turner lies a very serious, soulful purpose. Observing Mr. Harden’s reaction to the substance of Sex Week is a treat. What makes this book interesting is that Mr. Harden’s refreshingly hypernormal and educated soul rebels against the postmodern academy. His reaction to his experiences at Yale is what you’d expect from Bill Buckley if he walked into the 21st-century version of his alma mater.
The Yale of the new millennium is just a shell of its former self. “The university continues to enjoy the prestige of the intellectual and spiritual legacy it long ago abandoned,” Mr. Harden writes. Liberal education earned its name not by being left of center but, on the contrary, liberating — freeing its beneficiary from the tyranny of superstition, class, race and sex. In short, with a liberal education, you get what the human soul naturally lusts for and the intellectual tools a self-governing, representative democracy requires.
The difference between Buckley’s liberalism on the march and Mr. Harden’s postmodern variant is a liberal distinction with a difference. The public radicalism and purpose of the generation that followed Buckley has dissipated. As Mr. Harden shows, the truly radical few burn less with principle than with the yearning for intellectual careerism.
This is where the difference lies between then and now. Those who graduate from Yale remain very impressive. They can argue any side of an issue, and they are willing to work long hours to prove their distinctive value. Most notably, they have been indoctrinated with a particular form of relativism — a learned suspicion of where they come from, be it God or country, and a trained indulgence of certain enemies, foreign and domestic. “Today, I think there are more Yale students who want to be president of the United States than military officers. Over time, Yale has retained its sense of ambition but has lost its sense of responsibility to the nation,” Mr. Harden writes.
David DesRosiers is president of Revere Advisors.
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