CONSCIENCE WIDE AWAKE Kerry Cronin
AY BE IT WA S just a case of moral panic. Perhaps I was just being old-fashioned, or just plain old. But when a wonderful, very bright, former student of mine told me in a chance meeting on campus that he had formulated what he considered to be a reasonable and responsible sexual ethic and he wanted to run it by me, I was both interested and apprehensive. I admit that my heart sank a bit when he laid it out: It’s when you sleep with someone a second time that feelings will come into play and need to be considered. Thus, at that point a person would presumably have feelings about what has happened and should think about those feelings. Moreover, he shouldn’t be surprised—indeed, perhaps he should expect—that at least one person in the scenario will have feelings, or a feeling, or the beginnings of a feeling about the other that call for attention. So those feelings need to be considered. By the second time. In 2013, sociologist Martin Monto’s analysis of college student surveys regarding sexual behavior and attitudes led him to a diagnosis: a severe case of moral panic. This diagnosis is not of an ailment so much as a sociological phenomenon whereby we perceive the activities of a group (in this case, college students or young adults) to be an overwhelming threat to the moral and social fabric of a
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culture. In some cases, this perception leads us to a unique form of moral hysteria or panic. On the contrary, I would say I was simply sad and concerned for the young man walking and talking with me. Each summer I finalize my course syllabus for the fall. That syllabus serves to outline the objectives of the course, to distribute course materials reasonably so as to get my students somewhere close to those objectives, and, if that syllabus is really good, to create an arc of questions and themes that will draw students in, ignite the questions, and inspire their own pursuit of understanding the world and themselves more deeply. That last bit, the part about understanding themselves, is usually something we don’t often include in the list of course objectives since we’d be hard-pressed to measure the outcome. In the current educational climate we feel largely ambivalent about education’s role in the moral formation of young adults. Though it’s still embedded in most university mission statements, the character and integrity of our students remains on many campuses a relic of a patriarchal past. So for the most part, the moral lives of our students follow a “second syllabus,” which runs parallel to the ones we use in our classes.