Dr. David Calhoun on Vagina Monologues in a Jesuit Catholic University
April 11, 2011 1 Comment
ark Alfino’s response to Eric Cunningham’s article concerning “The Vagina Monologues” controversy raises a smokescreen that sidesteps the salient issues. In the first place, Alfino is wrong that the VM controversy is a matter of academic freedom, and secondly, his account implies a conception of mission in which anything is consistent with Gonzaga’s Jesuit Catholic identity.
Alfino claims that performance of “The Vagina Monologues” is a matter of academic freedom. However, academic freedom is not a blanket principle that mandates or legitimates that anything and everything can or must be done in an academic context. It is, rather, the policy that specifies that academic life presumes the free inquiry into truth. Perhaps the most authoritative statement on academic freedom in the United States, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, outlines the issue by noting, “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good. … The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition” (http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/policydocs/contents/1940statement.htm). The free search for truth does not require that every available book be read, that every poem be recited, that every available speaker be invited to campus. In the present context, genuine academic freedom does not require that every play ever written be performed publicly on a university campus. The objective is not the airing of every possible form of every possible idea. Rather, practical judgments of pedagogy and practice are employed all the time by teachers and administrators regarding the best means to critically explore ideas and the arguments that support them.
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Similarly, “The Vagina Monologues,” as a particular expression of ideas, is not necessary to explore questions of violence against women, or indeed of human sexuality and female self-image. Not only is it not necessary, good arguments can and have been made that it is a poor vehicle for exploring these ideas. It does not speak univocally against violence against women, insofar as it depicts sympathetically female-on-female sexual abuse of a minor. Despite Eve Ensler’s brilliant marketing campaign, the play is not even so much about violence against women as it is a celebration of polymorphous sexuality. Beyond its poor literary quality, the play features unnecessary vulgarities which amount to vicarious live sex demonstrations.
There are further reasons for rejecting “The Vagina Monologues” as an occasion for academic inquiry at a Jesuit, Catholic institution. The play ignores the multifaceted nature of female experience by eliminating entire ranges of human sexuality from its purview. It offends against human dignity by reducing human personality to sexuality, and female dignity to sexual activity. It completely ignores the rich literature and vocabulary of Catholic and Christian sexual teaching.
A Jesuit, Catholic institution can explore the full range of questions — of ideas — of human nature, human biology, human sexuality, and human social relations. Not all expressions of these ideas are necessary, pedagogically effective or ethically justifiable. “The Vagina Monologues “presents ideas in literarily clumsy, pedagogically inferior, and ethically offensive ways. If Gonzaga truly cared about academic freedom, we would have an open and honest conversation about these matters. We will not, however, as the planners of the week of events surrounding the Gonzaga performance of “The Vagina Monologues,” have studiously avoided including dissenting voices. All we will get is a set of monologues on the Monologues. That is hardly an ideal embodiment of either academic freedom or the traditions of a Jesuit, Catholic, humanist institution of higher learning.
Replace Gonzaga University by Ateneo de Manila University and you get the picture.