Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Traditional With Benefits

Having been feeding on a steady diet of Victorian novels of late, and running into the occasional set of thoughts about how we need to get back to a more traditional approach to dating and courtship, it has been striking me to what extent I had the benefit of having things both ways. Going to a small, orthodox Catholic college, I had the benefit of living among a congenial group of people in which living according to the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality was generally taken as a matter of course. Not to say that people never violated these rules, but the rules were, at least, seen as the rules. In this sense, it had something of the feel of the image people have of the "good old days" in regards to dating and courtship.

On the other hand, it was still very much the modern world of the turn of the millennium that I was living in, and with this, in the broader culture, came many freedoms. Even in Stuebenville culture, most of these carried through -- one could avail oneself of flexible modern cultural standards so long as one clearly adhered to Catholic moral standards as well.

Thus, for instance, MrsDarwin and I, in our quiet way, had a lot more leeway during our years of dating and engagement than would have been the case in 1950s, much less the 1850s. During the semester that we both spent studying in Europe, we traveled together every weekend -- sometimes with other students, but usually alone -- and suffered nary a raised eyebrow. Our senior year, seeking both to save money and escape the at times over-close paternal embrace of Steubenville dorm administration, I rented a three bedroom house off campus. A guy I knew shared the one large bedroom with me while MrsD (then my fiance) and a female grad student took the other two rooms. It was by far the most congenial living situation I had during college, and although I'm sure someone or other in Student Life would have had a case of the vapors had they known about it, it was actually an easier environment to maintain virtue in than the more highly supervised dorm life on campus. Because privacy on campus was at such a premium, when a couple did manage to find a little time together it seemed like they had better get some serious kissing and cuddling in before the moment of privacy passed. In the house, we had plenty of time together and so it was usually spent in comfortingly domestic activities like making dinner or talking over morning coffee.

Indeed, thinking back over my relationship with the college, what I liked about Steubenville most was as a social clime was that it provided a culture which clearly shared my moral standards. What I often found most frustrating was the rules it put in place in order to try to enforce those standards. Having and living by those standards, I still very much valued the more modern freedom to organize my life as I saw fit without people seeing the necessity of policing it.

While many look to a return to the more rigidly enforced social standards of the past (or imagined past) as a way to guard traditional morality, the freedom that comes from the mores of the mainstream culture in some ways served, in our case, to make it easier to live according to our own moral strictures. The freedom to be so close made it easier to wait out three and a half years between when we started dating and when we were able to get married.


bearing said...

I get this completely.

We went to Ohio State and met when we lived on a co-ed floor in a co-ed dorm. It would definitely have been better for us if we had been surrounded by a thriving community of people trying to live a moral life. (I was even going through RCIA at the time, and didn't have that!)

But I can't say that I would have preferred living under the sort of rules that my mother reminisced about being in place when she was in (a different Ohio public) college: no men in the women's dorms and vice versa, curfews, and the like. Nor the rules I heard about at some conservative private schools (particularly the Christian ones). At some point, you're an adult, and you have to learn to live like one, which is to say, without your alma-mommy hovering over you.

(Though in the case of Catholic schools, I suppose you could be said to be going in voluntarily for a sort of monastic life for four years.)

I generally enjoyed the friendship of mixed groups and males far more than the friendship of women at that time in my life, and I think I would have hated living in an all-female dorm. I had a hard enough time sharing a room with three other women. I was really, really glad when I got my own solo apartment.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the hellish witch's familiar that allowed you three to share its space. What a demon.

I agree, my off-campus life was generally better too.


MrsDarwin said...


Careful. The cat is still alive and can HEAR you.

Skywalker said...

"Indeed, thinking back over my relationship with the college, what I liked about Steubenville most was as a social clime was that it provided a culture which clearly shared my moral standards. What I often found most frustrating was the rules it put in place in order to try to enforce those standards. "
Amen to that. I was often amused by the thought that Steubenville is one of the few colleges in the US where I could be considered a troublemaker.

Anonymous said...

While your title is clever in a way, it's a little unsettling in another. I have enjoyed following your thoughts over the past few years...but this one is a miss. It is rent with youthful hubris, and some certain amount of naivete...surprising in that generally your writing and observations are spot-on.

My wife is a graduate of the institution you referenced, and my oldest son is attending now. I hope that his ten siblings have the opportunity to attend as well. That being said, I did not graduate from FUS, so some of the reality-distortion zone that is inherent in the institution does not quite get to me. And yet I think you do not give it nearly enough respect for attempting (however clumsily) to act in loco parentis. It is not easy to do...and I think I know why perhaps you are not able to understand why.

I going to conjecture that part of it comes from the simple fact that there are no Darwin teenagers yet. The peculiar and particular finesse required to raise thoughtful young people is not one you've wrestled with yet (and wresting is the appropriate verb, I promise). My oldest is 20, and they cascade down from I've got several in process as we speak. This is why I used the term hubris....having never done a particular activity (manage teens), you are commenting on the policies of an institution that has been engaged in that particular activity for many decades. You may want to consider that they might have learned a thing or two about what's required to help young people make good choices, and their policies (however stodgy they seemed to you) reflect that deep experience.

My other comment is that you and Mrs. Darwin seem to be made of much sterner stuff that my wife and I are. We met, married, and were pregnant within 7 months. We were ravenous for each other, and after 21 years we still are (hence the 11th child that just arrived a few days ago). Our chastity would never have survived living under the same roof....and while I admire your self-mastery, I would suspect that is not a common trait. I would never countenance my children living in the domestic arrangement you've described with a significant other or (especially) a fiance.

My wife has described to me that for FUS couples that wished to engage in activities other than say... praying at the Port...they had to work at it. They had to plan, sneak off campus, get a room, so forth..and that this "work" constituted another opportunity for good sense and reason to return, for passion to cool, and (hopefully) virtue to prevail.

federoff11 said...

(wife here) Let me add that the rules help the ROOMMATES of romantic couples, as well. Our oldest went off to a secular university for awhile, and had to deal with her roommate's male visitors and "activities in opposition to privacy and sleep." I assume you've heard of being "sexiled" as well, when one cannot use a dorm room because it is occupied by a couple seeking privacy.

I balked at the rules, too. But now that I have older kiddos, I see how the rules encourage chastity in the young couple and protect the sensibilities of the roommates who have to dodge all those pheromones!

MrsDarwin said...


Darwin wasn't advocating some theoretical situation but describing our actual life experience -- experience that was actually more conducive to our freely choosing a virtuous life than the close environment of the dorms on campus. We lived in a way to honor our parents' teaching -- which was, I can assure you, a far more crucial influence on our behavior than any strictures the college maintained -- and I hope that, fifteen years after we entered college, they can look back and always be proud of us.

Clearly, whether or not one thinks that the purpose of college is to stand in loco parentis for its students, there's a practical element of management involved when umpteen hundred or thousand eighteen-year-olds from different backgrounds are thrown together. I am firmly convinced, however, that laying down rules and restrictions is meant to be an aid to personal virtue, not a substitute for it, and that for myself, the authoritarian nature of Steubenville's student life was less of a preparation for making strong virtuous choices than was living on my own and actually having to make such choices. Everyone's mileage may vary -- the Church, in her wisdom, gives us moral precepts while expecting us to exercise prudence in how we obey them.

I am happy to say that I never heard of a case of anyone being "sexiled" at Steubenville, but part of the attraction of going there was not the rules in place to prevent that, but the desire to live among a group of like-minded Catholics who would freely choose not to engage in that behavior in the first place. As it happens, living off-campus with friends who held the same moral standards as we did was a much more congenial experience than living in the dorms. The only thing I would ever regret about that quiet and friendly year off-campus is that it even gave the appearance of scandal, but as for the situation itself, I can't imagine a better way for me to have grown into adulthood than with three friends who were striving to lead mature and serious lives.

Something that always frustrates me (and, I suspect, other Catholics, single or married, who've had to deal with the same insinuation) is the implication that not giving in to sexual desire is the same thing as not experiencing it. Often one encounters this from secular sources, and yet more and more often I hear it from Catholic friends as well. Everyone needs to exercise prudence in accordance with his or her own situation, but there seems to be a perception of prudence as a cold virtue. It's anything but.

Darwin said...

Federoff (M & 11),

A lot of issues here, but I'll try to hit some major ones within the length of a comment and we'll see where we get.

Obviously, there's not much I can do to answer the point that we don't yet have teenagers, so I'll just preface this (and the post in general) by saying it's written from the point of view of having been a student at Steubenville and dealt with their rules from the receiving end, while having a lot of friends who sent to secular colleges and dealt with the problems there from the receiving end. Also, I'm very much taking into account my parents' methods of bringing up teenagers, which obviously I have some reason to look back on with positive feelings since they successfully brought me and all my siblings up as active and faithful Catholics.

Different people are different, and I would certainly never encourage anyone to do anything which he or she thought was not helpful in living a moral life. My point here is a fairly limited one: that although we adhere to a very traditional moral code, in some ways the laxity of modern social standards made it more pleasant (and thus perhaps easier) to maintain a three-and-a-half-year-long chaste relationship before we were able to get married. (We met a couple weeks into Freshman year and knew within a few weeks of dating that we would almost certainly get married, but since we figured we would get pregnant almost as soon as we got married it seemed clear to us that we should wait until we graduated to get married.)

Thinking over it, I think one of the reasons that Steubenville's rules rubbed me so much the wrong way was that my parents had maintained a very clear relationship between how trustworthy one showed oneself and how much latitude one had. I was a pretty responsible and reliable kid, and so I had a lot of latitude while in high school. Thus, the rules I had to deal with at Steubenville were in some ways more rigid than I was used to, when I would have preferred them to be looser on the theory that "we're all adults living on our own now". At an instinctual level, this always felt to me like an extreme lack of trust on the college's part, though obviously an institution like a college has to have the same rules for everyone.

Darwin said...

That said, it's true that I chose Steubenville in great part because of the moral atmosphere when I visited there as a potential student. By contrast, at one of the secular colleges I visited they had a drug problem so bad that there were hypodermic needles lying around on the floor in the dorm halls and relations between the sexes were so casual that I was advised to use the women's shower rather than the men's because the men's room was filthy. (It was filthy, but I used it anyway.) Among my friends who'd gone to secular colleges a year or two before me, I'd definitely heard stories about "sexile" and such, and that was also something I didn't want to have to deal with. However, since among the people I associated with at Steubenville, none of that stuff would have gone on regardless of the rules, I found the strictness of the rules kind of frustrating. (In this respect, the vibe on the Austrian campus -- where rules were far more relaxed yet behavior remained very good -- was more to my taste.) I think the broader question probably is: Given that a college is a institution rather than a voluntary community, is it possible for it to maintain strong moral standards primarily through social expectation, or does it need to have the kind of institutionalized rules that Steubenville has? It may be that given the variety of people who are at the college for different reasons, it's impossible to maintain the overall atmosphere that I liked without the rules that I didn't.

One last thought on rules and virtue: One of the reasons why I found living off campus to be far more conducive to virtue as a couple than living on campus was that the rules had a disproportionate impact of some kinds of couple activity as compared to others. The rules were pretty good at making it hard to have any real kind of privacy together indoors, but what that meant was that if you wanted to spend time along together as a couple in the evening you couldn't really curl up and watch TV together or make dinner together or do homework together. You could, however, wander off to some dark secluded corner of the campus where your options were reduced to talking or making out or some combination thereof. Now, I think the solution was supposed to take was to not spent much time along together. But since being together was and remains one of our greatest joys and comforts, I think it was actually very helpful to us to be able to get off campus to somewhere there was a more wholesome range of options for being alone together.

Clare said...

As a current 21 year old and former teen, all very strict rules have ever done is turn me off to the idea of virtue.

This, in fact, is why I chose my current college, an incredibly hedonistic secular university, over Thomas Aquinas College.

Many of the rules seemed less conducive to virtue than infantilizing dependence on an ultimately arbitrary set of boundaries. And this is a sentiment at least a few graduates share.

Of course, moving in a circle of friends and acquaintances committed to virtue is generally very helpful, and these traditional Catholic colleges do this (among other things) very well. I suspect correlation, however, rather than causation.

Darwin said...

That's what I'm kind of trying to wrap my mind around: To what extent are rules necessary in order to create an environment in which a circle of friends committed to virtue is likely to coalesce?

My instinct is to rely little on rules and mainly on social norms which emerge from the culture of like minded people, but then one has the question of how to jump start the culture of like minded people in the first place.

bearing said...

I did hear some advice in the past year along the lines that a secular university with a strongly Catholic presence on campus (in the form of campus organizations) and off-campus (in the form of an active and thriving university parish with plenty of access to the sacraments and lots of social opportunities) could well be a better and safer fit for a young Catholic person than an "officially" Catholic university.

If a community of that exists without any institutional pressure from the university -- sometimes in the face of pressure AGAINST it -- you can be a bit more confident.

Texas A&M was put forth as an example of such a place.