The article “Sex in the Meritocracy,” which I wrote for the February issue of First Things, is now online:
When Yale first bowed to the spirit of meritocracy and began admitting large numbers of students from outside the New England upper class, it set in motion a nationwide arms race among high-achieving high school students. After fifty years of escalating competition, it is no longer enough to have an SAT score in the top 1 percent and a record of achievement in a single activity. To have a decent chance of being admitted to Yale, a student must be a top all-rounder: an academic star, a varsity athlete, a musical virtuoso, a community-service volunteer, and president of some extracurricular club. To have a better-than-even chance, he must be world-class or nationally ranked in one of these.
As a result, every admitted student believes he must be excellent at anything he tries. In the old Yale, campus culture developed from the upper-class traits that most students shared and the rest hoped to adopt. In the new, more diverse Yale, the only thing students share is ambition, and it determines attitudes toward grades (anything below an A-minus can be disputed with the professor), extracurriculars (hardly anyone spends four years in a club without achieving a leadership position), and even drugs. Instead of marijuana or cocaine, Yale’s pharmaceutical network now traffics mostly in Adderall, the wonder drug that, as one girl told me, “makes you want to work.” Surely this is the first generation of college students in which even the drug users are more interested in working hard than getting high.
The overachiever’s mentality has also determined campus attitudes toward sex. Few notice the connection, because the end result—sexual permissiveness—is the same as it was in the sixties and seventies, when the theme of campus culture was not overachievement but liberation, and the eighties and early nineties, when it was postmodernism and the overthrow of all value judgments. The notorious Yale institution known as Sex Week—a biennial series of sex toy demonstrations, student lingerie shows, and lectures by pornographers—wouldn’t have been out of place in either of these eras. Consequently, Yale’s sexual culture is often mistaken for mere depravity by outside observers who assume that it is just another byproduct of moral relativism.
It would be more accurate to say that Yale students treat sex as one more arena in which to excel, an opportunity not just to connect but to impress. Every amateur sonneteer secretly believes his verse to be as good as the United States poet laureate’s, and every undergraduate programmer suspects his code rivals the best in Silicon Valley. It’s not very different for Yale students to say that, if pornography is the gold standard of sexual prowess, then that is the standard to which they must aspire.
More, including some concrete suggestions on how the situation might be improved.