Letters - March 10, 1999
I disagree respectfully but fundamentally with President Shapiro's views on moral education (cover story, January 27). He insists that "complex moral reasoning ... is a beginning" of moral behavior, but I think sophisticated moral reasoning is nothing more than an analytical tool that can be used for good or evil. It does not make us morally better people.
In addition, behind Shapiro's view lurks an old-fashioned elitism. If he is correct, aren't all of us sophisticated moral reasoners a little bit more moral overall than those who aren't so sophisticated? Where does this take us? To a kind of paternalism for all those "unsophisticates"? To an even more troubling conclusion that the less-educated masses, largely relegated to lower economic status or hardship, largely deserve their lot? Princeton may have given each of us a great deal, but it does not and cannot give us morality.
Christopher M. Hinsley '92
St. Louis, Mo.
President Shapiro's views are particularly interesting, appearing as they do in the same issue that elsewhere discusses the appointment of Peter Singer as the DeCamp Professor of Bioethics.
I appreciate Shapiro's stress on the value of liberal education as something that strives to prepare persons to exercise the full panoply of their human gifts, rather than simply to train individuals to be interchangeable cogs in the machinery of society. I believe, however, that we can go too far in promoting tolerance as a value. Apart from the fact that relativism saws off the limb on which it sits by logically requiring the tolerance of intolerance, tolerance is only one of many virtues, and not necessarily the most important. Active benevolence, zeal for justice, and the pursuit of truth wherever it leads are perhaps even more important. Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Albert Einstein went far beyond mere tolerance in the virtues they practiced, and their examples are ones we should consider.
If universities as institutions are reticent about suggesting which perspective on truth and morality we should follow in a pluralistic society, it does not follow that its teachers should be as reticent. The pursuit of truth is the most important function of a university. The very traditions that Shapiro says should be respected as part of a liberal education have, in many cases, distinct teachings about where truth lies and about what types of actions are moral. Better for a university to assist students in deciding the truth of these beliefs, which have the power to transform our lives, and whether to follow them, than to lull those same students into indifference about them.
These concerns aside, I commend Shapiro for focusing attention on the importance of liberal education and the place moral values should play in it. There is still a place for facing the ultimate questions Socrates posed to his students. There also may be a reason to encourage students, as Socrates did, to answer these questions forthrightly and courageously, even if the answers to which their minds and hearts lead them also cause them to be rejected, as Socrates was, by a pluralistic society.
Bruce C. Johnson '74
I am enraged about the probable cancellation of the Nude Olympics (Notebook, February 10). However, I am not so angry with the administration as with my fellow students. You'd think that out of the 350 or so who ran in the event, at least a few would have recognized the importance of not running drunk. The Nude Olympics is supposed to be a fun, innocent, and somewhat liberating class-bonding experience, not an excuse for sexually insecure individuals to prey upon innocent people. Those too uncomfortable with their bodies and sexuality to participate without the aid of alcohol shouldn't ruin it for others. Those of us who enjoyed this unique Princeton tradition would like to see it preserved for future generations.
Andrea Wood '98
The good news is that Princeton woke up on the morning after; the bad news is that she regrets what she remembers having done the night before at the Nude (Stewed?) Olympics. Now what?
A possible answer is provided by a marvelously kitschy painting hanging in the Clark Art Museum, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, done by the once highly popular Victorian painter Alma-Tadema. The large canvas, entitled The Women of Alyssia, shows dozens of young women lying soused around what is supposed to be a classical Greek cityscape. Standing guard over them is a cohort of mature females, the women of the title. The story is both unusual and now strangely familiar: the younger women are all bacchantes who have been out on a ceremonial binge and are sleeping it off. Their defenses against the lust of the local males are at a low point, so the older women have wisely congregated in order to protect them in their plight.
With that in mind, what are we to make of a modern bacchante who drinks until feeling neither cold nor inhibition, strips off all clothing, and enthusiastically enters a mêlée of equally naked, boozy young people of both sexes? With each step, the young woman wittingly enters further into a situation with the increasing probability of arousing male interest and libido. Consensual behavior or not? How not, unless a formal decree is required in defining prior consent? Every society has foreseen that unchaperoned nakedness, with or without alcohol, is conducive to sexual arousal, and has chosen its particular means of control or prevention -- except, evidently, a latitudinarian campus community such as ours.
I don't know what Dean of Students Janina Montero's advisory committee on the Nude Olympics will recommend to President Shapiro, but among the suggestions might be the forming of a group of virtuous matrons on ready alert, as in Alma-Tadema's painting. And I don't know which undergraduates found themselves victimized in the midst of that oafish, fleshy tag-team match on January 8, but as an alumnus I feel in some small way a victim of the pervasive stupidity surrounding that night. The facts and the publicity in the aftermath have diminished Princeton and all of us.
C. Webster Wheelock '60*67
New York, N.Y.
First we had the Navy's Tailhook scandal, and now the Nude Olympics. When I questioned women I know -- liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, young and elderly -- about these events, their comments ranged from "It comes with the territory" to "Boys will be boys" to (most surprising) "Girls will be girls."
Having encountered streaking and streakers in the 1970s, I can offer two comments. First, the ladies who were "abused" were just as likely "abusing" the boys. Second, the ladies who were abused probably were in a similar situation in the not too distant past, and are likely to be in a similar situation in the not too distant future. Sometimes girls can be more like boys than boys.
My advice to the lady streakers is the same we once gave to Yale rugby players: If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch. Or conversely, if you can run with the big dogs, by all means do so, but carry a big stick!
Bill Chaires '75
Over the years I have read various letters in paw concerning the origins of the Nude Olympics. Some were admittedly speculative, but all correctly lay the beginnings in Holder Court.
On the first snowfall of the 197172 winter, Walter Haydock '75 and I engaged in a bare-butted sprint around the inside of Holder Court. It was no easy feat for us, shoeless and naked, and the ground was slippery as we rounded hairpin turns at trees. The next winter a more participatory event took place in the same location.
The name and origin of Princeton's tradition derive from a relay race held at Phillips Academy at Andover, where both Walter and I were students. If that is our legacy, God help us.
Ethan Warren '76
My wife tells me that after 55 years' association with Princeton, it's time for this former coach to put some things down on paper. I'm 89, but my memory is still pretty good -- maybe not of names, but of events. Still, it could use some jogging from those I coached in baseball, basketball, or football between 1943 and 1976. Anyone who responds should identify himself by name and class and give an approximate date for any stories he sends along. Pictures are welcome, but I won't be able to return them, so photocopies are fine. My address is 12 Rollingmead, Princeton, NJ 08540. Sorry, no e-mail or faxes or any of that modern stuff -- just a note. And thanks.
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