Can a professor’s affair with a student diagnose what ails our culture? When that professor gets a celebratory profile in The New Yorker, the answer is, a resounding — and depressing — yes.
Agnes Callard is a married University of Chicago professor who left her husband for a male student, divorcing the former and marrying the latter. As Callard reported the affair to the administration before they had a chance to investigate, the celebrated philosopher managed to keep her tenured position.
Professors have been leaving their long-suffering wives for their students for a very long time. Callard’s case reverses the typical gender roles, but it’s 2023. Most of us recognize, that given enough liberty to do so, some women behave just as badly as men. Isn’t that part of what feminism fought for? The freedom of women to make the same reckless, consequence-free decisions as their husbands and brothers?
Callard, of course, takes it a little farther than the standard-issue account of an affair. In a long and worshipful profile by Rachel Aviv, Callard argues that her divorce and second marriage are part of an Aristotelian pursuit of the Good, the Noble, and the True. Just six weeks after falling in love with her student, she came clean to her classes, not pleading for forgiveness but asking them to join her on a philosophical investigation of the nature of love:
After the talk, a colleague told Agnes that she was speaking as if she thought she were Socrates. ‘I was, like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it felt like,’ ‘ she said. ‘I felt like I had all this knowledge. And it was wonderful. It was an opportunity to say something truthful about love.’
Almost exactly ten years ago, I resigned from my tenured position at Pasadena City College, where I had taught history since 1993. Like Callard, I had an affair with a student. Like Callard, I made the affairs (there was more than one) known to the college. Like Callard, I was never accused of sexual harassment or misconduct by either my student lovers or third parties. Like Callard, I was married with two young children. Like Callard, the revelations ended my marriage.
Unlike Callard, I resigned from my job. In the early 2000s, I chaired the committee that wrote the policy forbidding “consensual romantic relationships” between students and faculty at Pasadena City College. I violated that policy on more than one occasion. I deserved to have my 20-year teaching career brought to an unceremonious end.
When you lose your career in a very public way, as I did, people remember. Over the past 10 years, I’ve had countless conversations online and in real life about whether what I did merited my resignation. No one thinks what I did was acceptable, but there’s disagreement as to whether it should have been career-ending.
That’s a question of great interest to me personally, but it doesn’t have broader implications. What does have real implications, I think, is the increasingly wide gap between how my friends on the left and on the right assess and interpret my actions.
Reckless Lecher or Unfaithful Spouse
Millennial and Gen Z lefties are famously suspicious of any romance that has even the slightest hint of a power imbalance. There’s a new and marked hostility towards age-gap relationships.
When I taught sex education in the 1990s, we focused on the importance of “enthusiastic consent.” The young puritans on the left question whether meaningful consent is even possible unless the two parties are exactly the same age and enjoy precisely the same status.
A student who enthusiastically consents to an affair with their professor may feel powerful, or at least equal; they may believe they enjoy the whirlwind romance. They are wrong, the left says. They have a “false consciousness” that deludes them into thinking they are a predator’s equal. My friends on the left are glad I lost my job, as in their mind, it removed a reckless lecher from a campus filled with vulnerable young people.
My friends on the right tend to be much more concerned about the betrayal of my marriage vows. They are much more likely to say that my real victims were not the young women who willingly took me into their beds, but my son and my daughter.
My kids were 4 and 1 when the scandal broke. Their mother and I have had a blessedly amicable divorce, but even the most civil of separations is devastating to small children. Some of the students I slept with remain my friends; others are out of contact. None accused me of abuse, or of doing them any real harm.
My children, though? No matter how devoted a non-custodial papa I may be, the harm my affairs inflicted resonates in their lives in ways that they still can barely grasp. It is my friends on the right who look at my ex-wife and children and say, “This is the thing for which you most need to repent.”
Marriage Is Not a Private Affair
It’s obviously possible to think that I behaved badly towards multiple people and institutions. Betrayal is not a zero-sum game. It’s telling, though, that the left tends to dismiss infidelity as a private matter while seeing the affairs with students as a matter for public concern.
Marriage is hardly a private matter. I signed a marriage license issued by the county, and that was just as public a legal document as the offer of employment I signed at a college. The state clearly does have a vested interest in marriage.
The left pushed so hard for same-sex marriage because they understood the incomparable importance of the institution. We can disagree as to whether permitting gay couples to wed merely expands or actively degrades marriage, but there’s no question that all sides consider the issue important. The remarkable haste with which a Democrat-controlled Senate pushed a repeal of the “Defense of Marriage Act” through last year’s lame-duck Congress makes it clear: redefining marriage matters to the left.
Let me qualify that: making sure that marriage is open to everyone matters to the left. It is the right, though, who seem the only ones concerned with the health of those marriages. It is the right that is more likely to recognize that divorce, while sometimes inevitable, justified, and necessary, is invariably a tragedy.
There Is No Enlightened Affair
For Callard, divorcing her first husband was no tragedy. It was, as she tells us in the fawning New Yorker piece, a vital step towards self-discovery. Instead of acknowledging that her first husband and young children were collateral damage of her affair, she insists she has given them useful lessons about their own possibilities for happiness. Instead of apologizing to her students for taking one of their number to bed, she lectures to them on the insights the affair has given her and encourages them to follow in her footsteps.
To be sure, there’s still the pesky matter of college policies, but Callard and her student lover played that part perfectly: “In accordance with university guidelines, they declared their desire to have a relationship to the chair of the philosophy department.” The medieval church had papal indulgences for sin; modern university campuses have sympathetic administrators ready to absolve horny faculty who are calculating enough to confess an affair with a student in advance.
I knew that it was wrong to cheat on my wife. I knew that it was wrong to sleep with students, even if they were enthusiastic and willing. I knew that it was desperately wrong to risk my children’s happiness. I did it anyway.
I fell into despair, had a complete mental breakdown, and ended up hospitalized for months. Wracked with guilt, I gave ill-advised interviews to the press. When these were published, the embarrassment of my family was compounded. “We love you, but you have shamed all of us,” a cousin said.
Long, Horrible Effects on the Whole Family
I’ve done the best I can with the decade since. I’ve worked in retail and as a ghostwriter. My large extended family has, slowly, welcomed me. I know I can never return to teaching. There is no way back, but there is always a way forward, and I have walked that way forward. Shame, however justified, is not an excuse for despair.
I have remarried, and my wife and the mother of my children are not merely civil, but genuine friends. That’s not quite the same as Callard’s arrangement, in which her student-husband and her former husband both live with her. The bloom is off that rose; Agnes admits that she’s a little disillusioned with her second marriage as well.
Her dazzling intellect gave her words to defend and elevate a sordid fling, but while words endure on paper, the feelings they describe tend not to last. The reader is left with the distinct feeling that the professor may not have had her last divorce. (Her sons are now older, and not available for the interview, which one suspects is lucky for Callard. I would like to hear their views, someday.)
Insisting that Evil Is Actually Good
“Mostly this woman is just not a good person, and the men around her are pathetically weak.” That’s how a friend, in an email, described Callard and her two husbands. That’s harsh, but it’s also true. What makes her “not good” isn’t that she had an affair. It’s wrong to cheat, it’s wrong to break your promises, and it’s wrong to sleep with your students, but these are things that humans do even though they shouldn’t. What makes her “not good” is the same thing that makes the moral agenda of the contemporary left “not good” – it doesn’t just tolerate vice, or forgive it, it insists on redefining vice as virtue.
It is very human to try and justify our worst impulses. We are all good at making up reasons why we do things we shouldn’t. At some point, if we have a conscience, we realize that the excuses aren’t working. We confess our sins, ask forgiveness, and try to do better.
Callard is a gifted philosopher, so her defense of her own grubby impulses is lofty and eloquent. She’s fooled herself, and two weak men have bought into her vision. That’s their problem, of course, but it’s ours too. Vice that is dressed up as virtue becomes an example.
Callard constructed a philosophical defense of the indefensible and then peddled it to the world. In her self-absorption, she hasn’t connected her moral vision to a broader politics. But her rationalization of id and impulse is standard doctrine on the contemporary American left.
A culture that celebrates leaving your spouse for your student is a culture that has no concept of what marriage is, or what biological sex is, or when life begins. All these contemporary cultural battles are so intense precisely because one side has effectively — and monstrously — redefined basic truths.
Even many of my friends on the left rolled their eyes at The New Yorker piece. Callard comes across to almost everyone as someone too smart for her own good, surrounded by men too weak to tell her “No.” What these friends don’t see is the extent to which Callard’s justification of the morally reprehensible is, in fact, part and parcel of an entire movement to redefine society, responsibility, and virtue.