In a Course on Great Books, Extra Credit If You Go on a Date

College courses should be about having thoughts, not sex

Posted May 02, 2018

Imagine that you are a student at Boston College and you see that a philosophy professor is offering a yearlong course on great books. Maybe you are an intellectual type of student who loves to read and think about big ideas. This should be the course for you. But then what would you think if you saw on the syllabus that if you ask someone out on a date, in person, you can get extra credit?

That’s not just an imagined exercise, written, say, by someone at The Onion to make fun of today’s college course offerings. It is a real thing. The prestigious Chronicle of Higher Education just published a story about it.

The professor is Kerry Cronin. She told the Chronicle that for years, her students have been saying that they don’t know enough about love and romance. She found that “heartbreaking.” She said she wants students to “reflect deeply on the important questions in their lives.” Who would have ever thought that reflecting deeply meant going on a date?

The dating assignment has been part of two courses. The first was described like this:

“While teaching a one-credit, pass/fail course on the meaning of life and other broad philosophical topics to seniors at Boston College, [Professor Cronin] assigned them to ask someone out on a date.”

That sounds like a requirement. If it was, that’s appalling.

Currently, the dating assignment is optional. Here’s what the Chronicle said about its place in the course Cronin is teaching now:

“Cronin, associate director of BC’s Lonegran Institute, now offers it for extra credit in a yearlong great-books course for freshmen who ponder questions like, ‘What’s the best way to live?’ Students must ask someone out in person, plan an activity (no alcohol), spend no more than $10, and limit the date to 90 minutes. Those who choose to participate write reflection papers and present them to the class.”

Because the dating assignment is totally voluntary, does that make it okay? I think not. From what I can gather from the Chronicle article, the course is encouraging matrimania (the over-the-top celebration of marriage and coupling) and condoning singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single). Students who are interested in dating are valued; those who are not may well feel shamed. Rather than learning critical thinking, rooted in historical and cross-cultural perspectives, students are schooled in popular ideologies, such as the privileging of romantic relationships above all others.

These adults are attending a respected institution of higher learning, perhaps in pursuit of lofty goals, and they’ve signed up for a course on great books. There, they find no escape from the relentless, annoying, and narrow-minded pressure to “find someone.” Instead, their philosophy professor offers them extra credit to go on a date.

Before writing this, I checked with other single people (most of whom like their single lives) to see what they thought. They added a few more notes of caution: The assignment to go on a date involves deception, as well as physical and emotional risks. My observations here are informed by these insights and others, and I thank everyone who discussed this with me, including those who did not want to be named.  

The assignment rewards students who are interested in dating and romance and devalues those who are not.

An assignment in a college course to go on a date is a message: Dating is good. Everyone should want to do it.  People who go on dates are doing something good. People who don’t want to go on dates – not so much.

What’s more, the course is about great books. Somehow, going on a date is positioned as on a par with reading some of the world’s greatest authors and pondering their wisdom.

I’ve never been interested in dating. I tried it when I was younger and had no terrible experiences, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t realize at the time that there was such a thing as choosing to be single. Now I write for and about people like me who live their best lives by living single. We are not single by default. We are not stuck living single because we have “issues.” We embrace and savor single life. I call us “single at heart.”

I’ve lectured about this to college students. Every time, I hear from students who say it was a tremendous relief to learn that there is nothing wrong with them if they like being single. No one ever told them that before.

I was the kind of student who would have been interested in a course on great books. I loved learning. (Still do.) I also wanted each course to be a deep dive. I purposefully signed up for as few courses as possible, so I could do all the readings and maybe even all the extra credit options in all my courses. If I signed up for Professor Cronin’s course, I would not have wanted to do the dating assignment. I think it would have made me feel badly about myself that I did not want to do it. (At the time, I would not have known enough to feel anger at having that as the extra credit assignment, instead of shame about not wanting to do it.) But I also would have wanted the same opportunity to get extra credit as the students who were into dating.

Professor Cronin addressed the matter of students who might not want to go on a date:

“I assume that some students in the class who don’t want to do it may be working out important social issues, and maybe they don’t want to put themselves out there.”

This is a disparaging view of students who do not want to have to go on a date to get extra credit. To the professor, those students have issues; they don’t want to put themselves out there. She is a philosopher and a college professor, but I wonder if there is a place in her thinking for people who like being single and not because they are insecure and have issues.

Cronin does acknowledge that college students may be “concerned about different facets of adulting” such as “thinking about their careers and how to pay off this huge debt they’re going to have.” I think she is saying that she expects those concerns to be temporary. She is a college professor, but I’m not sure whether she fully appreciates that there are people who love the life of the mind. I wonder whether she realizes that some single people are “members of a growing population of Americans who happily define ourselves in terms of relationships, activities, and accomplishments other than marriage.”

Professor Cronin also adds this about students who do not want to go on a date:

“I tell students, If you don’t want to do the assignment, don’t. You can even write about why you didn’t want to. You can still be in on the conversation.”

My guess is that students might sense (accurately or inaccurately) that their professor values the students who do want to participate more than those who do not. Maybe they can tell that she sees the latter as having “issues.” I wonder whether students would feel free to say, “I like being single. It is a positive choice. I’m not interested in dating.” In her class, I don’t think I would – or at least I wouldn’t at that age.

Cronin said she sees what she is doing as “part of a broader conversation about what kind of person you want to be.” But do students in her course get to be the kind of person who does not want to go on a date, ever? Do they get to be the kind of person who leads a full, joyful, and meaningful life by living single?

Oh, and another thing. College students are not all young adults anymore, and they are not all single. How are the married students, and the students who have already had quite enough of dating, thank you very much, supposed to feel about the option of getting extra credit by going on a date?

[UPDATE: When I posted this article at the Facebook page for Unmarried Equality, Rebecca Nesvet did a much better job of capturing what I was trying to get at in this section. In response to the question of whether students should get extra credit in a course on great books for going out on a date, she said: “Hell, no. I'm a professor, too. I can envision the potential for emotional exploitation of both the student in the class and the date. This assignment also wrongly assumes that none of these students are married/asexual/not yet out/discerning monastic vocations/in committed relationships. And also -- from the ghost of Mary Shelley: what if one student's partner has recently died? Yikes.” Thank-you, Professor Nesvet.]

Why privilege romantic relationships? Shouldn’t students in a broad-ranging philosophy course learn to think in less narrow and bigoted ways?

Most single people value and seek meaningful relationships. But the enlightened among them are not in on the racket that insists that the relationships we should prioritize above all others are romantic ones.

Joan DelFattore had this to say:

“Having read the description of the assignment, I think that the main problem is not with establishing the face to face interaction, but with defaulting to linking it specifically to romance. Being a committed single doesn't mean that I don't want to meet new people, and have coffee with them, and maybe even become close friends. The error lies in assuming that such interactions aren't meaningful unless they have the potential to end up in bed.”

Remember, the great-books course is supposed to inspire students to ponder questions such as, “What’s the best way to live?” Why pre-judge that dating is the answer? Ellen Worthing suggested a much broader, wiser, more inclusive assignment:

“This would have been a great opportunity to design the assignment around their own needs.”

Students who think that the answer to the question about the meaning of life is, go out on a date, can go out on a date. The others can design a different assignment that speaks to them.

Professor Cronin cares deeply about her students. She told the Chronicle:

“…students feel very lonely. They feel people don’t know them or understand what’s going on. They’re exporting their feelings elsewhere and living with a lot of social anxiety. I’m very concerned. I’m concerned about research that says that women’s confidence levels are deteriorating while they’re in college.”

I admire her empathy. But I don’t think the answer to women’s declining confidence is to tell them to go out on a date, especially when they have signed up for a course on great books.

She’s wrong, too, in thinking that romantic relationships are more important than, say, friendships as protection against loneliness. They are not. Social scientists have been twisting themselves into pretzels trying to make coupling and marriage seem like the answer. Their findings are a muddled mess. Here’s what’s not a mess: Friendship. People who have friends or family they can open up to and rely on when they have a problem are less likely to be lonely. They don’t need to be having sex with their friends to get the benefits.

Students do need to learn about dating and romance and marriage – especially how beliefs and practices have changed dramatically across time and still differ remarkably across cultures.

In response to her students’ complaints that they did not know enough about love and romance, Professor Cronin could teach them things that would truly expand their horizons, as a good education should always do. College students, like so many other Americans, can be very ahistorical and very Western in their understanding of the world. They often have no idea that the way we think about dating and romance and marriage is not timeless and universal. Instead, our ideas and practices have changed in big ways over time – and will continue to change. Even looking just at today’s world, notions are very different in different places.

That would be a more enlightening college experience than getting nudged to mindlessly sign onto the prevailing norms and values by going on a date and getting extra credit for it.

The people who are asked on dates are not told that the date is an assignment for a course. Isn’t that unethical?

It hadn’t occurred to me until Monica Pignotti raised the issue that the people who are asked on dates by the students in the course apparently are not told that they are participating in an extra credit assignment. That’s ethically questionable.

As a university professor, I spent many years on the Internal Review Board. Anyone who wanted to do a study had to get approval first. The people they recruited to participate in their studies had to be told in advance about the study and debriefed afterwards.

Dates are not risk-free.

For nearly a century, Penn State’s Outing Club has organized hikes and scuba diving and other outdoor adventures. Just last month, the activities were deemed too risky, and the club was instructed to show movies instead. When I heard that, I thought it was ridiculous.

A 90-minute date in a public place with no alcohol also struck me as innocuous. But when I consulted with other single people, they reminded me that dates can go seriously wrong, even if they start out in a way that seems harmless. Matt Gritter noted that the risk is not just with the persons who are asked on dates; it is also possible that some of the students in the class “have a history of being abusive.”

Professor Cronin said that the administration at Boston College “has been nothing but supportive.” I wonder if they have considered issues of liability.

What are Professor Cronin’s credentials for “teaching” dating or for dealing with the emotional issues she believes some of her students have?

Dating, for those who are interested in it, has been part of the college experience for a very long time. From one perspective, it is an ordinary experience. Professor Cronin, though, is worried about her students. She sees many of them as suffering from loneliness, anxiety, and plummeting confidence. Her answer (or one of her answers) is to urge them to go out on a date.

Again, it was the single people I consulted who raised the point that the risks of dating are not just physical. What if students have emotionally disturbing experiences on their dates? Does Professor Cronin have the training to handle that?

Maybe, some of my single consultants suggested, universities should have programs for students who want help with dating and other relationships. But those programs should be run by trained counselors.

Are you thinking: It’s just dating?

If all these concerns with physical dangers and emotional vulnerabilities and deceptiveness seem overwrought to you, I get it. That was my first reaction, too. And the odds of anyone suffering a deeply troubling experience under the conditions Professor Cronin created are probably small. But they are not zero.

Personally, what still bothers me the most is that matrimaniacal values and singlist practices are now infiltrating a college course that should be gifting students with the best that higher education has to offer. Students sign up to learn about some of the greatest writings in the world, and they are encouraged to go on a date. Instead of learning to think critically about the heteronormative assumptions all around them, students are encouraged to swallow them whole, just as they would if they had never gone to college at all.

Some of these students have parents and relatives and maybe even friends who nag them about whether they are “seeing anyone.” College should be a respite from that, a time – for those who want it – for the pursuit of loftier goals. Instead, now even their philosophy professor is urging them to “see someone” and adding an incentive – extra credit if they do.

I think that’s appalling.

Like “The Bachelor,” wedding excesses, ostentatious prom proposals, and all the other examples of matriamania in contemporary society, the assignment to go out on a date is a sign of the deep insecurity about the declining place of marriage in our lives.

When I wrote Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After more than a decade ago, I was dismayed by the pervasiveness of matrimania. In some ways, things have gotten worse. Weddings have morphed into weekend events at destinations. Proposals are way over-the-top, and now even high school students try to choreograph show-stopping proposals to their prom dates. TV shows used to feature wedding episodes a little too often. Now some episodes feature multiple weddings, even on shows that are not about romance.

All this is happening when the percentage of single people is at an all-time high, and when high school students seem to be less interested in dating than they have been for at least the past four decades. Marriage no longer serves the functions it once did. People are following a variety of life paths rather than marching along one prescribed route. That’s a good thing, but many find it threatening. The reason matrimania is flourishing and finding a place even in our institutions of higher learning is not because we are so secure about the place of marriage in our lives, but because we are so insecure.

Bottom Line

I understand that some college students want to pursue romance but feel insecure about their ability to do so. They would like some guidance and encouragement. That’s fine. Maybe universities should provide resources, including trained personnel, to help with that – and with the pursuit of other meaningful, nonsexual relationships, too. But don’t dangle a course on great books in front of me, then tell me that for extra credit in pondering the meaning of life, I should go out on a date.