Helping Students Find True Love

Leon and Amy Kass, professors at the University of Chicago, are helping students learn the meaning of true love through a course they teach and an anthology.
by Catholic.net Staff Writer | Source: Catholic.net
The path to the altar has become "uncharted territory" for many of today´s young people, say Leon and Amy Kass, professors at the University of Chicago. But this husband-and-wife team, who have been married for nearly 39 years, are helping students find their way ‹ through a course they teach on courtship and marriage, and through a new anthology called Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courtship and Marriage (University of Notre Dame Press; 630 p.p.; hardback, $25; paperback $15).

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar assembles "the best that can be thought and said," about love, courtship and marriage in an effort to "elevate and inspire the imagination...to prepare hearts and minds for romance leading to lasting marriage."

The anthology offers 60 selections from important writers ranging from saints to novelists. It´s organized into sections that focus on love, marriage and sex, including "How Can I Find and Win the Right One?" Courtship," "Why Marry, Defenses of Matrimony," "What About Sex? Man, Woman and Sexuality" and "What Can Married Life Be Like? The Blessings of Married Life."

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar is part of the "Ethics for Everyday Life" series published by the University of Notre Dame Press under the auspices of the Institute of Religion and Public Life.

Other books in the series include The Eternal Pity: Reflections on Dying edited by Richard John Neuhaus; Everyone a Teacher: Leading and Leadership edited by Mark Schwehn; and Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits edited by Gilbert C. Meilaender.

Amy Kass: About 15 years ago, we were teaching a course called, "Men and Women: Literary Perspectives." On the first day of class, I asked, "What decision do you regard as the most important decision you´ll have to make in your life?"

Only one student in the class answered, "Who will be mother of my children." All the rest talked about career and professional life.

The one student who talked about the private life was regarded as odd and was laughed at. We regarded that as rather unfortunate.

Since then, we´ve had many occasions to become well aware of the unhappiness of students, especially women students, in regard to relationships and marriage.

Leon Kass: Partly, we watched our daughters and their friends.

Also, we get fairly close to our students. We´ve kept in touch with many over the last few years. We´ve seen how frustrated and embittered they´ve become because the kind of strong marriage with trustworthy partners and lasting intimacy they were seeking was just not to be found.

While lots of people are trying to figure out the consequences of divorce, no one is trying to help young people think sensibly about marriage, especially how to find and win the right person. There really has been a cultural silence.

Amy and I have come to think that the kids still do harbor deep longings for a life that would be filled with true intimacy and deep friendship and a meaningful home life. But they do not know that these desires could best be satisfied in marriage. In addition, they´re really just frightened and have been very badly served by the popular culture and the teachings of universities and, for many, by the divorce of their parents.

Amy: That´s precisely what we can´t take for granted anymore ‹ that they´re looking, or know that they should be looking, for marriage.

CFF: What selections from your anthology did you highlight during your class?

Leon: We followed pretty much the sequence of topics that is in the anthology.

We talked about some readings that raise the question about "Why marry?" and we used the selections from Genesis to talk about the meaning of man and woman. We then went on to talk about "What is erotic love?" and "What are its promises and dangers?"

Then, for about half the term, we discussed the readings that presented exemplary courtships, for instance, Erasmus´ colloquy "Courtship," Shakespeare´s "As You Like It," "The Courtship of Emile and Sophie" from Rousseau´s Emile, and the courtship of Darcy and Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice.

CFF: What do you hope to accomplish with this class and this book?

Leon: We like to think that what we´re trying to do here is offer a higher kind of sex education, by which we mean not the teaching of physiology and "safe sex." Instead, we are trying to educate hearts and minds for a kind of romance and fidelity that would lead to solid and lasting marriages.

As you know from the anthology, we don´t engage in giving people direct advice or rules. It´s not a manual or set of advice columns. It´s a matter of informing the imagination with fine examples of dignified speech and loving conduct as people negotiate these very difficult matters of reading other people´s characters.

One of the hopes we have for this anthology is that parents might sit down with their teen-age children and read some of these things and have a discussion as to what´s going on in these stories and articles...

What we´re doing is no substitute for faith-based education. But it might enable people to make use of selections from the best that has been thought and written to encourage and support the high-minded and reverent approach to marriage that the Catholic and other religious traditions have always upheld. It will help parents and their children counter some of the debasing effects of the popular culture.

CFF: What does the title of your book signify?

Amy: The title of our anthology ‹ taken from a poem by Robert Frost, "The Master Speed," written for his daughter´s wedding ‹ explicitly mentions a pair of images that are at the heart of a good marriage.

"Wing to Wing" suggests that you can soar together. It really provides the image of looking high, but also symbolizes the highest kind of friendship. If one looks at one´s spouse as one´s best friend, as one person put it to me, it´s much more difficult to say goodbye to your best friend than goodbye to your lover.

The second image is the oar. You really have to row hard sometimes together to get through the difficult times.

Leon: No matter how well you know another person there are always surprises and mysteries to be discovered, to be treasured and explored.

And in the little adventures of daily life there are opportunities for seeing the glory of another soul, that it´s not just in the extraordinary things of life but in the ordinary things of life that the real adventure lies and real joy can be found. The joys and sorrows of raising a family together produces a deepening and enrichment of a love that young lovers have no idea about. The mixing of our love and labor with our children and our grandchildren adds to the kind of friendship we have had.

CFF: How do you define courtship as opposed to dating, and why do you think it has something valuable to offer?

Leon: Courtship is that kind of wooing of man and woman that explicitly has marriage as its possible goal. It doesn´t always get to the goal. People may decide it isn´t the right kind of match.

Dating and lesser forms of male-female interaction, however, are very often aimed at enjoyment or amusement or simply private gratification. While dating might eventually lead to courting, the practice of courtship really is informed by the view that both people are seriously considering marriage.

CFF: What do you think is lacking in young people´s understanding of marriage and courtship?

Leon: It´s hard to revive interest in courtship without first reviving a sense that marriage is something worthy, and if you choose well, fulfilling.

When we started out, we thought only about how to revive an interest in courtship and counsel people against the casual sexuality so common on campuses. But we found that we needed first to revive beliefs in love and marriage.

We discovered that we need to be encouraging young people to believe in love and not just in sex. They have to be willing to risk their hearts, and they have to believe that marriage isn´t the grave of love, but its proper home. Once you can get them to think positively about love and marriage, then they might be willing to practice sexual restraint and search each other´s characters in the hope of finding Mr. or Ms. Right.

Amy: One of the primary places parents could help young people is to teach them how to read others´ characters.

Leon: Young people become friends and sexual intimates very quickly, and they really don´t have the skills in thinking about who´s for the long haul.

The readings in this anthology are aimed at providing that help. The reader can participate through vicarious experience in discovering which of the people are just flashes in the pan and which ones are really dependable people for both sickness and health, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.

Amy: One of the things we try to convey ‹ and many of the readings do specifically address this ‹ is that unlike dating, courtship really helps people to practice the kind of care, attentiveness and fidelity...that they would later promise in marriage.

CFF: Do you think you have succeeded in your goal of helping students look critically at current attitudes about sex and marriage?

Leon: There is one anecdote that occurred during our discussion of courtship that really led me to think the class had made an impact.

We were discussing the colloquy by Erasmus. In it, this very smart young woman puts this guy through his paces.

In the end, she has him going off to seek permission to marry her from her parents. She refuses to kiss him because she wants him to stand up and do it right. Instead of granting his request for a kiss, she gives him a sachet, saying she wishes to deliver to him her virginity whole and unblemished.

He asks, "Does a kiss rob you of your virginity?"

She says, "Do you want me to bestow my kisses on others, too?"

"Of course not," he replies. "I want your kisses kept for me."

And she now gets the last word, "I´ll keep them for you."
They part by shaking hands.
We thought the students would find this reading laughable; so we asked them, "What´s a kiss?" And the following four things were the first four things that were said. We were both absolutely floored.

The first student said, "A kiss is the most erotic thing you can imagine."

The second student said, "A kiss is not just the touching of bodies; it´s some mixing of breath which is the spirit."

The third student said, "A kiss is a promise."

The fourth student said, "A kiss is a small consummation."

I didn´t believe it.
Amy: And if you asked them any other time, you might not have gotten those responses. This is really prompted by just having them discuss that reading. They were able to see a kiss is not just a kiss. It has a meaning.


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