Feb. 3, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 9

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    Though courtship may be gone forever, Kasses propose re-inventing its rituals as a means to lasting love, marriage

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Having taught college-age students for nearly three decades, Amy and Leon Kass have learned from their observations and through conversations that young people who are seeking the kind of intimacy marriage can satisfy are finding it difficult to reach that goal in the absence of established ways of courting.[amy and leon kass] by lloyd degrane

    The Kasses, who have stayed in touch with many of their students well after graduation, have seen many of them “bumble along from one unsatisfactory relationship to the next, becoming jaded and embittered,” said Leon Kass, the Addie Clark Harding Professor on the Committee on Social Thought.

    He and his wife, Amy Kass, Senior Lecturer in Humanities, decided to confront the problem, both in writing and in teaching. “One should stop cursing the darkness and offer some light and hope to the romantically perplexed,” he said.

    This quarter, about 25 students are gathering for the course Ethics of Everyday Life: Courtship to discuss contemporary and classic works that deal with sex, love, courtship and marriage. The coursework is based on a new anthology the Kasses have edited, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying. The book promotes what they call a higher kind of sex education designed to prepare hearts and minds for romance leading to lasting marriage.

    []Despite all the talk about family values and the breakup of marriages, little attention is paid to what makes for a successful marriage or how to wisely enter into marriage, they write in the book’s introduction. Courting has disappeared, and with no new cultural forms to take its place, the path to the altar becomes uncharted territory. “It’s every couple on its own bottom, without a compass, often without a goal,” Leon Kass said.

    The Kasses are well aware of the obstacles to a revival of romance. Casual and loveless sex, preoccupation with careers, fear of intimacy and the vulnerabilities of love, lack of trust, the discouraging examples of broken homes and academic theories that view human relationships in terms of power and money––these and other causes, they said, produce skepticism about the prospects for lasting love. “‘Forever’ is not a word in the collegiate lexicon,” said Amy Kass.

    Yet despite the obstacles, the Kasses write, “We detect among our students longings for friendship, for wholeness, for a life that is serious and deep, and for associations that are trustworthy and lasting––longings that they do not yet realize could be largely satisfied by marrying well.” Through the book and the course, the Kasses intend to help students discover the meanings, purposes and virtues of marriage, and especially, to teach them about how they might find and win the right partner with whom to make a life.

    The Kasses’ position challenges their students, who come from a generation that considers relationships created during college as temporary. “In their current sexual relationships, they are withholding love and developing habits of transience,” said Amy Kass. “When they think about marriage, they think it’s way off in the future––something people shouldn’t do until they’re at least 28.”

    Leon Kass added, “A person they meet in college might be the person who would make a perfect marriage partner. They might be missing something important if they treat their relationships in college so casually.”

    The rituals that previously provided a guide to courtship, including men calling on women in their homes, and later dating, which involved men entertaining women in public places, have largely vanished and are unlikely to return, the Kasses have noted. However, they hope young people can rediscover the blessings of marriage by reading classic and modern works on the subject and re-invent new forms of courting based on improved respect between men and women.

    “They have to acknowledge that each partner may have an independent career, but they also need to understand that marriage means mutual interdependence, not some contract between self-sufficient solitaries. They have to develop a desire to share a life and a willingness to offer themselves wholeheartedly and faithfully to another,” Leon Kass pointed out.

    Amy Kass added, “I think they have to found marriage on friendship as well as on love, and they have to regard it not as ‘playing it safe’ but as one of life’s greatest adventures. Flying wing to wing, they can soar toward life’s lofty prospects; rowing oar to oar, they can sustain each other against life’s stream of troubles.”

    Proceeding not from theory but from practice, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar offers 60 selections organized around everyday life questions regarding love, sex and marriage. An introductory essay written by the Kasses is followed by a section titled “Where Are We Now?” which takes stock of society’s present situation and locates it in historical context. Featured in this section are excerpts from Beth Bailey’s historical study of American courtship, From Front Porch to Back Seat, and “Relationships,” an essay by the late Allan Bloom, the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor on the Committee on Social Thought.

    Other topics explored in the 630-page volume are:

    • “Why Marry? Defenses of Matrimony,” which includes readings written by Charles Darwin, St. Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, Edwin Muir and a contemporary entry, “Men and Women––Can We be Friends?” by Christian theologian Gilbert Meilaender.

    • “What About Sex? Man, Woman and Sexuality,” which features selected readings from Genesis and Homer, as well as entries from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and a recent essay, “Four Mischievous Theories of Sex,” by ethicist William May.

    • “Is This Love? Eros and Its Aims,” which opens with a modern short story, “The Word Love,” by the Indian poet and writer Chita Banerjee Divakaruni and includes selections from Plato, “The Song of Songs,” William Shakespeare, Rainer Maria Rilke and C. S. Lewis.

    • “How Can I Find and Win the Right One? Courtship,” which is the longest section of the book, includes examples of successful and unsuccessful courtships taken from, among other sources, Genesis, Desiderius Erasmus, Shakespeare, Rousseau and Jane Austen. There also are entries of advice from Benjamin Franklin and Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”).

    • “Why A Wedding? The Promises of Marriage,” which features selections of wedding vows and blessings, traditional and contemporary, as well as essays by Denis De Rougement, “Active Love, or Keeping Faith,” and the Kasses, “The Marriage Name.”

    • “What Can Married Life Be Like? The Blessings of Married Life,” which includes passages from Homer, Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville and Leo Tolstoy and a poem by Robert Frost written on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding. The poem, “The Master Speed,” contains a line from which the anthology gets its title.

    “The readings we chose were selected because they are writings that make us think, challenge our unexamined opinions, expand our sympathies, elevate our gaze and introduce us to romantic possibilities still open to human beings that may be undreamt of in our current discourse,” said Leon Kass.

    Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying is part of a series of books on the Ethics of Everyday Life being published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Other books include The Eternal Pity: Reflections on Dying; Everyone a Teacher, Leading and Leadership; and Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits.