Helicopter mom wrong on naked exam

Story highlights

  • Mom of a student in an art class at UC San Diego gets upset over the final exam, which involves nudity
  • Peggy Drexler: It's a classic helicopter moment, and of the worst, most uninformed, reactionary kind

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)This week, a University of California San Diego professor came under fire for reportedly insisting his students take their final exams in the nude. The resulting story headlines were predictably incendiary: "Students Must Get Completely Naked With Their Professor to Pass This Class at UCSD" and "Mom is Outraged by USCD's Naked Final" and "Get Naked or Fail!"

Steve Doocy over at "Fox & Friends" invited UCSD chair of the College Republicans, Amanda Fitzmorris, to comment on her classmates taking their test "in the buff" and Fitzmorris expressed the full horror expected of her. Nothing delights the conservative media more than a good story about kids getting naked at the hands of an authority figure — and on the taxpayer dime, no less!
Peggy Drexler
The requirement for the course in question — which, it should be noted, is an elective visual arts course descriptively called "Performing the Body" — was made public by a concerned mother of one of the students, the aforementioned "outraged mom," who told a local San Diego news station that her daughter was "humiliated" by the "perversion going on here."
    "I'm not sending her to school for this," the concerned mother said. "How terrible. This is just wrong. This sucks. And to blanketly say you must be naked in order to pass my class, it makes me sick to my stomach. ... Shame on him and shame on the university."
    Admittedly, such a requirement might raise some eyebrows, not least of all because the teacher, Ricardo Dominguez, is a 55-year-old man and his students are far younger. This is true even if you view college as a safe place for young adults to experience certain discomfort (and let's try to remember that discomfort, and I'm not talking about danger, is an important part of developing a sense of independent self).
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    But the initial story wasn't exactly the whole story -- surprise, surprise. The university released a statement offering some clarification, courtesy of the chair of the visual arts department: "Removing your clothes is not required in this class," he said. "The course is not required for graduation." Though some might choose to do so, he explained, students aren't required to perform nude, at least not in a literal sense. They have the option of stripping down "emotionally."
    Perhaps most importantly was the fact that everyone in the class was informed of the nature of the final exam on the very first day of class as well as throughout the semester, and it was clearly listed on the syllabus. Chances are also pretty good that the student might have heard about the course culmination in other ways, given the class has been taught at UCSD for more than a decade.
    What happened here was not, turns out, a professor seeking to exploit his students in the name of art. What happened here was a classic case of helicopter parenting gone very wrong.
    Consider that the complaints of discomfort and outrage came not from the student -- but from Mom — who, if she's upset, might choose to be upset at her daughter, who is clearly spending her days at college doing something other than paying attention.
    Either way, it's a teaching moment, to be sure. This, in case you were wondering, is how we encourage a failure-to-launch society — by speaking not on behalf of, but for, our children, well beyond the age when they can and should speak for themselves. Want a child who can't think or act on her own? Watch and learn.
    Maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that helicopter parents were now involving themselves in their childrens' lives even as far as graduate school, calling admissions officers to praise their kids and showing up uninvited at campus visits typically limited to would-be students. While there have only been a few official studies looking at the long-term impact of helicopter parenting on child development, the verdict from those that have been released is pretty clear: such over-parenting is less helping, more hovering.
    In the end, many came out in defense of Dominguez, citing all the ways in which the complaints were unjustified -- the various possible interpretations of the assignment, all the many months of advance knowledge, the fact that it's a totally elective course to begin with.
    And what do you know? Most of the statements of defense came from other students, and not the other students' parents. Good thing that at least some of these young people have opinions and voices of their own. As one Dominguez defender said, "We had a choice between being nude or doing something emotionally 'naked' and every student but one chose to do the nude performance. It was uncomfortable for some of us but we were adults and knew what we were getting ourselves into from day one of the class."
    What was that? Oh, right: We were adults.