The public image of the college professor has certainly changed since 1941. That year, Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire featured Gary Cooper as an academic so completely insulated from life that the slangy patter of a gangster’s moll, played by Barbara Stanwyck, baffled him. Since then, the cinematic professor has become more worldly. He is likely to be a womanizing alcoholic (One True Thing), a suicidal Proust scholar* (Little Miss Sunshine), or a womanizing failed writer (both Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale). William Deresiewicz dissects these and other examples in a provocative essay in the American Scholar, which looks at the public image of the contemporary college professor—and its underlying reality.
Deresiewicz, himself a professor at Yale, concedes that the modern professor is often a “careerist parvenu.” But if so, it is because he has no other choice; the old-boy network that once allocated teaching jobs among a small elite no longer exists. “[T]he old gentility rested on exclusion,” he explains, “and the new rat race is meritocracy in motion.” And he concedes that today’s professor is far more likely to sleep with his students than his pre-1960’s predecessors, but not with the freewheeling abandon that Hollywood imagines.
Deresiewicz is more interesting when he moves from the sociology of the professor to the sociology of the American public—and why Americans seem so hostile to academics. His proposed explanation is fascinating:
Americans’ traditional resentment of hierarchy and hostility toward intellect have intensified since World War II and particularly since the 1960s. Elites have been discredited, the notion of high culture dethroned, the means of communication decentralized. Public discourse has become more demotic; families, churches, and other institutions more democratic. The existence of academia, an institution predicated on intellectual hierarchy, irritates Americans’ insistence on equality, their feeling that intellect constitutes a contemptible kind of advantage. At the same time, as American society has become more meritocratic, its economy more technocratic, people want that advantage for themselves or their children. With the U.S. News rankings and the annual admissions frenzy, universities are playing an ever-more conspicuous role in creating the larger social hierarchy that no one acknowledges but everyone wants to climb. It’s no wonder that people resent the gatekeepers and enjoy seeing them symbolically humiliated.
Deresiewicz may well be right about this, but one element is missing from his spacious essay: the extent to which college professors have been complicit in their own loss of public prestige, particularly in the humanities, where Hollywood’s academic rogues are invariably found. Two generations ago they were respected for subordinating their lives to scholarship, and much of the prestige of their academic subjects—whether Shakespeare or Descartes or George Washington—accrued to them. Today, Shakespeare, Descartes, and Washington don’t seem to count as much as they once did. Now whose fault might that be?
*This character was originally misidentified as “womanizing;” the character is, in fact, gay.