Monday, March 16, 2009

Revenge of the Nerds? Why I Love Having a Professor As President of the United States

Revenge of the Nerds? Why I Love Having a Professor As President Of The United States!

Dr Mark NaisonFordham University

Today, I was once again reminded why I love having a former professor, as president of the United States

Because I am spending several days at my vacation house marking papers, I decided for a break, to join the 7 AM doubles game at the local tennis club The people in this game are Italian American businessmen--, restaurant owners, construction contracters and the like-- who grew up in working class families and they are a lot of fun to play with because of the good natured teasing that seems to accompany every shot. The atmosphere of their game is much more like that of a handball or basketball game in Brooklyn than that of a tennis game in East Hampton. I spend most of the two hours we are playing laughing at their comments

There's only one problem. Wherever I play in this game, I don't have a name. I am "the professor." Everyone else is addressed by their name-Tony, Fabrio,John etc- but I am referred to by my occupation.. If I hit a good short, especially one that involves deception and skill, my partner will say to our opponents "the professor really took you to school on that one."

This is not accidental. My friends in this game, along with many other of the better players at this club, seem to be absolutely atonished that someone who teaches college for a living is a good athlete and a fierce competitor.

As self made businessmen, who had to fight hard to get their piece of the American pie, they seem to look upon professors as people who have no idea what "the real world" is like and who are so physically uncoordinated that they can't walk and chew gum at the same time.

The prevalence of this professor stereotype is far more widespread than most people imagine.

As a skilled, but by no means world class athlete and coach,, I have run into it over and over for much of my adult life.

From the time I took my first college teaching job in 1970 at age 24, the "professor" label has followed me, from schoolyard basketball games in Harlem, the West Side and the Bronx, to touch football leagues in Central Park, to sandlot baseball and CYO basketball games I coached in Brooklyn, to tennis games and golf outings all over New York City, Westchester and Long Island. If I was a cop, a lawyer, or a small businessman, even a doctor, a dentist or a school teacher, no one would have given my occupation a second thought, but a "professor" who displays the most minimum level of physical skill or toughness is viewed as an oddity. Physical accomplishments securely within the range of most good athletes- hitting a golf ball 280 yards, serving a tennis ball 100 miles an hour, leaping and grabbing the rim in basketball ( which I lost the ability to do after the age of 30!)- when performed by someone teaching college will become the subject of considerable surprise and more than a little sarcasm.

When applied to sports, the "icompetant savant" stereotype is merely amusing, or irritating, depending on your perspective,,but the view of professors as out of touch with the real world has been a staple of conservative political commentary at least since the late sixties.when George Wallace began using "pointy headed intellectuals" as an epithet

This cliche has been repeated enough, especially on talk radio, to convince many people that a lifetime of studying history, economics, or political science, is far less valuable training for political leadership than building your own business or amassing great wealth. Because their own lives are often led within highly stressful, competitive settings, Americans tend to be mistrustful of people whose lives are insulated from competition by a level of job security(i.e. tenure) they could never hope to attain,and their first instinct is to view such individuals with skepticism and contempt.

However, events of the last two years have sharply eroded the image of the business executive as American hero, giving professors new traction as a potential leadership stratum. The revelation that leaders of top American banks, hedge funds and insurance companies, aided and abedded by ratings agencies and government agencies appointed to regulate them,, have siphoned off a huge perecentage of national wealth to enhance their own personal fortunes, destroying the foundations of our entire economy in the process, have made Americans take a hard look at those who argue that that the pursuit of great wealth inevitably enhances the greater good

As leaders of corporate America have been exposed as self interested predators, unable to give up bonuses and private jets even as the institutions they manage are requiring multibillion dollar government bailouts, Americans are becoming more receptive to accepting leadership from a group who has been more interested in using knowledge to solve societal problems rather than to acquire personal wealth.

So when Barack Obama, a former law professor, with very modst personal assets, ran against John McCain, person who parlayed his political career into a multimillion dollar fortune and who owned seven houses, Obama's professorial demeanor, fascination with big ideas, and carefully researched policy statements did not undermine his appeal On the contrary,it may actually have convinced many voters that here, finally, was someone in public life who cared more about what was happening to them than in ,seeking opportunities to build his personal fortune.

Many Republicans could not believe that a someone whose persona was a scholarly as Obama could actually sway the public to his side. During a CNN round table discussion following the third debate, conservative pundit William Bennett said, contemptously, about Obama' " he sounded just like a professor." But what Bennett saw as a fatal flaw many American may have seen as an asset Every major poll showed a majority of American thought Obama won the debate. Substance trumped sloganeering.Ideas, and idealism, generated hope

This is truly a new day in American politics. A person of great intelligence and drive and ambition who did not use those skills to acquire wealth is president of the United States, trying desperately to rescue our country, from the damage that unregulated private wealth has inflicted upon all of us. He is showing, by example, that the passion and creativity and hard work needed in our political leaders doesn't require the incentive of multimillion dollars bonuses, ,multiple residences and private jets.

And President Obama is not alone. There are tens of thousands of brilliant people in our country who work hard and long for the love of ideas and the hope of building a better world

You don't have to look very hard to find them. They are on the faculty of every American college and university.

Mark Naison
March 16, 2009

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