Obama as professor-in-chief: The history of "professor" as a term of derision

Historians in the News

...“When Palin and others describe Obama as professorial in style, they are invoking themes and tropes that have a long history in American politics,” says Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. “That longstanding tendency in American politics is also in this case being drawn together with an implicit criticism of liberal professors, which really only became a mainstay of conservative discourse in the 1950s.”

A leading voice in that discourse was the late William F. Buckley Jr., who famously opined that he’d “rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Other conservatives took aim at Harvard faculty as well, including Richard Nixon, who derided that pesky special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, as a “fucking Harvard professor,” according to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account in The Final Days.

The use of “professor” as a term of derision may have hit its stride in the 1950s, but it dates back to scolding characterizations of Socrates, according to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. By the 1940s, Hollywood had cashed in on the stereotype with a film called “Ball of Fire,” which cast Gary Cooper against type as a naïve professor who learns the real ways of the world from a nightclub dancer called Sugarpuss O'Shea. In the political realm, Adlai Stevenson was similarly labeled an “egghead” in his 1950s campaigns for the presidency, Nunberg added.

If the term professor is used in politics, it's seldom a compliment, and instead "implies dry, hectoring, unemotional, self important, all of the negative stereotypes of somebody who is vainly certain of his own superior mental capacities but doesn’t have a human connection,” says Nunberg, author of The Years of Talking Dangerously and a frequent contributor to NPR’s “Fresh Air.”...

Thomas L. Haskell, a professor emeritus of history at Rice University, agrees that racial bias may be implicit in the attack on Obama’s professorial past.

“For me and a lot of other academic types, we identify with Obama precisely because he is an intellectual,” Haskell says. “But what does that mean to John Q. Public? I don’t know. John Q. Public may be frightened of these people, especially because this particular intellectual is a black.”

Attacks on the professoriate or intellectuals in general, however, are certainly not limited to African Americans. The late Richard Hofstadter, a historian at Columbia University, explored such attacks in his 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. David S. Brown, author of Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (University of Chicago Press, 2006), says Hofstadter would probably see shades of Barry Goldwater’s brand of conservatism among the Tea Party activists.

It’s no surprise that the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter wrote about has resonance among some Americans today, says Brown, a historian at Elizabethtown College. Higher education programs are increasingly moving toward the pre-professional variety, and students and parents are inclined to press colleges about how their programs will lead to jobs -- not to intellectual growth, Brown says. In that context, the stereotypical liberal arts professor is ever more marginalized.

“A traditional humanities professor is going to be engaged in criticism and speculative ideas, and will probably have more questions than answers,” says Brown. “But we’re a culture that wants answers.”...

comments powered by Disqus