Professor Obama

I’m hardly a foe of professors, or a friend to casual disdain for the academy. Professors tend to be very smart people, and deeply knowledgeable in their areas of expertise. There are exceptions, of course, but I’m comfortable saying that this is the rule. It’s uncontroversially so as to many disciplines; few people doubt it, for instance, about professors of physics. But even in the fields where expert judgment is more questioned — or suspected of being driven by ideology at least as much as by learning — professors are still generally very smart and knowledgeable in their own areas. Moreover, whatever the weaknesses of professors, the notion that ordinary folks are inherently wiser than the highly educated strikes me as quite mistaken.

At the same time, I wonder whether the failures of the Obama Administration are connected to what one might think of as the professor mindset, or rather the mindset of the educated elites. Professors are used to being listened to because they are professors. Their interaction with the other dwellers of the university is usually one of lecturing their inferiors (I mean here inferiors in the hierarchy), managing their inferiors’ discussion, and grading their inferiors — not trying to persuade people or build consensus. (Scholarship often involves trying to persuade people, but a particular set of people, and with few and rare tangible consequences if one doesn’t persuade.)

If I somehow became President — no, the thought is too horrific to contemplate (even setting aside its unconstitutionality) — let’s say if some of my friends in the academy were to become President, I can imagine them making some pretty important mistakes. They might, for instance, subconsciously assume that they’ll be listened to and obeyed. After all, they have a super-cool and powerful title, even cooler and more powerful than the one that made people listen to them before.

They might assume that others will pay their judgment the respect due to someone who is obviously so intelligent, articulate, educated, and learned. They might compare themselves to a previous officeholder who lacked all the credentials that they have long found so valuable, and naturally assume that they will succeed where the previous officeholder failed. They might dismiss the significance of political insurgencies that stem from people whose intellects and credentials they don’t respect. (If an academic learned that some students were organizing a meeting to challenge the academic’s scholarship, based on slogans and attitudes that the academic sees as shallow and ill-informed, how much would he really worry about the students’ actions?) They might overestimate the importance of argument, data, and articulateness, and underestimate the importance of listening to their inferiors — again, inferiors within the hierarchy — and figuring out how to get the inferiors on board with their proposals.

And I’m speaking here of my friends in the academy, including ones whose policies I would agree with on the merits. It doesn’t take someone foolish or evil to make these mistakes. They are natural mistakes that smart, well-intentioned people could easily make, especially if they come from an academic environment and see themselves as academically minded.

I recall someone remarking that President Eisenhower had some difficulty adjusting to political life, because he had been used to being a General, and to being obeyed as a General. [UPDATE: It turns out that it was President Truman who said that Eisenhower would have difficulty adjusting to political life, because he had been used to being a General, and to being obeyed as a General.] Professors aren’t Generals, for obvious reasons; and Obama isn’t as much a professor as some of us are professors. (That’s a descriptive claim, not a normative one.) But I wonder whether some of the failings of the Obama Administration really are tied to the President’s background in the academic elites, both as a professor and otherwise. They certainly seem consistent with some of the failings that one would expect from a professor.

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