Professors as politicians

Let's hope the two facing off in Virginia can show other candidates how to run a campaign

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Next fall, two professors at the same college will compete for a congressional seat in Virginia. I speak of course of David Brat, an economist at Randolph-Macon College, who shocked the country last Tuesday by defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary election. Brat will face off against Democratic nominee Jack Trammell, his colleague in the sociology department.

That’s good news for my own tribe, the much-maligned academic profession. And it’s good for the country, too.

First of all, the election will remind Americans that professors come in all ideological shapes and sizes. As a host of surveys have demonstrated, academicians are mostly liberal. But in business schools and economics departments, especially, there’s a healthy representation of conservatives as well.

And Mr. Brat certainly isn’t the first one to enter politics. Two of the leading Republican legislators of the 1990s, Phil Gramm and Dick Armey, both held Ph.D’s in economics. Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich was — like me — a professor of history.

Second, the Virginia election will help demonstrate that our work actually matters in the so-called real world. The doddering, checked-out professor has long been a staple of American literature and entertainment. “The professor must be an obscurantist or he is nothing,” quipped H. L. Mencken, nearly a century ago. “He has a special unmatchable talent for dullness.”

True, many of us still produce turgid, jargon-ridden tracts for the exclusive benefit (if you can even call it that) of our fellow academicians. With the advent of the Internet, however, we’re less likely to remain walled up in our ivory towers. We publish blogs, post on Twitter and, yes, write op-eds.

But we don’t have all the answers. Mr. Brat admitted as much on election night, when he deflected a question about the minimum wage. “Um, I don’t have a well-crafted response on that one,” he told a television interviewer.

Widely reported as a gaffe, Mr. Brat’s comment instead reflected his honesty and humility. As a recent University of Chicago survey demonstrated, economists disagree about whether a hike in the minimum wage would actually benefit the poorest among us. Why pretend otherwise when the cameras are rolling?

Finally, the Virginia election will illuminate — and, I hope, enhance — our most important function of all: teaching. It’s no secret that this activity has gotten short shrift in the academy over the past several decades.

Faculty spend an average of just 11 hours a week on instructional matters, including teaching, class preparation and grading. Adjunct instructors and graduate students take up the slack, freeing the professors to research and write.

That’s how we maximize our self-interest, as the economists would say. At every type of higher-education institution, from community colleges up to big research universities, the biggest salaries go to the professors who devote the largest fraction of their time to research; the more effort you give to teaching, meanwhile, the less you make.

I don’t know how much Randolph-Macon College has been paying David Brat and Jack Trammell. But both of them are reported to be dedicated teachers, meeting often with their students and participating in campus debates and other activities.

Indeed, at least one student expressed surprise that professors who were so committed to teaching could ever rise above their rank. “Professors go to teach at Randolph-Macon because they really want to teach,” she told reporters, “not because they want to do research or go on to do something else.”

The comment speaks volumes about the low status of teaching in the academy. Even our students know that it’s usually a professional dead-end! Perhaps professors Brat and Hammell will help change that, demonstrating that good teachers can also make other kinds of good in the world.

And maybe, just maybe, they can bring other professors into the world of politics. In 1958, 14 of the 96 members of the U.S. Senate had taught in a college or university. Today, by my count, there’s only one: Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, a former law professor.

There’s also a former law professor in the White House, of course. Teaching at the University of Chicago, Barack Obama learned how to balance different views and to locate points of compromise between them.

David Brat and Jack Trammell have reportedly developed the same spirit in their own classrooms. They’re also teammates on the faculty basketball team, setting picks and making extra passes to compete against much younger student squads.

Let’s hope their political contest embodies decency and sportsmanship, too, instead of the scorched-earth warfare that’s become commonplace in our elections. That would be the ultimate advertisement for professors in politics.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His next book is “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which will be published next spring by Princeton University Press. 

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