Sarah Palin is in hot water again, for a remark she made about President Obama’s years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. At her speech to the tea party convention in Nashville, she talked about the ongoing war on terrorism, and said: “To win that war, we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.” She’s taken a lot of heat for that remark, and the academics who read Inside Higher Education as religiously as I do have their panties in a twist over her comment.
With their petulant narcissism, the good professors focus on themselves, rather than the substance and import of Palin’s statement: “The attacks on Obama aren’t new to politics, and they reveal longstanding stereotypes about the professoriate that continue to speak to a subsection of the electorate for whom higher education is regarded with skepticism, a number of political thinkers and academics said in interviews.”
Not so the case of Professor Emeritus Thomas Haskell, late of Rice University, however. His panties have gotten so bunched up that he’s been able to locate the racial bias in the fabric of Palin’s comment: “’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.’”
The only thing that is black and white about Palin’s comment is a truth so obvious it’s little wonder those searching for subtext and covert prejudice missed it. A professor’s job is what? To expand the world’s supply of knowledge. To question that knowledge…test it, revise it…rinse and repeat. To share what he knows with others so that they can test it, too, and then build on it or refute it. The reason a scholar spends his life in the ivory tower removed from society is that his isolation gives him the requisite liberty to explore society or whatever small corner of it he trains his expertise. Without scholars, without professors, commanders-in-chief would lose their greatest weapons: knowledge and expertise. Without commanders-in-chief, scholars and professors risk losing their freedom of speech and inquiry. Each has a job, and those jobs are not the same. They are complementary, yes, but the skills sets are different. It really is a simple point. Palin is correct, as bitter a pill as that is to swallow.
And all that bitterness produces political bile that has to find an outlet, and where better than a White House press briefing? The president’s always classy press secretary just had to take Palin’s bait. Ham-fisted Robert Gibbs completely missed the irony, though, when he mocked Sarah Palin’s handy cheat sheet of a few key words. Perhaps Gibbs never took a class in which the professor referred to his notes. Perhaps he’s never worked for a boss who’s consulted a teleprompter in order to know what to say next.