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Let’s study professorsand politics

By Jonathan Zimmerman
Special to the Observer

This 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 Brat 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. 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 opeds.

But we don't have all the answers. 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, Brat’s comment instead reflected his honesty and humility.

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.

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.

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.

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 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. Can they also infuse it into our bitterly polarized electoral system? Now that would be the ultimate advertisement for professors in politics.

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