A professor is walking across campus one afternoon when he spots a student coming the other way. "Excuse me, young man," the professor says, "am I walking north or south?" "You're walking north, professor," the student replies. "In that case," the professor says, "I must have eaten lunch already."
This is not a joke anyone would think to make up these days. The absentminded professor, that kindly old figure, is long gone. A new image has taken his place, one that bespeaks not only our culture's hostility to the mind, but also its desperate confusion about the nature of love.
Look at recent movies about academics, and a remarkably consistent pattern emerges. In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Jeff Daniels plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, neglects his wife, and bullies his children. In One True Thing (1998), William Hurt plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, neglects his wife, and bullies his children. In Wonder Boys (2000), Michael Douglas plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, has just been left by his third wife, and can't commit to the child he's conceived in an adulterous affair with his chancellor. Daniels's character is vain, selfish, resentful, and immature. Hurt's is vain, selfish, pompous, and self-pitying. Douglas's is vain, selfish, resentful, and self-pitying. Hurt's character drinks. Douglas's drinks, smokes pot, and takes pills. All three men measure themselves against successful writers (two of them, in Douglas's case; his own wife, in Daniels's) whose presence diminishes them further. In We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004), Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause divide the central role: both are English professors, and both neglect and cheat on their wives, but Krause plays the arrogant, priapic writer who seduces his students, Ruffalo the passive, self-pitying failure. A Love Song For Bobby Long (2004) divides the stereotype a different way, with John Travolta as the washed-up, alcoholic English professor, Gabriel Macht as the blocked, alcoholic writer.
Not that these figures always teach English. Kevin Spacey plays a philosophy professor--broken, bitter, dissolute--in The Life of David Gale (2003). Steve Carell plays a self-loathing, suicidal Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Both characters fall for graduate students, with disastrous results. And while the stereotype has gained a new prominence of late, its roots go back at least a few decades. Many of its elements are in place in Oleanna (1994), in Surviving Desire (1991), and, with John Mahoney's burnt-out communications professor, in Moonstruck (1987). In fact, all of its elements are in place in Terms of Endearment (1983), where Jeff Daniels took his first turn playing a feckless, philandering English professor. And of course, almost two decades before that, there was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
What's going on here? If the image of the absent-minded professor stood for benevolent unworldliness, what is the meaning of the new academic stereotype? Why are so many of these failed professors also failed writers? Why is professional futility so often connected with sexual impropriety? (In both Terms of Endearment and We Don't Live Here Anymore, "going to the library" becomes a euphemism for "going to sleep with a student.") Why are these professors all men, and why are all the ones who are married such miserable husbands?
The answers can be found in the way these movies typically unfold. Consider One True Thing, in which these questions are most fully and intelligently played out. As the movie opens, Hurt's George Gulden comes across as a monumental figure. Seen through the eyes of his daughter, Ellen, from whose perspective the story unfolds, George embodies the highest intellectual and ethical standards: brilliant, passionate, demanding, a gifted critic and beloved teacher, a dispenser of anecdotes and aphorisms that suggest a near converse with the gods. Ellen, an ambitious young journalist, has worshiped him since she was a little girl--emulating him, yearning for his hard-won approval, and disdaining her less-educated mother, Kate, as trivial and weak. Kate belongs to a group of local wives who devote themselves to performing acts that seem utterly inconsequential and who, as if to advertise their own insignificance, call themselves the "Minnies." But when George summons Ellen home to care for her dying mother--or, as it turns out, to care for him in his wife's stead--his daughter gradually comes to see her parents for what they really are. George is a novelist manque who recycles his stories, plagiarizes his witticisms, and drinks away his sorrows in secret (he no longer even has the starch to chase graduate students). His wife is really the strong one. While George and his kind dream their petty dreams of glory, the Minnies hold the community together. One day, Kate forces Ellen on an excruciating drive during which Kate and another woman sing silly songs at the top of their lungs. Afterward, Kate explains to Ellen that the woman has been living as a virtual shut-in since her husband left her, so the Minnies have been taking turns getting her out of the house. Ellen learns that just as the Minnies have held the community together, her mother has held the family together--held it together, it turns out, until her death. The "one true thing," Ellen realizes, is not intellect or ambition, as she'd been taught to believe, but love.
The lesson is typical in these films and points to the meaning of the new academic stereotype. The alcoholic, embittered, writer-manque English professor who neglects his family and seduces his students is a figure of creative sterility, and he is creatively sterile because he loves only himself. Hence his vanity, pomposity, and selfishness; his self-pity, passivity, and resentment. Hence his ambition and failure. And thence his lechery, for sleeping with his students is a sign not of virility but of impotence: he can only hit the easy targets; he feeds on his students' vitality; he can't succeed in growing up. Other symbolic emasculations abound. John Travolta stumbles around in a bathrobe. Michael Douglas stumbles around in a pink one. Steve Carell's character is gay. But most importantly, nearly all of them are set against a much...