The Twilight of the Professors


THE great increase in student attendance at high schools, colleges, and universities in our times must not blind us to the extraordinary paradox in the situation. It is this, that while the students wax, the professors wane. You might think, in your simplicity, the more students, the more professors. But not so. We perceive approaching the twilight of the professors.

Of course it is just a part of the march of modern science. That amazing social function which has so richly equipped the gangster and the gunman has disarmed the professor. It has replaced him by a little roll of film three quarters of an inch wide which can be projected on your parlor window curtain and do all that the professor could, in his own words and even with his own voice and gestures. It lacks only his natural coloring; but what, after all, does that amount to? Color contributes little to the average professor.

If you can get this for your school or club for a few cents, and turn it on and off at will, depositing it in a tight little tin box at the close, what do you want of the professor? You have all that, is best of him in the little film, which you can control so much better than you could him. The film may increase his lisp, perhaps, and impart a piquant squeak to his clear treble, but, even as I write, sleepless science may already be eliminating these trifling defects.

Bitterest irony of all, the scientific professor, too, is going by the board. For the film can perform his experiments as well as he can. It can do his sums on the blackboard, stew up his test tubes, finger the litmus paper, and all the rest of it, with the best of them. With a mere laboratory assistant to set up the apparatus and release the spring, the film can do all that the Great Man himself could do, were he here in the flesh. So Mrs. Shelley’s fable comes true again; Frankenstein is again destroyed by his own monster.

Incidentally, he destroys a number of others of us who had nothing to do with creating him.

There was a time when people set great store by professors. It was only when Charlotte Brontë changed the title of her first novel to The Professor that she succeeded in getting it published. Oliver Wendell Holmes the Elder posed as one at breakfast, and Shaw, in Major Barbara, turned over a munitions factory to another. Professors even rose to be the supreme intelligences in mystery stories, the minds that solved the problems and apportioned innocence and guilt. This function has now devolved upon maiden ladies from the country. Perhaps the step was not a long one. At any rate the professor is not what he once was.

He used to be such a mild, benevolent, impractical, respected old creature, like Jo’s husband in Little Women. Sherlock Holmes tried to make him out a super-villain, but none of us was ever really convinced that Moriarty had actually occupied a chair anywhere. Generally speaking, the professor in fiction has always been the symbol of respectability. He was not always bright, as the Empress Elizabeth was quick to observe, but he was respectable.

Suddenly all this has changed. The professor is now very, very bright, too bright, in fact, — but he is no longer respectable. He is suspect; he is a socialist, a communist, a sharethe-wealther, or a brain-truster. There have been a good many of us in Washington, it is true, helping to prime the pump. Our chief fault lay in the fact that we there occupied trough-side places that other noisier men than we, even, thought should have been theirs.

Well, let them have them. I never worked harder in my life than in trying to prime a pump once up in the North Woods. After priming and pumping a solid hour, we gave it up. Anyone who wanted that job could have had it and welcome. The local expert afterward informed me that the trouble was that the leathers were ‘wore out.’ They just needed to be replaced, that was all. Until that was done, a billion gallons of water would not prime that pump.

Even the deans are going back on us. They used to glory in us, and to boast of our exploits and accomplishments. They are cooler about them now. They seem to think we should have made a different use of our time — carrying more courses, or fewer courses; writing more books, or fewer books; giving more lectures, or fewer lectures; certainly making ourselves less conspicuous. They no longer encourage the students to associate with us. We are definitely under a cloud.

Of course we do not really mind this a bit, for it gives us so much more time for our research. We shall discover more truth, write more books, give more lectures, and enjoy ourselves more, generally. Let the deans have the students all to themselves — except a few choice spirits made for better things, to whom we will pass on the torch, confide the secret, commit the sacred flame. As an old Hebrew teacher once said, when he grew unpopular with the deans, ‘ I will bind up my testimony, and seal my teaching in the hearts of my disciples.’

Such a bright young man has just been graduated from our college. He had gone through college in twenty months, and passed all the examinations for his degree. Such a thing had not been heard of since Stefansson entered Iowa as a freshman, became a sophomore before Christmas, was a junior in the winter, and graduated with the senior class in June.

The young man explains his overwhelming success, the papers tell us, in the simplest possible way; he did it by staying away from class! The time thus saved he devoted to reading, which, it is said, he can do at the rate of a hundred pages an hour. He could thus absorb four or five books a day, or a shelf a week. One is reminded of John Manly, who, it is said, read the Harvard library not by shelves but a stack at a time.

It must not be supposed that this young B. A. was a mere recluse or grind — revolting thought! Not at all. He mingled freely with his fellows, debated, wrote, presided — shunning no one except the professors.

‘There is no point,’ he shrewdly observed, ‘in attending classes if you can get the same information from a book.’

How true! The professors, having put all they know into their books, have made themselves superfluous. All that is now needed is deans and examiners, and of these the former are past their peak. For why consult with your dean about registering for courses you never mean to attend? Is not the syllabus enough? There are the bibliographies, carefully assorted into ‘recommended’ and ‘prescribed.’ Read them through and then seek the face of the examiner. So simple has education become at last.


It is at once evident that the professor is on the wane. He can still write books, of course, supposing anything remains which he has not yet put into print. But there cannot be much of that, and, unless he sees the handwriting on the wall and stops writing, as a species he is doomed. I hardly know which course he ought to pursue. He has already gone so far in putting down all he knows that it is probably too late to stop now. I know one professor who has put out three books this year. Suicidal course! But I think he perceives it himself, for he is already working up politics as a side line.

Politics! That’s it! The universal profession. Perhaps that is the way out.

And yet, are politics such a refuge after all? Even in Washington, but yesterday the Valhalla of professors, where it seemed they reveled and drank deep, making wild wassail all the day long — even in Washington the Professoren-dämmerung has been observed. Indeed, professors of our acquaintance recently escaped thence loudly proclaim that the twilight was first reported there. It is, they say, none of your romantic, velvety crepuscules, but a dark, wintry variety that there prevails, more chilling and forbidding than any elsewhere known.

I do not think so. Only last Christmas, as I stood with other patriots in Lafayette Square watching the President, as Santa Claus, lighting the Christmas tree, I felt a friendly hand on my shoulder: one more colleague gone political. How he towered above the puny Washingtonians, a Viking figure in the winter’s dusk! But there was no dusk about him; all glad confident morning, as far as I could see. I had never seen him looking better, and from what he said he seemed likely to stay on there indefinitely — or, say, until 1941.

But, happy as we are in politics, the newspapers for some reason do not like to have us go into them; and if there is one sound basic maxim in American life it certainly is ‘You must please the newspapers.’ Or, at any rate, you must not displease them. Many professors do not realize this, — in fact, few do, — which may be one reason why our day in politics has been so brief.

It has long been recognized that the newspapers are the index of public opinion, and it is a sobering reflection that in this whole region the professor is fading into his twilight. No doubt politics have something to do with it. From the days of Woodrow Wilson professors have been getting into politics more and more, and the journalists do not like this. They feel that the field of politics is their province and that professors should keep out of it. They may be right.

But, whatever the cause, the professor is no longer respected and admired by the newspapers. This is a painful truth, but there is no denying it. Not only the news columns, but the editorials agree that the professor is about done for. There comes a time when the newspaper ‘artists,’ as they are quaintly called, awaken to the attitudes of their chiefs and begin to chime in. So the poor professor appears in caricature. His tattered academic gown flaps about his bony knees, and his battered mortar board perches awkwardly upon his tousled hair, as he goes busily about his supposed task of undermining the Constitution, unbalancing the budget, sapping our institutions, upsetting our industries, and corrupting our youth. What an interesting book of such cartoons one might easily collect out of our favorite journals, the Morning Sunshine and the Evening Benediction.

All in all, judged by this most infallible register of public attitudes, the professor’s popularity is on the wane. The papers prove it. And as the papers do everything for us, — find the bandits, try the cases, tell everybody what to do, — and we all fall into line, this attitude of theirs would seem to settle it. They have had enough of us.


It is now dreadfully clear that we should never have taken to writing books at all. We have simply given ourselves away. We should have remained the dear old inarticulate chaps our professors were. They builded better than they knew. We should have kept our information to ourselves, except in the classroom. As it is, one copy of your book, — containing, of course, all you know on the subject, — can serve a hundred students, who can read and absorb it at the rate of one hundred pages an hour, in the library. For this you receive a royalty of, say, twenty-five cents — or five cents a year, if it lasts five years.

This is immensely better for the college than hiring you at some absurd figure — like three, five, or even seven thousand dollars a year — to teach, as it used to be called, although, as we have seen, you were only wasting the students’ time and prolonging the expense of their education.

Of course we shall still need librarians, to find the books for the students and put them away safely after the reading is over. Librarians, and examiners — it seems to simmer down to that. And, oh yes! There will have to be someone to write the syllabi that is, to revise them from time to time as new facts are added to the list, and to add new books to the bibliographies and strike off the old ones. But for the old-fashioned professor there is no place in the educational New Deal. He has had his day, which is now fading into twilight.

What a fine day it has been — beginning with Socrates, and his disciples, shall we say? He was a wise old chap, who never wrote a line, leaving that big mistake to his prize pupil Plato. Aristotle was another one who thought he knew better than Socrates. Not so Epictetus. He wrote nothing at all, and one of his students afterward published his notes, which now pass for Epictetus.

The result of this was that Socrates and Epictetus were never out of employment. They had never made the mistake of putting all they had to say into handy little syllabi to be bought at any news stand for twenty-five or thirty obols. If they had to attend classes, so had their pupils, Plato, Arrian, and the rest, no matter how clever they might be. Nowadays only the professors have to observe this degrading practice.

And well for them it is, too, I say. For even though, as we are loudly assured, the students learn nothing from such meetings with the professors, the professors may gather something in the way of novel information from the students. And is this a matter of no significance or moment? I venture to propound the educational doctrine that the student who does not attend class regularly is not doing his academic duty by his professor, in the way of freshening him up, stirring up the sluggish, not to say stagnant, currents of his mind, and getting him in touch with modern ways of life and thought generally. Yes, until the student has put all he has to say into books, he is not doing his part unless he is faithfully attending his appointments with his professor and in a hundred little ways keeping the old fellow up to date.

It is now the practice at Commencement, in institutions of learning of the truly modern type, to gather the president and the man who got his degree quickest before the camera, and take a flashlight of them for the instruction of the public. Of course, when the candidate has taken to the woods a fortnight earlier, this plan breaks down. Still, it is a good one, and shows the people how fast the higher education can be imparted by our improved methods. Thus, one year ago, the record was two years from freshman to B. A. This year it is twenty months. The new record holder declares, however, that if he had it to do again he could make it in a quarter less — meaning either three months or five months, I do not know which. Let us say three months. Younger men, better advised by their deans, then, may be expected to finish next year in seventeen months.

Yet how vain is human ambition! For there was Stefansson, out in Iowa years ago, doing it all in nine. Something tells me we shall strain after that dusty record for a good while in vain.


There may possibly be one thing, though, that the students — or shall we not now call them readers? — cannot get from the professors’ books. What the latter know they do indeed put in their books, but not how they know it. That must, I suppose, be learned from them directly. And I know from personal experience how much a professor enjoys telling how he found out some peculiarly recondite thing he is supposed to have discovered.

No, the young reader who never meets his professors may indeed know all they know, but he will not know how they know it. Yet why should he? He has the facts. And how delightful it is that education has at last settled down into a definite body of facts and fancies, which can just be printed in books and learned at home or at Palm Springs or Palm Beach, in an agreeable climate, in preparation for the momentous rendezvous with the examiner. None of the awkward old techniques to master, no more great argument about it and about, no more doubt, hesitation, and pain; only the solid sediment of fact, fixed, concrete, satisfactory. It really begins to look as though education had at last arrived.

But even as the shadows lengthen over us professors, and the clouds thicken in the west, through a little rift in them, like a last ray of parting sunshine, comes the incident of our village elephant. No hollow symbol he, but a genuine Elephas africanus, a creature of flesh and blood — to the amount of 3500 pounds, in fact. You must have read of him in the papers. How, voyaging to our shores against his will from his native Tanganyika lowlands, young Tembo, only four years old, had broken his tusks, which thereupon set up a prodigious aching at the roots, a sort of toothache on a grand scale.

Who then could be found to soothe and heal the anguished monster? No politician, no editor of the Morning Sunshine or the Evening Benediction, no professional patriot from the North Shore — not one of these could medicate the elephantine pain. But only a professor, the last of his race, who stood forth alone to draw the infection from the fevered jaw and make young Tembo his old jaunty self again.

The shadows deepen. The curtain falls. The professors depart. But, should tusk-ache again affect the pride of our local zoo, then let the politicians, the editors, and the professional patriots from the North Shore gather thickly around to comfort him as best they can. For the professor, who alone could cure him, will begone. Perhaps the elephant, at any rate, will miss him.