Moral Compensation

Brass Tacks

There is insiderable talk in railroad circles these days that only one bold measure can possibly save the New Haven from financial ruin. Theorists suggest that if Mr. Alpert started running special trains for professors travelling to fulfill television commitments, he would halt the deepening slump in his company's passenger revenues.

Certainly it's difficult not to sit beside an academic on certain Boston-New York trains. As it winds its way northward on a late Sunday afternoon, the Merchant's Limited has every golden characteristic of the Faculty Club. Most of the passengers are in a good mood--as are any merchants who have made a killing that day on the New York market. Their make-up well scrubbed off by now, their pockets bulging with Super-Anahist money, the members of the professorial gang chatter amicably about their experiences on any of a number of network shows. If when they get home their children are slumped before the visage of Ed Sullivan, they can take succor in the knowledge that only hours before they occupied his place. And as the last acrobat on Ed's stage performs his final somersault, they can hope, without undue optimism, that their progeny will look up, focus on grim reality for a moment, and say: "Gee, Dad, we thought you were great, too."

Of course academics have often held high positions of public trust. Ever since the benevolent protectorate of Woodrow Wilson, the fraternity has exerted great in fluence on public affairs. Scarcely a day goes by without the wires clattering out word of some stock market scare or Senatorial guffaw that is in direct response to a professorial edict. Only last week, a local critic noted with satisfaction that the Sunday literary supplements had depended "for years" on a stable of scholars who write weekly reviews.


Such keen interest in current issues indicates the academic community is anxious to discourage the widely held notion that professors are anemic cowards who cling to the cloistered life because they fear the road where men are wont to tread. Indeed, the success of academic penetration into the social, political and literary life of the country shows how well the academy has destroyed this myth.

Television, an implement so admirably equipped to destroy myths, has afforded the academic unparalleled opportunities to gain positions of influence. Unfortunately, much of the fraternity was slow to realize the possibilities and left the medium to such early and proud possessors as Kukla, Fran, Ollie and Godfrey. But when, several years ago, Dr. Bergen Evans proved to people that Shakespeare could be fun (or, more accufately, that you could divert people by telling them Shakespeare is fun), the unlimited variations of his theme became apparent. Professors began to restrict their bitter little jokes, and perhaps with an eye to a later surrender, conceded that the medium's effects on the populace was worthy of social study.


Television, according to Paul Johnson in the New Statesman, is "the apotheosis of ignorance: its dull, electronic eye mirrors back, down to the smallest detail, the fuzzy thinking and factual vagueness of its uneducated audience. Yet, Johnson believes, the professorial crowd managed to justify its concession to television as a sort of moral compensation" for the national ignorance. In the absence of anyone else, the professor rallied to the salvation of mankind and assumed the role of the Expert. If he found in Jack Benny an odd bedfellow, the academic could clearly see his responsibility to compensate.

The run on academics, of which any fool can find evidence by consulting the Sunday listings, began when human knowledge became so complex that the population was divided into two categories: the Expert and members of the general public. If the Expert's superior erudition fails to emerge during a program, we are told that we must blame its short duration--for there is seldom enough time. The general audience, blankly glazed before the home screen, is of course content to take the Expert's credentials as sufficient evidence that whatever he says is accurate. Whereas the humble citizen can express only opinions, the Expert is in the possession of facts.

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