So I just saw (for the second time) the very moving film ONE TRUE THING.

The English professor/novelist/husband/dad (played brilliantly by William Hurt) is a multi-faceted jerk. To make a long story short, his narcissism and vanity crowed out any sustained sense of personal responsibility to those he loves. He knows, when he’s honest to himself, that his wonderful and beautiful wife (played by Meyrl Streep) is his “one true thing” (all else being vanity), but he rarely acting accordingly, even when she’s dying painfully of cancer.

You have close to the same professor (although more grungy) in the more enjoyable THE SQUID AND THE WHALE.

I could go on to mention other big-screen jerk professors, and I’m trying hard to think of some admirable ones.

One reason: The whole theory of liberal education kind of includes the gifted and caring professor as role model/hero thing (the whole Socratic tradition and “method,” etc.)

But the democratic techno-view, as described by Tocqueville, reduces professors to ineffective losers, to quarrelsome, contentious, pompous, lazy, etc. And a dominant criticism of the quality and cost of liberal education in America leads with lazy, overpaid, unaccountable, and unproductive professors.

So here’s my mid-term question for YOU: Explain and how and why professors (and especially author/professors) are portrayed in films, giving specific examples.

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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