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Thinking and Feeling


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Today, McCain again accused Obama of being “detached and academic” (sorry to link you to a Fox site; it can’t be helped).

But of course, this is not the first time McCain has used “academic” or “professorial” as an insult – and you know what? This professor is tired of being used as a slur, dammit! (Maybe this is how US Muslims feel…?)

Because what the hell is wrong with being a professor, hmm? What’s so bad about being an academic, after all, besides our penchant for pedantry? (And an adoration of alliteration?)

Following those questions is the realization that McCain clearly knows as little about professors as he does about women, the economy, or healthcare. I mean, have you ever in your life seen professors who have teeth like Barack or Joe Biden? Or suits like theirs, for that matter?

Does McCain want everyone to rant and rail and wave their arms around? What is the correct behavior when confronting a financial breakdown on a global scale? Hiding under the bed? Burying your money in glass jars in the backyard? Standing on Wall Street screaming obscenities?

Ironically, it’s McCain who sometimes reminds me of my old professors (and by “old” I mean both old as in “ancient as the hills,” and old as in a long-ass time ago when I was in college and in graduate school): erratic, frequently incoherent, seemingly oblivious to the passing generations. Professors like this needed to be talked to just so, if you wanted a passing grade.

As much as it galls me to agree with him about anything, however, I concede that McCain has a point: Barack is professorial; he is academic. And these qualities were clearly apparent at the town-meeting debate. As McCain ranted on about Ayers and Acorn and Almost-socialism, Barack leaned back on his stool, arms crossed, a little smile on his face – and I recognized that smile. It’s a version of the smile I use – and that I’ve seen colleagues use – when our students say something particularly inane, or small-minded, or just plain dumb.

It’s not fair to laugh at students outright (although I know some people do), and arguing with them seems unfair – the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel. So the only thing to do is lean against the desk and do the nod-and-smile. Maybe ask one question, see what the rest of the class thinks, and move on, leaving the nonsense in the dust behind us.

My students preface their response to questions with “I feel…” no matter what kind of question they’re being asked. They don’t even know they’re flipping between “think” and “feel;” it’s a completely automatic response. But because they articulate their answer as a feeling, the implication is that nothing they say can be wrong. Lately I’ve been insisting that they say “I think,” unless they really are talking about a feeling. The students seem puzzled by my insistence, unsure of the distinction, and equally unsure why it matters.

But it DOES matter. Thinking and feeling are not the same thing, dammit, and the problems of the world cannot be solved, alas, by a session on Oprah’s couch.

So when I see the professorial Obama, I’m thrilled, and it’s not just because his sartorial splendor and Rat Pack ease might help change the image of my profession from one of overwhelming dowdiness and sensible-shoe-ness to one of groovy hipsterishness. I’m thrilled because you know what? It’s time, frankly, for this country to get schooled: schooled about civic and individual responsibility, schooled about looking at the big picture and not the short term, schooled about responding from the brain and not the gut.

You’d think that as a military man, McCain would appreciate the discipline of an academic approach to problems. But no. He’s decided that “real America” only deserves emotions; not intellectual engagement.

If I lived in real America, I might be insulted by a potential President who talks to me as if I’m not capable of thinking about the world’s problems.

Luckily, I live in Manhattan, which according to McCain-Palin geography, isn’t real America at all.

So I can think all I want.

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