In the recent surprise hit Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carrel plays a homosexual Proust scholar who has fallen in love with a graduate student, only to have it end badly.

Though I did not make much of the image when I first saw the film, William Deresiewicz eloquently argues that Carrel’s role is one instance of a more pervasive stereotype in Hollywood: the professor as effete, impotent, full of self-pity, and irrelevant to the world. Writes Deresiewicz:

The lesson is typical in these films and points to the meaning of the new academic stereotype. The alcoholic, embittered, writer-manqué 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.

Such characterizations are primarily limited to the humanities professor. When science professors are presented, they are characterized more by their position as scientists and less by their position as professors. Why pick on the humanities? Again, Deresiewicz:

In the popular imagination, humanities professors don’t have anything to be ambitious about. No one really knows what they do, and to the extent that people do know, they don’t think it’s worth doing — which is why, when the subject of humanistic study is exposed to public view, it is often ridiculed as trivial, arcane, or pointless. Other received ideas come into play here: “those who can’t do, teach”; the critic as eunuch or parasite; the ineffective intellectual; tenure as a system for enshrining mediocrity. It may be simply because academics don’t pursue wealth, power, or, to any real extent, fame that they are vulnerable to such accusations. In our culture, the willingness to settle for something less than these Luciferian goals is itself seen as emasculating. Academics are ambitious, but in a weak, pathetic way. This may also explain why they are uniquely open to the charge of passionlessness. No one expects a lawyer to be passionate about the law: he’s doing it for the money. No one expects a plumber to be passionate about pipes: he’s doing it to support his family. But a professor’s only excuse for doing something so trivial and accepting such paltry rewards for it is his love for the subject. If that’s gone, what remains? Nothing but baseless vanity and feeble ambition. Professors, in the popular imagination, are absurd little men puffing themselves up about nothing. It’s no wonder they need to be taught a lesson.

The stereotype of professors preying on their students is not only overblown, but it also represent a perversion of our notion of the proper relationship between the professor and the student. In most cases, we are uncomfortable with that proper relationship because it represents a type of love that is neither sexual nor familial, the only types of love we understand. Writes Deresiewicz:

The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship, but the professor isn’t the one who falls in love.

It is this awakening of the soul–not the body–that true education aims for, an awakening that students and professors can sometimes mistake to be sexual. Again Deresiewicz:
Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul.

While culturally we remain uncomfortable with the idea of mental intimacy, it is the experience of watching students’ souls come alive that keeps good teachers working through low pay and cumbersome requirements.

Deresiewicz’s piece is worth reading through. His description of the relationship between the Professor-Teacher relationship will doubtlessly make some people uncomfortable, but it’s not clear that it should (if it’s understood properly). His argument that desire (or eros) is a broader phenomenon than sex is very Platonic, but there are serious questions about how such ideas accord with Christianity. To read an alternative perspective on the nature of eros, read Lewis’ chapter in The Four Loves, as he limits it to sexual desire (if I remember correctly).

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.