In response to my satirical essay, Jerry Brown observes that dermatologists do other things than removing pimples, and of course he is correct. In the discussions that followed my delivery of the paper (at Mount Holyoke College as well as at UNC Chapel Hill) a number of people protested that there is a difference between a professor’s relationship to students and a doctor’s relationship to patients. I agree completely and in order to illustrate the difference I told two stories. The first may well be apocryphal although I would like to believe it is true. The second I can attest to because I was there. Apocrypha first.
The first story concerns the great American economist Paul Samuelson who did his doctorate in the Harvard economics department. In those days, apparently, a candidate had to present himself or herself for an oral examination prior to writing the doctoral dissertation and when Samuelson sat for that exam, the committee that tested him was chaired by the great Russian-American economist Wassily Leontief. The committee grilled Samuelson mercilessly for two hours and then had him leave the room so that they could deliberate about his grade. After Samuelson had closed the door behind him, so the story goes, Leontief looked around the table and then said to the members of the committee, “well, did we pass?” The story captures perfectly the academic professor’s dream of a student who is more a colleague than a pupil.
The second story concerns my first wife, who had a small skin problem that took us to see a distinguished plastic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. After the doctor had examined my wife and dealt with her problem, we spent a little time chatting and he told us with evident excitement about the time he spent, pro bono, at the Schriner Burn Center in Boston treating hideously burned children who had suffered second and third degree burns over large parts of their bodies. It was obvious that even though, with his most devoted ministrations, he could not turn a little child at the hospital into a Venus or Adonis, he could give them the possibility of a life. This was a man who made a very large income doing tummy tucks and breast enlargements but his real joy in life was treating those severely burned children.
My hope was that once I had jolted my audience out of their comfortable self-confidence by my satirical story, we could have a genuine discussion about the grotesque distortions in the allocation of educational resources in America. I am sorry to say that things did not turn out that way on the two occasions on which I delivered the paper to an academic audience.