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An unlikely education 

by Kathy M. Newman


When I was in graduate school working on my doctorate in American Studies, it never occurred to me that someday an aging, balding Richard Dreyfuss would play an American Studies professor on TV. In playing the title role of Professor Max Bickford, a bitter, past-his-prime, recovering alcoholic/widower, in CBS's The Education of Max Bickford, Dreyfuss claims he is acting out a lifelong dream of being a professor. Ironically, perhaps, one of his biggest regrets in life is that he never finished college himself.


Television has been going to college for some time now, from Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five to Boston Commons, Felicity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But rarely do we get the perspective of the professor rather than the students. And from Max Bickford's perspective, college students are grade-grubbing, hair-dying, unquestioning, life-sucking beasts. When one of his students complains that the B+ she got on a paper will prevent her from getting into law school, Bickford snaps: "That moist sucking sound you hear is the milk of human kindness draining right out of me."


Not only is Bickford's comment wholly inappropriate, and likely to get a real-life professor brought up on harassment charges, it also betrays a kind of anxiety about feminization. The CBS promotional materials claim that Max Bickford is "surrounded by women he does not understand," including his punk-haired daughter, his female students (it's a women's college), the college president (Regina Taylor from I'll Fly Away) his former student/lover, who, now that she is his colleague, has robbed him of a coveted position (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden) and his best friend Steve, who has had a sex change and has become "Erica" (Helen Shaver).


But this is not simply a case of a man being confounded by women. As the muckraking critic Upton Sinclair wrote in 1913, "There are three sexes: men, women and professors." Sinclair was referring to the pitifully low salary that professors earned at the beginning of the 20th century -- a salary so low they were unable to support a family. But his quip has a deeper meaning if we think about the feminization of teaching as a profession. Teaching, in our culture, is about reproducing the social order. And reproduction, as opposed to production, is an activity that has been gendered "female." Even the Latin term, alma mater, means "foster mother."


The character of Max Bickford is not so much stymied by women as he is trying to figure out what it means to be a man. He is a former hippie, a draft-dodger, who now feels guilty that he avoided the defining moment of his generation (Dreyfuss himself was a conscientious objector). He is also an old-fashioned political historian, who decries the "popularization" of his profession represented by his rival and her lectures on the importance of Shirley Temple during the Great Depression. He is uncomfortable with his friend who has had a sex change and with his daughter when she tells him she is pregnant.


On the other hand, though the first few episodes were filmed before September 11, they have a kind of eerie resonance. Bickford asks his students: "Should we have warned the Japanese, even though they were our enemies, so they could have removed innocent civilians from Hiroshima before we dropped the bomb? Who are we as Americans? What do we value? That we should win at all costs?" And thus a student asks him what he is saying: "That all war is wrong? That we should never have dropped the bomb, or what?" Bickford replies: "No. I'm saying 'think.' "


Where I teach college, however, it is the students who are pushing me to think. Our recent entry into war has left me confused, depressed and numb. My students, however, are very clear that we should be demonstrating for peace. Their activism, rather than constituting an ironic redeployment of the tactics of the 1960s, is more of a reinvention of the genre. The day America started bombing Afghanistan I received this e-mail from one of my students: "In short, I think today's events are tragic. As Camus put it: 'as thinking people, it is our responsibility not to be on the side of the executioner.' "


My students are thinking people. They are not the life-sucking, brain-dead, grade-grubbing monsters that they appear on television (okay, so once and awhile they do complain about their grades). But in our current crisis, I'm glad I'm holed up with them. I'm learning I don't have to be bald, bitter and past-my-prime to appreciate the education they have to offer.





The Education of Max Bickford


is on at 8 pm, Sunday nights on CBS.

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