Are Today’s Presidential Candidates Educators or Entertainers?

Recently, while trying to make sense of the turbulent stream of content about the US presidential election, a question occurred to me:

How many US presidents were educators?

After a little research, I discovered that the answer is 14. While they held other professions at various times before and after their presidencies, these presidents were all involved in education in some way:

George Washington (1789 – 1797) – Chancellor of the College of William and Mary
John Adams (1797 – 1801) – Schoolteacher
Thomas Jefferson (1801 – 1809) – Rector of the University of Virginia
James Madison (1809 – 1817) – President of the College of William and Mary
James Monroe (1817 – 1825) – Regent of the University of Virginia
John Quincy Adams (1825 – 1829) – Professor
John Tyler (1841 – 1845) – Chancellor of the College of William and Mary
Millard Fillmore (1850 – 1853) – Chancellor of the University of Buffalo
James Abram Garfield (1881) – Schoolteacher
Chester Alan Arthur (1881 – 1885) – Schoolteacher
William Howard Taft (1909 – 1913) – Professor
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) – Professor
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963 – 1969) – Schoolteacher
Barack Hussein Obama Jr (2009 – 2016) – Professor

Given that the role of university chancellor is largely ceremonial, and mostly indicative of support for education, you might add Rutherford Birchard Hayes (1877 – 1881) to this list. While it was not his official occupation, he spent much of his time post his presidency as an education activist.

So why was I curious? Because it occurred to me that the way we learn about political candidates – not just in the US, but everywhere – is through a medium that looks more like reality TV entertainment than politics. And I was keen to learn just how many presidents in the past were likely to have championed critical discussion and debate over public performance. That is, what you’d expect from an educator, rather than an entertainer.

Granted, being an educator is not an objective measure of one’s capacity for reflection and critical thinking. But it is interesting that 11 of these 15 presidents served their terms prior to 1900. And that got me thinking about Neil Postman. In his seminal work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman suggests that many of the early presidents of the US could probably have walked down the street without being recognized. But they would easily have been recognized for their writings. Many of them produced complex works that explored profound topics and illuminated powerful truths. Nowadays the opposite is true, and we know political candidates by their television images and their retweetable soundbites.

Perhaps there is another way we should be looking at political candidates. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves, who are the candidates who lead us to a greater understanding of the core issues of our time? Who are the ones who inspire us to reflect on our humanity so that we may become the best version of ourselves? And what might a medium look like that could connect us with candidates on this level? Because it surely doesn’t look like television.