Of the (absent-minded) professor!


Khalid Saleem

IT would be hard to find anyone who has not heard or read jokes featuring the (absent-minded) professor. With the possible exception of the mother-in-law (about whom more some other time), the most popular subject for subtle, sophisticated humor intended to liven up any party remains the hapless ‘absent-minded professor’. Pick up a joke book – any joke book – chances are you will find a good number of hilarious jokes featuring the dignified figure of the professor. These are the irrefutable facts that would form the bedrock of this dissertation.
Be that as it may, one can hardly move forward without pausing to delve into the basic question: why does the subject of the absent-minded professor of all people particularly appeal to the wits. To put it another way; with a myriad other samples of the species to choose from, why, in deed, pick on the hapless professor? One can pose the fundamental question: why an absent-minded professor, when it could just as well have been a member of any other profession? Surely there are other professions that are just as much, if not more, joke-worthy and/or susceptible to the state of absent-mindedness? Why then zero in on the professor?
Having withstood this somewhat convoluted reasoning this far, the gentle reader may well be justified in enquiring what gives one the right to make this matter one’s business. Considering that the joke in question is apt and good enough to provoke honest laughter by itself, why go into unnecessary and irrelevant details? One’s honest and simple defense is that one is obliged to go into all these sordid details simply in the interest of research. What with the zany (?) Higher Education Commission, in its heyday, having once declared that any one devoid of a PhD degree was not an asset but a liability for the country, one can hardly let such an opportunity slip by. A layman might, but it is expected of a good research scholar (one learns on reliable authority) never to let go of any such opportunity that passes within striking distance.
While on the subject, one can also add that the professor probably got the nod because he happened to be a harmless creature and certainly in no position to strike back! This type of adversary would be the obvious choice when one is cornered in a state of confrontation (ask any General!). What is more, ‘absentmindedness’ in the teaching profession can be justified by the observation that, given an earnest and single-minded quest for knowledge, the professor can be excused if he/she loses sight at times of the more mundane aspects of human existence. Or, this can also be classed as a deliberate defence mechanism.
There is this joke, then, about the absent-minded professor who decided to move house after having lived at the same address for some twenty years. As he was leaving for the university on his last day in the old house, his wife turned to him and said, “Now look, dear, we have lived in this house for twenty years. Today we are moving to a new house. So, do not forget that when you come back from work, you are not to come to this house, but to go to the new one we are moving into. And just to make sure, I am taking away your old key and putting the key to the new house in your pocket.”
As was to be expected, the professor had forgotten all about it by the end of the day’s toil, and duly turned up at the same old address. He tried the key; it would not fit. So he tried ringing the bell but no one answered. He peeped in through the window and saw that the furniture was all gone. And, then, it suddenly all came back to him; they had moved to a new house. But, for the life of him, he could not remember the address of the new house. He looked around and espied a little boy messing around with a football. So he beckoned him over and said, “Little boy, I have lived in this house for twenty years. Today we moved to a new house. Do you, by any chance, know where we moved to?” The little boy looked at him, nodded his head sadly and said, “Yes, dad; mum said this would happen!”
There you have a classical example of good-natured humor at the expense of the absent-minded professor. This is just a stray example. This humor may be a trifle unkind, but the fact remains that the teaching community has accepted it with good grace over the years. It is doubtful if members of any other profession would have exhibited the same accommodation. Perhaps it is due to this spirit of graceful accommodation that professors have managed to maintain their dignity in a profession that has never been afforded the credit or the honour that it deserves.
And, who knows, absent-mindedness may be a veneer that professors tend to wrap around themselves in order to isolate themselves from all the inanities that go on around them. It may perhaps be this very state of splendid isolation that makes it possible for them to excel in the intellectual pursuits that others around them can only aspire to. And isn’t it about time that society gave some well-deserved recognition to the members of this (very under-rated) profession? One leaves this to the perspicacious reader to ponder over!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.