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The Professor and Capitalism

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Even in ancient Greece, professors were accused of having their heads in the clouds. Their places of work are still called "ivory towers." Before you agree, listen to this Rock Island story.

Our local professor—yes, the same one who proposed putting great literature on billboards along the roadside—taught a senior seminar last year on American culture which tested the famous Keessen Theory: that the quintessential American folk figure was the horse trader, that shrewd individual who was able to barter his way from rags to riches by buying low and selling high.

As the professor explained to his class, in any trade, one of the traders inevitably gets the better deal. It should be possible for an astute trader, therefore, to move up item by item.

For the experiment, the professor picked a member of the class, a senior named Steve who had already shown a promise as a campus wheeler dealer. One of the students donated an old Bob Dylan album. The professor handed Steve the album. Go out into the world, he said, and return in four weeks with a working automobile.

Impossible, thought the class, but the professor's faith proved sound. Steve traded the album for a tennis racket, the racket for six baseball cards, the cards for a socket wrench set, and so on. Four weeks and seventy-eight trades later, Steve pulled up in a somewhat rusted 1981 Datsun, thereby earning an ‘A’ for the class and a subsequent spot on two talk shows. He also increased the professor's reputation.

Of course, Steve was on a roll, and could hardly stop with the Datsun. The trades continued. Just before graduation the following May, he made the board of directors of the professor's college an offer they could not refuse. They gave him the college in return for a very posh ski resort and health spa near Aspen, Colorado.

That explains how, at commencement this past spring, the professor's student, now also the college president, was able to award himself his own degree and also promote his teacher to the full professorship he had so long been denied.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.