The Bully Pulpit

bully (n.)

1530s, originally “sweetheart,” applied to either sex, from Dutch boel “lover; brother,” probably a diminutive of Middle Dutch broeder “brother” (cf. Middle High German buole”brother,” source of German Buhle “lover;” see brother (n.)).   Meaning deteriorated 17c. through “fine fellow” and “blusterer” to “harasser of the weak” (1680s, from bully-ruffian, 1650s). Perhaps this was by influence of bull (n.1), but a connecting sense between “lover” and “ruffian” may be in “protector of a prostitute,” which was one sense of bully (though not specifically attested until 1706). The expression meaning “worthy, jolly, admirable” (especially in 1864 U.S. slang bully for you!) is first attested 1680s, and preserves an earlier, positive sense of the word. (

Where we get our words can be instructive in how we use them today, or it can be completely a lost cause.  In the case of this phrase, “bully pulpit” I think it interesting that both meanings on “bully” (the positive and negative) are still in sight with how we use the phrase today.


With two of my sons now in the halls of higher academia, and with no desire to state where or other specifics that might then cause them grief if the wrong people read their dear ol dad’s blog, I will no doubt still find much to blog upon in their experience.  This is just the first.

One son finds himself in a class on “criminal justice.”  The instructor in this course has chosen to not once, not twice, but over and over make his classroom his bully pulpit.  To him, no doubt, the positive sense of this is his motivation: he thinks it well and good to use his platform to form the next generation in his own views.  But he also, perhaps wittingly, perhaps unwittingly, uses the negative sense as well.  He believes a recent nationally known court case was not just.  He now seeks to push that view on those who depend upon his good favor to pass the class.  In a real sense he is “pimping” his class, seeking to protect them from evil injustices of the society in which they live.  He, as such, becomes something of a “blusterer” and hurts ultimately his own rhetorical integrity within his class, showing that his own views are paramount, and thus all teaching in his class suspect of this shade of coloring.

All this to wonder out loud, “is the classroom ever rightfully a place for the bully pulpit”?  I am worried that far too many teachers with the best of intentions seek simply to transfer their views to their students rather than teaching them how to form their own opinions based upon a common and real truth that exists, can be known, and can be communicated.  Are we raising yet another generation of sophists?


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