The Pet Teacher

David Hitchcock
5 min readJan 9, 2021


Olympia presenting the young Alexander the Great to Aristotle, by Gerard Hoet.

On May 27th,1933, the philosopher Martin Heidegger gave his official Rector’s Address to the gathered faculty of the University of Freiburg in a large hall decorated with Nazi swastikas.[1] There were no Jewish Faculty members in the room, all Jewish state employees had been suspended from their posts just over one month previously. However, plenty of party officials were present. Throughout his address Heidegger manipulated key philosophical terms from his own work so that they supported the ostensibly supreme task of ‘the German university’, which was to aid the Nazi state apparatus in repurposing national culture and intellect. Heidegger was Rector for a single year, and subsequently attempted to downplay his close collaboration with Nazi officials, but to posterity his dasein; his ‘being there’ and his willing collaboration, are quite clearly enough to merit condemnation.

We need to talk about pet teachers. Specifically, we need to talk about the role of intellectuals today who, like Martin Heidegger, are laundering absolutely appalling ideas, such as race science, eugenics, anti-vaccination conspiracies, so-called ‘gender critical’ thinking, and populist nationalism for public consumption. I use the phrase ‘Pet Teacher’ to describe quite an old phenomenon: the recognizable cast of historical intellectuals who always appear standing beside tyrannical, arbitrary, or unjustifiable power, lending its users a legitimating aura of cultural or philosophical heft. No mere stenographers are Pet Teachers, they actively aid, even shape, the repressive projects they associate with. In the age of social media this phenomenon has taken on a virulent new form. Today’s Pet Teachers have rediscovered the enormous contemporary currency of legitimating different forms of fascist aesthetics, not because they are themselves ‘destructive characters’, but rather because they are ‘courtiers’, who have come to a private and profoundly cynical conclusion that only themselves and those they manage to care about actually matter.[2] This circle of caring might seem to expand to fans or fellow-travellers but this relationship will always prove false, the perfect courtier is perfectly faithless to his or her fellow beings in the end, and will not sacrifice for them.

If you are reading this you probably can already think of numerous examples of pet teachers; though the phrase seems blissfully passé now, the group calling themselves the ‘intellectual dark web’ is comprised entirely of such people. I am less interested here in individuals than I am in structures and relationships, partly because I believe the best mythological analogue to pet teachers is the Gorgon, and to defeat one of those in classical myths you cannot look at it for long.

Instead let us examine the structures which nourish, listen to, fund, and legitimate pet teachers. First it should be said that many of these individuals retain comfortable and even prestigious posts in universities, posts from which it is very unlikely they will ever depart. This cohort of ‘pet professors’ is perhaps the most dangerous group in the long term, au fait as they are with the performative currency of vaguely academic discourse in public squares, and willing as they are to occupy virtually any public position in pursuit of political relevance, board memberships, think tank sinecures, and well-provisioned meetings with political elites.

Pet teachers carefully but relentlessly move the goalposts of any discussion towards their ‘brand’ of interpretation, which of course always confirms whichever prior prejudices they earn attention by servicing.

But in the immediate aftermath of an attempted right-wing coup in the US Capitol, explicitly encouraged by the sitting US President using social media (particularly Twitter and Facebook), it seems important to focus tightly now on the second major structure which enables not only pet teachers to flourish, but also all sorts of violently bad faith political positioning, conspiracy thinking, and the incubation of racialised white grievance.

The second group of pet teachers is far less moored to even a half-hearted performance of respectability politics, precisely because they receive far fewer positions or plaudits from institutions which require it. These latter-day sophists instead use the tools of crowdfunding, fandom, and the social media attention economy to maintain their intellectual brand, which exists almost solely on the internet. Here we find the most seasoned experts in moving the goalposts of any discussion, capable of transforming the objective reality of neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists storming the Capitol, supported by an authoritarian populist looking to cling to power, into a grievance about the freedom of one elected official to spout dangerous and hateful rhetoric on a privately owned social media platform. These individuals tend not to deserve even ironic definition as ‘teachers’, but they do actively curate superficially the same master-disciple relationship with their followers, principally by pumping out a never ending stream of just-so content veiled with only the thinnest tinsel of academic language or method.

It remains to consider briefly what is to be done about this phenomenon. Many media scholars and opinion commentators who have cottoned on to the ‘grift’ at the heart of pet teacher performances have suggested no platforming as the answer. But it can be extraordinarily difficult to no platform an entire established ecosystem of accounts which boost and legitimate each other, and which broadly toe the imagined red lines of incitement of violence, recognisable hate speech, and outright fabrication of information. It is not clear that ‘dunking’ on pet teachers does much of anything either, other than establish a parallel sphere of resistant accounts and followers who are wise to the game. Both groupings benefit from this activity. Mockery does retain some power to defang the larger ideological projects that individual pet teachers have devoted themselves to cultivating, but ultimately all mockery is ineffective if political power is actively listening far more often to pet teachers than to real ones. In the end, the only silence that will materially inhibit the sophistry we all have to live with now is the silence of those in power no longer listening, and on that front I fear we still have a long way to go. So in the meantime beware the pet teacher, beware their empty courtship of power and attention, for in the end it is nothing more than selling gasoline in a world on fire.

[1] Victor FarÍas, Heidegger and Nazism, (Philadelphia: Temple Press, 1989), 113.

[2] Walter Benjamin, One-way Street and Other Writings (Verlag, 1970), Introduction by Sontag, 16, and Origins of German Tragic Drama.



David Hitchcock

Historian of poverty, utopia, and colonialism. Author of Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750 and co-editor of the Routledge History of Poverty.