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The Occidental President: Obama and Teachable Moments

05/11/2010 04:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Derek Shearer Professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College and former US ambassador

In his new biography The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, author David Remnick describes how a young Barry Obama discovered the value of a liberal arts education.

During his two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles, one of the nation's leading liberals arts colleges, Obama learned to read and to think critically. He took courses in American and European political philosophy from the school's renowned professor Roger Boesche. He read works of magical fiction by Latin American authors. He met American black students and engaged in nights of debate and discussion on the politics of the day -- and he got to know foreign students from countries such as Pakistan and India. He learned about his strengths and his weaknesses. He was not good enough to become a professional basketball player, but he could give a political speech in public -- against apartheid -- and move a crowd. He could express himself with the written word, even publish his poems in the school literary magazine.

Above all, he became comfortable in his own skin. As Newsweek put it in a cover article during the campaign, it was "When Barry Became Barack." He moved on to Columbia where Oxy had an exchange program, and then to Harvard Law with a new found sense of identity and purpose.

Because the truth about Obama at Oxy is a good story (he did not, as conservatives would have it, become indoctrinated by Marxists or Feminists, nor was he recruited by the CIA or Jihadists as some conspiracy bloggers now claim), Occidental is proud to claim him as an exemplar of the liberal arts education which small colleges provide. During the campaign, the Oxy campus store had fun with the Obama brand, producing a line of "BarOxyWear" clothing (the best selling, "Change We Need" diaper pants, the Barack Rocks t-shirt), and Obama mugs and hats. KCET, the local public TV station, produced a special report on Obama at Oxy, and national and world wide press coverage was largely favorable.

When the new Oxy President, Harvard trained scholar Jonathan Veitch, arrived on campus last fall he challenged faculty and administrators to go beyond t-shirts and to utilize the Obama connection to Oxy for ongoing educational purposes. To illustrate the liberal arts education that Obama received at Oxy, an exhibition of the books Obama read in Professor Boesche's political philosophy courses was mounted in the book store, and a self-guided tour of "Obama at Oxy" which showed where he had delivered his first political speech and where he took classes was prepared. Along with a colleague in the Politics department, Professor Caroline Heldman, I was asked to teach a course called "Obama and the Issues -- the Challenge of Change". The idea was to use Obama's first year and half in office as a series of teachable moments (one of his favorite phrases) to examine his political leadership and the terrain on which he exercises it.

Because it was a course in history as it happens, there were no ideal texts. We found one collection of essays -- Obama: Year One -- written by leading political scientists including my cousin David Magleby, Dean of Brigham Young University, who contributed an essay on how Obama's use of the Internet has changed Presidential campaigns. We also assigned Obama's own campaign book, The Audacity of Hope. Mainly, we assigned articles on line from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and on line sites such as POLITICO. (For professors teaching such a course in the future, there is now the just published book by Newsweek's Jonathan Alter -- The Promise -- President Obama, Year One -- a well reported accounting of the "inside story" of the Obama administration, and in the fall, Bob Woodward will be bringing out his account of Obama's Presidency.)

We started the course with a terrific PBS documentary, Dreams of Obama, on his life up to winning the Presidency. We then looked for "experts" rather than advocates who could describe the politics of the issues facing Obama when he took office and analyze how he has dealt with these challenges.

On foreign policy, we invited Washington Post editor David Hoffman (winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for his book on US-Russian nuclear weapons) to talk on Obama and a Nuclear Free World. UC Davis law professor Diane Amann explained the complicated legal issues around Obama's promise to close Guantanamo, and UN expert Steve Schlesinger described Obama's use of the UN in his foreign policy. Former NYT reporter Stephan Kinzer presented the case for the importance of Iran and Turkey as possible US allies in making a durable peace in the Middle East.

On the domestic front, Peter Goodman, the New York Times economic correspondent, analyzed how Obama has responded to the financial meltdown and subsequent recession. Another NYTimes reporter, John Broder, explained the politics of climate change legislation. Georgetown Law Professor Peter Edelman outlined Obama's policies towards the poor, and Dr. Gene Oppenheim of Kaiser Permanente explicated the debate over national health care legislation. Former NJ legislator Gordon MacInnes examined Obama's approach to educational reform, and computer industry guru Daniel Suarez talked about the hidden dangers of social media and the Obama administration's approach to the expansion and use of the Internet.

We did not neglect politics. We invited Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, to present the Republican critique of Obama's policies and explain the appeal of the Tea Party. Author Robert Kuttner presented a progressive critique of Obama's approach to reform, especially his "audacity of caution." And in the category of "politics is often not rational", we brought black conservative Rev. Jesse Peterson--a regular on Fox News-- to campus. He called President Obama "trash", a "liar", and a "socialist", and challenged students to rethink their liberal ideas.

Because the course was history in real time (and with over 100 students and no teaching assistants) we did not give tests. Instead, students were organized into teams around projects that ranged from the scholarly to the artistic to the activist. One group immediately set up an excellent course blog which allowed students to react to course speakers and to post their own research on issues. (Check it out here).

On the research side, there was the Nation Building At Home group which produced issue briefs on US prisons, education, energy policy, New Orleans after Katrina, and pollution. The Conspiracy group investigated theories about Obama ranging from assertions that he is the Devil and the anti-Christ to contentions that he applied to Occidental under the Indonesian name Soetoro (his mother's second husband) and that Oxy is "hiding" his real application. Another group analyzed Obama's major speeches and collected them with editorial notes ready for Professor Boesche to write an introduction and then publish as the Occidental edition. The Obama Family Tree team researched Barack and Michelle's ancestors and showed how they are related to many famous (and white) Americans. Going global, the Obama and Pop Culture group collected artifacts and images of the President from around world including African textiles, action comic books, and an assortment of dolls and figures. A selection of the items is now on exhibition in the Occidental Library and can also be viewed here.

The Obama and Oxy group produced a slide show of Obama imagery on the blog and worked with the college communications staff on finalizing the Obama self-guided walking tour brochure -- and The Bring Barack Back group posted clever videos on You Tube inviting Obama to return to campus.

In the creative category, one team worked with the Oxy Art department to produce a series of beautiful Obama issues posters. Another group designed and produced the board game Obama -- Road to the White House, and another worked on Obama administration trading cards. Led by a remarkable young woman student from Jamaica, the Obama Poetry Slam team organized and produced on campus a night of spoken word performances praising and criticizing Obama. (Words to some of the "raps" are on the course blog.) One of the best was titled "Are You Really My Friend", and it concluded:

Obama, Obama
are you really my friend
is it really the end of racism
or a clever electoral vote.....
But I'm still not mad at you
cause I know the skin heads want to assassinate you
and I'm not even asking you to pass some test
I just expected a little more from a community activist
A little bit more than just a puppet on strings
to those international thugs of material dreams
Obama, Obama
Are you really our friend
Or is it all pretend

In the course finale, a team led by a young man, himself an aspiring, Obama-like politician, organized a symposium (I suggested Teach-in, but students said, "Too 60s, prof"), titled
"Deconstructing Obama", and invited such national experts as New York Times columnist Charles Blow, the Huffington Post's political editor Tom Edsall, and LA Times columnist and radio show host, Oxy grad Patt Morrison, to discuss Obama as a political leader and examine how he has responded to opposition from the right and pressure from the left. The symposium was open to the entire campus and to the public, and included a display of course projects such as the Obama posters, the Obama board game, and the Obama family tree (displayed on a 15 foot high sheet outside of Thorne Hall).

Students in the course, other Oxy students, and even some alumni (including one Tea Party sympathizer) debated the role of race on Obama's Presidency, his leadership style, and whether or not he has fulfilled the promises he made during the campaign or provided the "audacity of hope" he said was needed by the nation.

Our goal as professors was not to advocate but to instruct -- to provide students with the information and ideas to gain a more nuanced view of Barack Obama, his Presidency, and of the challenge that those who advocate political change face in the United States from entrenched interests on all sides of the political spectrum. As best we can tell, our students came away with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of American politics -- at home and abroad -- and a clearer view for themselves of how they feel about their Occidental President, Barack Obama.

Can we sum up their collective views? Probably not. Perhaps, the recent cover of MAD magazine might do it best. Alfred E. Neuman, the magazine's iconic mascot, is wearing a t-shirt that says "I (heart sign) Obama" and the letters "ed" have been penciled in. Our students are no longer in love with the idea of an Oxy President, but they like the idea that he is in the White House using his liberal arts education to struggle with the issues of the day -- and they are well prepared to ask him tough questions about his Presidency when he returns to campus.

As for me, I'm ready to challenge him to some pick-up basketball in the Oxy gym.

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