It is by now old news in the mediasphere that President Obama's nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte was not a home run; it may not have been compelling enough to appeal to voters who have not yet made up their mind for November. Maybe there are good reasons for this, such as the difficulty of defending policies that have not yet come to fruition, or the problem of policy gridlock in Washington that makes bold presidential promises hard. Yet, even many of my diehard politico friends found much of Obama's speech familiar, perhaps because the campaign themes had already been sounded so many times.
But then there was the ending, a reminder about citizenship. The last portion of Obama's speech, which argued that good policies were a result of Americans generally, not the government per se, contained a number of items that diverged a bit from the overall campaign party line. The President advocated for civility, admitted making mistakes, told listeners they themselves make a shared community thrive, stressed that no one simple thing is at the root of social problems, and assumed that people can be open-minded. For those of us in my line of work, this all seemed very familiar. Obama was describing what good college professors routinely tell their students.
This side of Obama isn't surprising. The law school training that he (and I) had at Harvard emphasizes the importance of engaging people with whom one disagrees in dialogue that tries to convince through reason, evidence and a clear structure of discourse. This training helped make Obama effective during his time as a member of the law faculty at the University of Chicago. I suspect it has made him sincere about crafting policy in a bipartisan way, and truly puzzled about the difficulties of doing this during his first term. In any case, Obama's lines about his constituents renewing his hope and the need for shared purpose are exactly the sort of things I say to students and try to foster in the classroom.
If the President channeled his professorial side and values in the more successful, latter part of his Charlotte speech, his actual experience as an academic is not something he mentions much publicly. This is hardly surprising. College professors are a frequent target of attack by Republican pundits and politicians. We are in the front line of service to aspiring young Americans trying to better their lives, and we put in long hours for less pay than other people who have toiled for as many years as we have in university graduate programs. Yet our public image is of elite snobs who are out of touch with our country. No wonder the President seeks little identification with college teachers, however much his hope to build common purpose from people's diverse backgrounds and ideas are exactly what my colleagues strive to do every day.
Republicans have been stepping up attacks on universities this year, even trying to make policy initiatives that might help lower-income students afford higher education seem snobby and "out of touch." And such scorn has also been heaped on K-12 teachers, and is likely to come out again with the Chicago teachers' strike. Given that Republican candidates for office generally have at least as many university degrees than their Democratic peers, it's an odd form of attack. As the child of a lower middle-class family who worked very hard to make it through my four university degrees and who teaches many students who are the first in their family to go to college, I know how ridiculous are charges that my colleagues and I, or worse, our students, are somehow disconnected from ordinary Americans. Certainly the clear gratitude and connection that students feel when hard-attained professorial expertise is translated enthusiastically to them as new ideas and ways of thinking belies any possible concern about the effeteness or impracticality of what we do. Good professors give our students knowledge, ways of thinking, and a belief in their own abilities that helps them become confident, skilled strivers and workers. In other words, college students who are fortunate to find or seek out engaged professors become exactly the sort of citizens that former professor Obama argued could help our country move beyond our still-lagging economy and narrow Washingtonian partisanship.
Indeed, the latter is what universities, and good faculty, threaten. By trying to model for our students truly open-minded discourse that relies on rational argument and data, good professors threaten, and mean to threaten, narrow-mindedness and ungrounded political attacks. It didn't used to be the case, but sadly, and increasingly, the American public sphere is increasingly dominated by such nastiness. Some of the worst offenders on the right are correct to see professors as a challenge, in that we toil in a principled, conscientious way against close-mindedness and the silencing of free debate. I can only hope that the tentative return of Professor Obama, and the appeal of his emphasis on communal purpose amidst diverse individual perspectives, reminded at least some other Americans who heard the speech of what they learned at college and what purpose broad, smear-based attacks on professors and higher education really serve.