Photo courtesy Obama Campaign. NOT AFRAID TO PROVOKE Barack Obama taught at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years. Former students say he tested many of the ideas of his presidential campaign in the classroom.
I'm nearly finished reading Obama's first memoir, Dreams from My Father. It's riveting, and I recommend it for anyone wishing for more insight into the man.
From Publishers Weekly:
Elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama was offered a book contract, but the intellectual journey he planned to recount became instead this poignant, probing memoir of an unusual life. Born in 1961 to a white American woman and a black Kenyan student, Obama was reared in Hawaii by his mother and her parents, his father having left for further study and a return home to Africa. So Obama's not-unhappy youth is nevertheless a lonely voyage to racial identity, tensions in school, struggling with black literature...
An odd article, via NYTimes:
The Long Run
Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Apart
By JODI KANTOR
Published: July 30, 2008
CHICAGO -- The young law professor stood apart in too many ways to count. At a school where economic analysis was all the rage, he taught rights, race and gender. Other faculty members dreamed of tenured positions; he turned them down. While most colleagues published by the pound, he never completed a single work of legal scholarship.
At a formal institution, Barack Obama was a loose presence, joking with students about their romantic prospects, using first names, referring to case law one moment and "The Godfather" the next. He was also an enigmatic one, often leaving fellow faculty members guessing about his precise views.
Mr. Obama, now the junior senator from Illinois and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, spent 12 years at the University of Chicago Law School. Most aspiring politicians do not dwell in the halls of academia, and few promising young legal thinkers toil in state legislatures. Mr. Obama planted a foot in each, splitting his weeks between an elite law school and the far less rarefied atmosphere of the Illinois Senate.
Before he outraised every other presidential primary candidate in American history, Mr. Obama marched students through the thickets of campaign finance law. Before he helped redraw his own State Senate district, making it whiter and wealthier, he taught districting as a racially fraught study in how power is secured. And before he posed what may be the ultimate test of racial equality -- whether Americans will elect a black president -- he led students through African-Americans’ long fight for equal status.
Standing in his favorite classroom in the austere main building, sharp-witted students looming above him, Mr. Obama refined his public speaking style, his debating abilities, his beliefs.
"He tested his ideas in classrooms," said Dennis Hutchinson, a colleague. Every seminar hour brought a new round of, "Is affirmative action justified? Under what circumstances?" as Mr. Hutchinson put it.
But Mr. Obama's years at the law school are also another chapter -- see United States Senate, c. 2006 -- in which he seemed as intently focused on his own political rise as on the institution itself. Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was well liked at the law school, yet he was always slightly apart from it, leaving some colleagues feeling a little cheated that he did not fully engage. The Chicago faculty is more rightward-leaning than that of other top law schools, but if teaching alongside some of the most formidable conservative minds in the country had any impact on Mr. Obama, no one can quite point to it.
"I don't think anything that went on in these chambers affected him," said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Mr. Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. "His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings."
...and a riposte to this article from The Huffington Post:
The Times' Distorted Professor Obama
John K. Wilson
Posted July 30, 2008 | 09:41 AM (EST)
Today's New York Times features a lengthy story by Jodi Kantor about Obama's time as a teacher at the University of Chicago Law School. Since I took a class from Obama in the mid-1990s on "Race, Racism, and the Law," I thought I could offer some insights into Obama, and what this article gets wrong. Although the article offers some interesting insights, it also distorts Obama's past and tries to attack Obama's candidacy by using his experiences at the University of Chicago as a way to confirm many of the false assertions made about Obama: that he's a politician who doesn't stand for anything, that he's an aloof elitist, that he only pretends to listen to opposing viewpoints.
The author even tries to smear Obama as someone who taught law school with an eye toward his own political ambitions:
Mr. Obama's years at the law school are also another chapter -- see United States Senate, c. 2006 -- in which he seemed as intently focused on his own political rise as on the institution itself.
It's not even clear what this means, but it seems to suggest that Obama's careful, thoughtful approach as a teacher and colleague in the law school was all a guise he used to avoid taking positions which, presumably, he feared might be dug up a decade later by reporters investigating his presidential campaign. This notion is, of course, thoroughly insane. What the author should have concluded is that Obama's years at the University of Chicago Law School show without a doubt that Obama's careful, thoughtful approach to issues today is not a centrist political cop-out; instead, it's a fundamental intellectual approach that Obama followed long before he ever sought political office.
According to Kantor:
Now, watching the news, it is dawning on Mr. Obama's former students that he was mining material for his political future even as he taught them.
This is a particularly odd comment, suggesting that Obama was simply using his students as a way to prepare for his political ambitions. In reality, Obama as teacher and Obama as politician was inspired in both roles by certain values and thinkers, and it's no surprise to see similarities.
There's a particularly offensive attempt to dismiss Obama as an affirmative-action hire given a job solely because of his race:
Mr. Obama had impressed Mr. McConnell with editing suggestions on an article; on little more than that, the law school gave him a fellowship, which amounted to an office and a computer, which he used to write his memoir, "Dreams From My Father." The school had almost no black faculty members, a special embarrassment given its location on the South Side.
Let me assure you, it takes a lot more than that to embarrass most of the University of Chicago faculty. They have been thoroughly comfortable with the idea of an overwhelmingly white faculty teaching overwhelmingly white students about the law in an impoverished black neighborhood. Obama wasn't hired because he was black; he was hired because he was smart, and having been the president of the Harvard Law Review is a major qualification. It's routine for hiring to be made based on a personal connection, and Obama was given some office space with the hope that he would teach there in the future. I've taken classes with Michael McConnell, and although I disagree with his very conservative views, he's not somebody who goes around making cynical quota hires. The University of Chicago faculty hire whomever they want, and there is no real pressure to create diversity.