Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Professor Obama's Radical Syllabus

Jodi Kantor's pair of stories on Barack Obama's teaching years at the University of Chicago Law School should help fill in some gaps on what Americans genuinely know about the presumptive Democratic nominee (here and here).

I haven't seen any law professors weigh in yet, but I thought I'd throw in my two-cents from the political science perspective.

Kantor's first piece, "
Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Apart," provides an overview and character sketch of Obama's faculty days at the Chicago law school. The feeling here is that Obama was well-liked and highly-respected. He also left some colleagues wanting a little more in the way of change, growth, personal challenge, and academic reflection:

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.”
The essence of the story is that Obama was a committed, impassioned, inspiring professor, but teaching was literally an adjunct to his political aspirations. He didn't push too hard - never pressed buttons or stepped on toes - and didn't publish for fear of an ideological paper trail.

But he did leave one, in a sense, that provides at least telltale indicators to his ideological thinking.

As Kantor notes, in her second piece, "
Inside Professor Obama’s Classroom," the newspaper's research into Obama's Chicago days unearthed some of his teaching materials, including syllabi, examinations, and internal memos.

Particularly revealing is Obama's syllabus to his Spring 1994 law seminar, "
Current Issues in Racism and the Law." If Obama was resistant to conservative ideas at Chicago, his reading assignments open the door to his closeted postmodern approach to legal curricula.

Obama's Syllabus

It's not as though Obama failed to provide scholarly balance for his students. Included in his reading packet were selections from Robert Bork, the esteemed conservative constitutional scholar whose Supreme Court nomination was rejected for confirmation in 1987.

Yet, beyond Bork it appears Obama was intensely concerned with promoting an social-activist interpretation of race and the law (Kantor's
main article stresses this as well). It's revealing, for example, that Obama indicated that on recommended readings students might substitute the work of Derrick Bell for some of the other selections:

My main purpose in preparing this packet was to present, in easily accessible form, a basic primer regarding both the themes that have dominated the race debate in this country, as well as some of the key cases and statutes that reflect this debate.

Some of you will already be familiar with the material; others will find the material new. As a result, I've made at least half of the material optional (indicated in the syllabus). Those with the time and inclination can read the entire packet, while those with tighter schedules or a strong background in civil rights law can confine themselves to the required reading.

More particularly, in both the Slavery and Reconstruction sections, I have included short excerpts from Derrick Bell's,
Race, Racism, and American Law, that may serve as substitutes for some of the optional material.
Additional optional materials suggested were Derrick Bell's summaries of major cases such as Dred Scott, or his analyses of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

Again, readers will have to check with the law professors, especially regarding the civil rights law casebook (which looks unexceptional), but the privileged position of Derrick Bell in the course provides a partial roadmap to Obama's teaching goals and ideological foundations.

Bell is a founder of the law profession's "
critical race theory" of legal scholarship.

Critical race theory combines activism and scholarship in legal studies. Guiding questions in the genre focus on the nexus of race, racism, power, and privilege in civil rights and American history. The field is explicitly postmodernist, in that it takes issue with "conventional narratives" and seeks to unpack the social construction of white supremacy and black oppression. Critical race theorists are inherently radical; the goal of activist teaching and scholarhip is to break down all forms of subjugation, as well as the eradication of society's materialist edifices of elite hiearchy and classism.

The significance of Obama's pedagogy should be now become apparent.

Throughout the primaries Obama was battered with eruptions and revelations of controversal relationships with people way out of the mainstream of society.

Obama, if anyone could forget, was a parishioner at Trinity Unity Lutheran Church, who's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, preached a theology of black liberation, a religious tradition of Marxit-based social justice and the empowerment of the marginalized. Some adherents of liberation theology, particularly in Latin America during the Cold War,
explicitly advocated the revolutionary overthrow of conservative governmental regimes. Obama also held longstanding and troubling ties to '60s-era domestic revolutionaries, William Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn. In addition, the extent of Obama's relationship to radical groups such as ACORN are still being revealed.

The question for many people, who know little of such radicals and their front-organizations, is how could a U.S. Senator - and now presumptive Democratic nominee - have such extensive ties to extremists?

Professor Obama's radical syllabus is one of the pieces of the puzzle. The Illinois Senator could sit in the pews listening to Reverend Jeremiah for twenty years, nodding his head in agreement, because he spent his working days grading law school essays seeking to deconstruct the hegemony of black marginalization under America's legal apartheid. Obama could organize for social change - attending rallies and campaign events - with Weathermen terrorists because he was down with their ideological foundations. He could push a politics of social agitation in housing because he saw the slumlords of the South Side as the appendages of the capitalist oppressor state.

This is the intellectual environment cultivated in Obama's teaching and studies in civil rights law.

Barack Obama is
America's first postmodern presidential candidate.

By training and profession,
he's a social deconstructionist comfortably embedded in the lifestyle of oppositional legal and political culture. He has carefully navigated the waters of legal academe and municipal machine politics to carve out an outwardly non-confrontational demeanor, while on the inside he's informed by post-material, postmodern activist priorities, and his possible accession to the presidency would bring to power an occupant in the Oval Office dramatically unlike any of those who have come before.

Image Credit: New York Times


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the syllabus; I'll use it in my class, it's great!