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In Defense of President Obama's Education (Against the Silliness of Donald Trump and Andrew Breitbart)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) April 30, 2011: I have often thought that Yale University and Harvard Business School deserved a certain amount of blame for giving degrees to George W. Bush. However, during our long ordeal of W's presidency, Yale and Harvard somehow escaped blame for giving degrees to him.

I mention this puzzling fact because Donald Trump has pivoted from the birther issue about President Barack Obama to the issue of his formal education, especially at Columbia University and at Harvard Law School. Liberals were quick to label Trump a racist for questioning how Obama had gotten into Columbia and Harvard Law. Trump's liberal critics were quick to point out that he was intimating that perhaps Obama had benefited from affirming action. According to his critics, intimating this is a way for Trump to tap into white resentments of affirmative action. Perhaps it is.

But it strikes me as plausible that Obama may have benefited from affirmative action, just as George W. Bush had benefited from the fact that his father, George H. W. Bush, had graduated from Yale. But it does not necessarily follow that Obama was not qualified enough to succeed at Columbia and Harvard Law on his own efforts. It is well known that W. did not set the academic world on fire at Yale. Neither did John Kerry, by the way. But Obama did rise to distinction at Harvard Law.

Enter Andrew Breitbart, the young bomb-throwing conservative author of the book RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION: EXCUSE ME WHILE I SAVE THE WORLD (Grand Central Publishing, April 15, 2011). On April 29th, Breitbart appeared as one of the guests on Bill Maher's television show "On Real Time." Maher accused Trump of being a racist for questioning how Obama got into Harvard Law, but Maher qualified his accusation by allowing that "Trump does not even know that he is a racist."

But Breitbart defended Trump's position. According to Steven Loeb's report at the BUSINESS INSIDER online, "While noting that Obama is "incredibly smart' and "I guarantee you that he excelled, that he earned his right to be in the Harvard Law Review' Breitbart then went on to demand to see what classes Obama took while in college."

Maher questioned how useful such information might be. But according to Loeb, Breitbart persisted: "I'd like to know who [Obama's] professors were, what they espoused and how it relates to his current policy."

Unbeknownst to Breitbart and Maher and Loeb, James T. Kloppenberg of Harvard University has investigated Obama's education and reported his findings in his book READING OBAMA: DREAMS, HOPE, AND THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION (Princeton University Press, October 11, 2011), which I reviewed at OpEdNews on November 22, 2010.

Let's review. Obama started his undergraduate education on a scholarship at Occidental College in Los Angeles and then transferred to Columbia in his junior year. According to Kloppenberg, Obama "studied history and political theory, first in America and then of Europe, in two year-long courses with the political scientist Roger Boesche. [At the time] Boesche was immersed in writing a fine book about Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the widely quoted and too seldom read DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, and he [Boesche] was beginning to think about the subject of his later scholarship, tyranny from the ancient world to the present. Almost three decades later, Obama's experience in those courses remains significant enough that he invited Boesche to the White House, where they joked about the "B' Obama remembered (correctly) having received from Boesche" (page 16).

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Kloppenberg then goes on to discuss the range of thinkers Boesche discussed in those courses. As a matter of fact, those courses from Boesche lay the foundation for Kloppenberg's major claim that Obama as a political thinker should be aligned with the American tradition of pragmatist philosophy.

Because Trump and Breitbart have urged us to evaluate Obama as a student worthy of admission to Columbia University and Harvard Law School, let us pause here and measure him against George W. Bush and John Kerry in their respective first and second years of study at Yale University. Did Bush and Kerry in their first two years at Yale take two year-long courses in history and political theory from the same professor? I seriously doubt it. By all accounts, Bush and Kerry were not pulling down B's.

Next, we should raise comparable questions about Trump and Breitbart and their respective undergraduate educations.

For his first two years as an undergraduate, Trump attended Fordham University, the Jesuit university in the Bronx. But did he take two year-long courses in history and political theory from the same professor that were comparable in scope to the courses Obama took from Boesche? Based on my own Jesuit undergraduate education elsewhere about the same time, I seriously doubt if Trump did. He may have taken a year-long course in the history of Western civilization. But from Kloppenberg's description of the two year-long courses that Obama took from Boesche, I seriously doubt if Trump took two comparable year-long courses at Fordham. When Trump transferred to the University of Pennsylvania for his junior and senior undergraduate years, he studied in the Wharton School there, which is not famous for offering year-long courses in history and political theory. He graduated in 1968 with a bachelor of science degree in economics with a concentration in finance.

According to the Wikipedia entry about Breitbart, he graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1991. But according to the Wikipedia entry, the "epiphany" in his life did not occur during his studies at Tulane, but during the Clarence Thomas hearings in the summer of 1991.

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Next, I want to discuss what I see as the major implication of Kloppenberg's claim that Obama the political thinker should be aligned with American pragmatist philosophy, which for Kloppenberg is exemplified in William James and John Dewey. Kloppenberg is right. Obama prides himself in not being ideological, but in being pragmatic. As others have observed, few presidents of the United States would have ever claimed that they were not trying to find what might work, which is of course a mantra Obama invokes to explain himself. So like all other presidents, Obama tries to find what will work. Fine. Good for him.

Now, when he says that he is not ideological in his decision making, he really means it. He is not ideological in his decision making. However, this sets him apart from most of his predecessors.

Indeed, Obama's non-ideological approach to making decisions frustrates a lot of people, including me. Each decision seems to be ad hoc. But both Obama himself and Kloppenberg would defend the ad hoc approach by characterizing it as pragmatic.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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Donald Trump has pivoted from birther silliness to... by Thomas Farrell on Saturday, Apr 30, 2011 at 8:28:05 PM
coupled with a well integrated knowledge of how to... by John Sanchez Jr. on Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 9:01:05 AM
So Breithbart wants to know who Obama's professors... by Jack Shneidman on Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 12:10:19 PM