I learned a lot from friends who responded to my op-ed piece BLACK LEARNING MATTERS in InsideHigherEd for December 9, 2016. Thanks! Bu maybe my most important lesson came indirectly from an unexpected source.
Many comments that I received were two edged. Clearly, there is a wide consensus that higher education is not doing a good enough job in providing educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. But there is a counterbalancing feeling of discouragement. The most common objection to my piece has been that black students are really only interested in studies that will lead to high status or high paying jobs. Sound familiar?
Then Josh Ober at Stanford called my attention to something I had missed, what President Obama said about democracy, ancient and modern, during his visit to Athens in mid-November. He had a lot to be discouraged about, too, but drew on the experience of ancient Greece (and modern scholarship, notably the work of Josh Ober) to make the case for democratic institutions. He spoke with clarity, intelligence, and – imagine!- coherent sentence structure, qualities we may not experience very often in the next four years.
So read President Obama’s ‘remarks’ in Athens, and treasure them. They set me dreaming again – that every American student, whatever race or economic status, should read those words and the ancient texts that stand behind them while sitting on the Acropolis, argue about them down in the Agora, and defend his or her own view on the Pnyx.
Obama wasn’t just defending democracy against rampant authoritarian nativism; he was modelling how the classical past can speak to all of us about the present and our ever more uncertain future. That kind of learning matters, for all of us.