President's Notebook

President's Notebook

My View from South Hill

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Posted by Thomas Rochon at 7:51AM   |  Add a comment
First-year students sit on the Academic Quad during a discussion of the First-Year Reading. Source: Hannah Agatston/The Ithacan.


I think you are sick to require your incoming students to read this dumbo's book!

Let me guess. You did drugs in the sixties, but now you do them at any temperature?


Why not make them read Mein Kampf? Same book, different author.


This is a sampling of the emails I received after asking incoming freshmen to come to campus having read Barack Obama’s coming of age story, Dreams from My Father. I should perhaps admit that I have read Mein Kampf, and a copy of the book stands on my shelf. That is not unusual among people who have made their living as a teacher of the tumultuous politics of 20th century Europe. I am happy to report that reading the book did not turn me into a Nazi.


I doubt that reading Dreams from My Father created any new Democrats among our freshmen either, but then again that was not the point. Obama wrote this book to record experiences and thoughts as a young man growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, as a college student in California and New York, as a community organizer in Chicago, and as a family-seeking pilgrim in Kenya. Far from being a political manifesto ( I agree with my critics that it would be inappropriate to assign a campaign book as required freshman reading), Dreams from My Father tells of Obama’s search to understand where he fits in with family, community, and people in general. Though his life circumstances are highly particular, Obama’s core questions are the questions every young adult must answer for himself or herself: “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” and “What is the purpose or meaning of my life?”


Not that Obama’s background is as unusual as one might believe. One fifth of Americans under 21 have at least one parent who was born in another country. Sure enough, though every freshman in the small discussion group I led grew up in the United States, one had grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Costa Rica and another had family in India. Just as Obama found his first visit to Kenya revelatory, concluding “that on this earth one place is not so different from another … one moment carries within it all that’s gone before,” so too was it eye-opening for these Ithaca College students to travel to their respective ancestral lands. One found new insight in discovering “the part of me that had been missing.”  The other felt repulsed by attitudes and social practices that she could not accept. Both were doing what all thoughtful young adults must do: figure out who they are and decide what they believe in. 


To us older people, the book is a reminder that we all came into the world as strangers in a strange land and that we had to make sense of the world around us. For at least some of our students who read the book, on the other hand, its central revelation seems to have been that the powerful, self-assured leaders they see in the world in around them were once as young and as uncertain about life’s mysteries as they are today. “How does anybody get to be anything?” asked one of the students in my discussion group. The answer she discovered in the book was that the journey of life is taken one step at a time. You progress in that journey by reflecting on the difficult questions thrown up by your experiences.  The young Mr. Obama did not start out with a fully-formed plan -- a great relief to those of our students who know they don't have any such plan themselves.


Discussion groups formed around Dreams from My Father last Tuesday, and then on Wednesday classes began. As happens every year at this time, it is a moment for students to examine the most important questions in their lives and to set their goals for the year ahead, before the intensity of daily class assignments and projects fully sets in. 


To those who fear the college campus as a place of indoctrination, I suggest simply that you spend 15 minutes with a real, live student. Experience the idealism, the established foundation of values, the questioning of everything around them, the sheer depth of insight.  And then feel very, very good about our future as a society.







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