As President Obama enters his final months in office, speculation about what he and Michelle will do once they leave the White House is growing. Even Obama has seemed uncertain of what direction his post-Presidential life should take, gathering a team of advisers as early as last year to help him chart a suitable return course to civilian life. He is yet a young man, as former Presidents go, and there aren’t many options for someone of his stature. For the man who wrote two memoirs before becoming President, further installments of his ongoing autobiography are a given, but then what?
One hint about his post-Washington plans came in an interview with this magazine. “I love teaching,” the President told Jeffrey Toobin in October, 2014. “I miss the classroom and engaging with students.“ Obama was referring to his time at University of Chicago Law School, and it is easy to see the former con-law professor playing Socrates to a room full of eager students. In fact, Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, seemed to suggest last August that Obama would be returning to his New York alma mater. No doubt, Columbia would offer him a king’s ransom and every other academic perk imaginable. But, for me, to find the first black President—a former community organizer who has ventured more daringly outside the Oval Office (with a stop at a prison, a speech at a mosque, an impending visit to Cuba) than any other modern President—teaching at Columbia (or any school like it) would be a disappointment. To put it bluntly, rich white kids at rich white schools don’t need him. But there are places, and students, that do. I’d like to suggest three.
Obama could teach at a historically black college/university, or H.B.C.U., as the common parlance has it. Some of the most illustrious names of the past American century, from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Thurgood Marshall to Toni Morrison, were educated at these schools. Integration ended H.B.C.U.s’ central role in the education of black people, as many top African-American students decamped for white universities, and yet several of the latest generation of black intellectuals, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, were trained at them. Perhaps more than ever, these schools struggle for recognition, esteem, and, most of all, funds. Howard University has an endowment of six hundred and fifty-nine million dollars, compared with Columbia’s endowment of more than nine billion dollars, while Johns Hopkins University receives more federal funds than all one hundred and seven H.B.C.U.s combined. Many of these schools have significant financial problems, to the point that they may be threatened with closure, and with these schools would go a potent force for good in the lives of black youth.
Obama has frequently worried over the belief, held by some black youth, that excelling in school means acting white. I have often thought that the antidote is exposing them to schools where everyone is serious about school and everyone is black. In Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” he writes of arriving at Howard at seventeen, doubtful of his own intelligence and even humanity, and finding that “the black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white.” He discovered that “the black disapora was not just our own world but, in some many ways, the Western world itself,” and, along with the many black faces around him, learned to resist the shame and hatred in his heart. Obama’s presence could be a shore against these ruins, drawing talent and donors to these cash-strapped schools, and allowing him to demonstrate how seriously he takes the task of shaping the next generation of black doctors, lawyers, writers, and Presidents.
Yet another place that could make great use of Obama’s talent and prestige would be any one of the nation’s eleven hundred community colleges. If H.B.C.U.s historically have filled out the ranks of the black middle class, community colleges have buoyed the prospects of the nation’s working class. They are where not just of the sons and daughters of low-income blacks and whites can be found but also the children of Latino immigrants, the “Dreamers” about whom Obama has spoken passionately. “These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag,” Obama said in 2012. “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one.” A quarter of students at community colleges are either immigrants or the children of immigrants, according to the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education.
Much like H.B.C.U.s, community colleges suffer from their relative lack of prestige and political standing. Many have suffered from severe state budget cuts in recent years, forcing them to raise tuition and compromising their ability to educate the low-income students who rely on them. These increasing financial difficulties are coming as the cost of four-year colleges is skyrocketing and forcing some middle-class students into the two-year college system. In other words, just as the need for community colleges is growing, their ability to meet those needs is weakening. Who better than the former President, arriving to teach political science on some community-college campus twice a week, to bring the attention, money, and political clout that community colleges need?
The third place Obama could teach is perhaps the most improbable, but the one I hope he most strongly considers. I think Obama should teach, for one year, for even just part of the time, in an inner-city K-12 public school. A single course in U.S. government for high-school seniors would suit him well.
In 2013, less than two per cent of public-school teachers were black men, which tells us that the overwhelming majority of kids, both black and white, have little direct exposure to professional black men in their daily lives. This has had a disastrous effect on the development of black students, and especially black boys, contributing to their staggering levels of behavioral issues, suspensions, and, ultimately, dropouts. A recent study by the Department of Education found that black boys receive more than two-thirds of all public-school suspensions. Another study showed that black students are less likely to be recommended for gifted programs when they are taught by non-black teachers. These problems are not straightforward—neither poverty nor racism nor the depredations of popular culture represent a single answer—but Obama, as a high-school teacher, could reinvigorate efforts to solve them.
Obama’s presence in a public school could also provide a desperately needed morale boost to the teachers working there now. In her book “The Teacher Wars,” Dana Goldstein describes how, over the past decade, an obsessive focus on the worst of the worst has led people to believe “that public school teaching—especially urban teaching—is a broadly failed profession.” Partly as a result of this declining regard for public-school teachers, the number of people pursuing teaching credentials has dramatically fallen. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of people entering teacher-training programs in California dropped by more than fifty-five percent. In my single year of teaching at a public school, I saw at least a half a dozen new and veteran teachers flee a single school and its excessively punitive administration for retirement or another profession. By joining the ranks of public-school teachers, even for a brief time, Obama could help buoy their often brutally flagging sense of self-worth.
For a January, 2014, Profile of the President, David Remnick accompanied Obama on a fund-raising trip to California. He wrote, “The higher we went up into Beverly Hills, the grander the houses were. This was where the big donors lived. But Obama’s thoughts have been down in the city.” Now, as he closes out his term, the President is increasingly talking about how to remedy the savage inequalities of race and class, about shortening the climb between the bottom and top rungs of American society. All of this is to say that it is surely not too much to hope that this singular President, upon departing the White House, might issue the Ivy League a rain check and cast his lot, for the time being, with those students struggling to survive in the city, the ones living at the bottom of the hill.