David Maraniss is a very good biographer, so it should come as no surprise that he has dug up some fascinating material about President Obama for his upcoming book Barack Obama: The Story, excerpted in the June edition of Vanity Fair. The article, entitled “Becoming Obama,” treats what has been a hitherto overlooked interval in the lifeof the forty-second President, his time in New York after graduating from Columbia in 1983.Maraniss’s descriptions are both intimate, giving us an Obama who would “lounge around, drinking coffee and solving the New York Timescrossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong,” and relatively profound, as when Obama explains in an interview “The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality…So that is at the core of who I am.” In some ways, Obama’s attempt to turn his life into a story, best exemplified in his superb autobiography Dreams from My Father, is part of the job of all aspirants to high office.Every politician strives to create a narrative that explains their rise to prominence and fills out their character in such a way that the office they seek to occupy seems like an inevitable next step, something that follows consequently from the trajectory that brought them before the electorate.
Ideally, college should perform the inverse of the process Santorum describes. He sees it as a place where people lose faith and exchange one set of positive allegiances (religion, traditional values) for another (political liberalism, secularism). Santorum’s critique of the university is not that it teaches dogmatism, but rather that it substitutes the wrong kind of faith for the one right one. But at its best, our colleges and universities do both much more and substantially less. It is often hard to specify or remember what exactly we learn in a lecture or tutorial, but we are changed by academic work. In focusing so exclusively on the content of university education, Santorum neglects the impact of its form. To say that we should aspire to be a country where “everyone goes to college” is to insist that we try to be citizens who question rather than accept and challenge rather than parrot. As Andrew H. Delbanco ’73 notes, “in America there has been an impulse to slow things down, to extend the time for second chances and defer the day when determinative choices must be made.” It might be argued that our network of institutions of higher education constitute one of this county’s crowning achievements.