Education and the American Dream in Barack Obama's Dreams from my Father 

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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President Obama’s memoir and contemplation of the legacies handed to him by his parents, Dreams from my Father, is very heavily influenced by his experiences with and around education, both as a child of a mother determined to ensure her son’s education, and as a community activist in the poorer, predominantly African American neighborhoods of Chicago.  As such, it provides a multifaceted perspective on the role of education and its limitations with regard to “the American Dream.”  As a child, Barack was raised by his single mother in the Southeast Asian archipelago nation of Indonesia.  Indonesia today exhibited enormous gaps between the haves and have-nots, with the latter representing a large percentage of the country’s population, especially as one moves farther away from the capitol, Jakarta.  Forty years ago, the gap was even worse, far worse, and the wide-scale poverty endemic in much of Indonesia was clearly visible to this young man and his mother.  It was in this context that Obama learned the importance of education, describing in Chapter Two his mother’s efforts at inculcating in her son an appreciation for academics:

“She had taught me to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterized Americans abroad. But she now had learned, just as Lolo had learned, the chasm that separated the life chances of an American from those of an Indonesian. She knew which side of the divide she wanted her child to be on. I was an American, she decided, and my true life lay elsewhere.   Her initial efforts centered on education. Without the money to send me to the International School, where most of Djakarta’s foreign children went, she had arranged from the moment of our arrival to supplement my Indonesian schooling with lessons from a U.S. correspondence course.”

And, this appreciation for the importance of education didn’t begin with his mother; it was also handed down by his grandmother, Toot:

“Not that Toot had anticipated her success. Without a college education, she had started out as a secretary to help defray the costs of my unexpected birth.”

So, Barack Obama grew up with a healthy appreciation for the importance of education as a means of climbing the socioeconomic ladder.  It would be in Chicago, as a high school student and later, as an adult, as a community activist, however, where the future U.S. senator and president would confront the limitations on education advocacy.  The legacies of enduring poverty and the societal ills that accompany it were endemic throughout the African American neighborhoods of Chicago where he worked, and where his perceptions diverged from those of his mother, as in the following passage from Chapter Five:

“That was the problem with booze and drugs, wasn’t it? At some point they couldn’t stop that ticking sound, the sound of certain emptiness. And that, I suppose, is what I’d been trying to tell my mother that day: that her faith in justice and rationality was misplaced, that we couldn’t overcome after all, that all the education and good intentions in the world couldn’t help plug up the holes in the universe or give you the power to change its blind, mindless course.”

A passage from Chapter Ten, when community organizer Obama was meeting with the principal of an inner-city school, illuminates well the conundrum faced by educators functioning in a corrupt and bureaucratically bloated system.  Looking for an answer through education was failing because Chicago’s public schools were less about education than about control.  As this principal explained to Obama and his colleague:

“’The first thing you have to realize,’ he said, looking at Johnnie and me in turn, ‘is that the public school system is not about educating black children. Never has been. Inner-city schools are about social control. Period. They’re operated as holding pens-miniature jails, really. It’s only when black children start breaking out of their pens and bothering white people that society even pays any attention to the issue of whether these children are being educated’.”

Schools that essentially substitute for juvenile detention centers and that lose sight of their core mission of educating the future leaders of society have failed those whom they exist to serve -- the children.  Education, Obama seems to be suggesting, cannot exist as an amorphous concept.  It has to address society’s legitimate concerns and provide concrete opportunities for the future of each of its students.  The “American Dream” exists in terms of opportunities this nation provides future generations, but the playing fields must be level and aren’t when so many of one particular category of American citizen has been disenfranchised for so many decades.  In other words, “education” as a concept means nothing absent concrete expressions of resolve to ensure it is available to all and is resourced and conducted according to need and not according to ethnicity or to those with the preponderance of power.  In other words, the theory and practice of education can be two very different things under the wrong circumstances.

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