On the Road with Barack Obama
BI: Do you advocate any significant changes in federal higher education policy, specifically in regard to student financial aid and pre-college programs for disadvantaged students and underrepresented minorities?
BO: I think it’s really important that we revamp our college loan programs to free up more money for students. The direct loan program works extremely well, and there doesn’t appear to be a need for these student loan programs to be managed through banks and other private lenders. If we were able to consolidate programs under the Direct Loan program, we would save $4.5 billion, which could be funneled back into providing more Pell grants and providing higher level of grants per student.
One of the things I’m most concerned about, I think, is the decline in grants to students and the increase in loans to students. It’s creating unsustainable debts for a lot of students. The minute they graduate from school they’re already $20,000, $30,000 in the hole. That severely limits the obviously the kind of career choices they may want to make. We need to recruit more teachers, more nurses, other helping professions — and it’s very difficult for them if they’ve got huge debt burdens to go into those careers.
BI: How have your experiences as a law professor shaped your public policy positions on higher education? As a political leader?
BO: Obviously as somebody who sees young people on a regular basis, I am greatly encouraged by the seriousness and hard work that young people are willing to put in. They’re hungry to get education, and everywhere I go I meet young people with the will and the drive, and the desire to go to college, but often times they lack (the) money.
And I think as a professor myself, I’m painfully aware of the barriers that a lot of young people still experience going to college, and also recognize the value of higher education because …I’ve had the opportunity that I have. I’m not someone who comes from a wealthy family, and I wouldn’t be in a position to do the kind of work that I do had it not been for the generosity of the broader society. I want to make sure we pass that generosity on to the next generation.
In terms of my position as a politician, or policy-maker, one of the things that an effective professor learns is how to present both sides of an argument. If you’re a good professor, and you’re not somebody who is only teaching the things you believe, you’re also teaching things that other people believe but you may disagree about.
And I think that being able to see all sides of an issue, having been trained in presenting all sides of an issue in the classroom, actually helps me question my own assumptions and helps me empathize with people who don’t agree with me.
BI: In the Democratic convention speech, you talked about people in inner-city communities understanding the role of personal responsibility and parental involvement in education. You also said they recognize the need to “eradicate the slander that says a Black youth with a book is acting White.” Prior to the convention, how frequently had you spoken about themes of personal responsibility and the need for greater commitment to and respect of academic excellence?
BO: Every time I get an opportunity to speak to students, I deliver that message. I, for a number of years, have had to give commencement addresses at high school graduations, college graduations. When I’m speaking certainly before a minority audience, this is something that I always emphasize because I do not believe that money alone is going to solve our educational problems.
We have to redouble our commitment to education within our own communities and within our homes, and raise the bar for our children in terms of what we expect from them. It’s not enough that they just graduate. We should expect every young person out there to be getting A’s. They can work harder. And we should turn off the television sets and curb the use of Playstations.
Those kinds of values — just believing that education is not only for our economic future, but it’s also important just to give meaning to your life and give you a broader perspective on the world, that’s something I think we have to recapture. And I say recapture because a generation ago I think there was greater respect for educational achievement within our communities.
BI: Much has been said and written about your biracial and multi-cultural background, even by your opponent Dr. Alan Keyes. How has your background been an asset, or a liability, in representing a largely poor and Black Chicago district in the Illinois legislature?
BO: I think it’s been entirely to my benefit. One of the things that I’m proud of is that I can move between many worlds and I think that’s broadened my perspective. It’s given me a sense of both the differences and circumstances between the races and social economic strata, but it has also confirmed my faith in the common humanity of all people.
There have been times when I first started in politics where the fact that I wasn’t from Chicago was an issue. But my ethnicity and my heritage was never something that was raised in my political life.
BI: How would you assess the impact of having been a community organizer on choosing politics as a career, and specifically on making a predominantly Black urban community your political base?
BO: I became a community organizer as a direct result of my work and study in college. I was greatly inspired by the civil rights movement. I majored in political science, and really appreciated the courage and commitment of ordinary people in the civil rights movement to do extraordinary things. My coming to Chicago, I think, opened up my potential — I consider (the experience) an extension of my college education because a lot of the things that I had read about in books I had to try to implement. It wasn’t always as easy as I thought, but it also confirmed my belief in the need to give everyday folks a handle on their own destiny. And all my work since that time has been shaped by the values that were forged during those years as a community organizer.
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