Barack Obama’s exam questions and answers engaged me on several levels.
First, As a constitutional law professor, I came away impressed — dazzled, really — by the analytic intelligence and sophistication of these questions and answers. A really good exam — an exam that tests and stretches the student, while simultaneously providing the professor with a handy and fair index to rank the class — is its own special art form. Composing such an exam is like crafting a sonnet or a crossword puzzle. We don’t have Obama’s answer key every year; but the questions themselves are in many instances beautifully constructed to enable students to explore the seams and plumb the depths of the Supreme Court’s case law. I am tempted to use variations of several of these questions myself in some future exam. (I won’t say which, lest I tip my students off.) When I read Jodi Kantor’s piece, I was very interested to hear that the University of Chicago Law School was willing to offer Obama tenure. In these materials I see why.
Second, as a student of history, I couldn’t help thinking of Lincoln. Not just because we have a skinny guy from Illinois who is largely self-made and who can write a great speech — I knew that already. Lincoln was a brilliant lawyer, who did his own thinking and writing and cut to the essence of hard legal issues with amazing incisiveness. Lincoln understood the Constitution and its deepest structures as well as or better than any of the Justices on the Supreme Court of his day. These materials helped me see Obama in a similar light.
Which brings me to the last level — the moral level. Like Lincoln, Jefferson and Madison were also brilliant. But Jefferson and Madison lived and died as slaveholders and did much less than they could have done to put slavery on a path of ultimate extinction. Nixon had a keen legal mind, but a large moral blind spot. Lincoln had a rare combination of moral depth and legal brilliance. Make no mistake, he was a politician who understood how to tack and trim. But he was a politician with a strong moral compass and a deep understanding of the rule of law. Similarly, there is a great deal of moral seriousness in Obama’s legal materials. They are not just about technical and technocratic legal questions. Some of the great mysteries and tragedies of human life and American society — involving marriage, divorce, childbearing, cloning, the right to die with dignity, infertility, sexual orientation, and yes, of course, race — are probed in these materials in ways that encourage students to think not just about law, but about justice, and truth, and morality.
Source: The Caucus Blog