Some of the people who're quoted in the story view Obama in terms of what they see as virtues (or pitfalls) in themselves. Maybe there's no surprise in this. One example is Richard Epstein, who has a definite world view and fits just about everything into it. He appears to criticize Obama for failing to spell out his ideas:
“I don’t think anything that went on in these chambers affected him,” said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Mr. Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. “His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings.”
Amidst all the commentary, I have seen little attention paid to the syllabus for a 1994 seminar on current issues in racism and the law that's posted on the New York Times' website, beyond the Times' own analysis, led by Chapman University professor John Eastman, Yale University's Akhil Amar, Georgetown University professor Randy Barnett and Stanford University's Pam Karlan. The professors are all complimentary of Obama's race and law syllabus, to the extent they discuss it. (And the balanced presentation of material may be the reason there's as yet not been a bunch of attention to it. The truth may be that law courses just aren't all that interesting to the public, even when they're on race.)
One comment did sound strange to my ears. Professor Randy Barnett says of the readings "The materials assigned were balanced, including several readings by Frederick Douglass, who many modern race theorists have come to disparage as insufficiently radical (as Obama would know)...." Frederick Douglass disparaged as insufficiently radical? Hmm. That doesn't sound like the serious scholars who work on the history of race and law that I know. (It now occurs to me that perhaps Barnett was thinking of Booker T. Washington, who also appears in the syllabus.)
Looks like a seminar I'd enjoy taking, by the way. It ranges really widely, including excerpts on leading works in history to cases as far back as the early nineteenth century, to Shelby Steele and William Wilson. I might add, he included State v. Mann--a case by Justice Thomas Ruffin of the North Carolina Supreme Court, about whose jurisprudence I have a few thoughts.
I find it somewhat surprising, given the discussion of Obama's term as president of the Harvard Law Review--on which people are trying to draw a lot of conclusions from a small amount of data (and here), that there hasn't been more focus on the content of his syllabus. But maybe that's because the syllabus includes some interesting works, has some works from across the political spectrum, and isn't otherwise too remarkable.
One point of some interest to me is that he suggests a number of topics for student papers, including an analysis of reparations for slavery (and the political reality of the environment for reparations). It's one of the more balanced statements I've seen about the issues involved in that controversial topic. Remember, Professor Obama was suggesting a paper topic, not his thoughts on the wisdom, morality, or political expediency of reparations--of which he sounds rather skeptical, to my ears.
I find it heartening that we have available the raw data for analysis of his classroom. I'm much interested in the inferences we might draw from senior theses and other student works, especially from the antebellum period--even as I remain rather skeptical of reading much into them. It's a great project in the history of the book, for sure, trying to draw inferences from texts. And, now that it's on time Times' website, it may be the most popular syllabus in America!