But, no, this particular dream did not come true. Instead, it was as expected: after giving a talk for the 200 students attending the event, I was barely able to find a seat in the back row, which was still closer than I could ever imagine I’d ever get to the man, the myth, the legend. The students got to spend the hour standing on the stairs, but they may have had a better view.
Regardless of the view, I am still privileged to have had this opportunity to see and hear Obama, to be in the same room as he answered the questions of the CEO of Foreningen Business Kolding. He remarked about the comfort of Danish chairs (which I am in total agreement with) as well as the highly organized society of Denmark, which he attributed to the cold temperatures.
Since the event was a partnership between business and education, it was no surprise that Obama was asked about these topics. When he started talking about education, I started taking notes.
And here’s where my home institution and other American universities should listen up: when asked about the skills he thought students of today need for the world of the tomorrow, Obama spoke about the need for critical thinking and creativity. He highlighted the importance of learning to work with people and to develop empathy and understanding. He said that his advice to his daughters (if we assume that they might listen to him) is to be kind and to be useful, to “worry less about what you want to be and more about what you want to do.”
While he did not use the word “interdisciplinarity,” this is exactly what he was talking about.
He talked about how the most successful people are those who love what they do. If you focus on what you want to be, he argued, then you have “no center, no focus, no reason except to maintain the power that you have.”
Obama reiterated an argument that is not new: the kind of work we train students for—by asking them to sit in lecture halls, follow scripts, and spit back answers on tests—will be done by robots, by artificial intelligence. I’ll add that rather than see this as a threat, we should see this as an opportunity. Human beings will be freed up for higher pursuits and I’m with Obama in imagining what such a world might bring.
I think that the Danes felt inspired and it was certainly a breath of fresh air to hear Obama’s optimism about the future—his sights have always been on the long game, so to speak. His Obama Foundation, which he describes as a “university for social change,” has a vision of training young leaders to guide, steer, and organize “communities, nations, and the world,” creating communities of people across nations, in multiple fields, with a shared mission and values.
It was nice to soak in some optimism for an hour, but when I checked my Facebook feed, and I saw what was going on at home—the travesty of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings—the long game seems too far away. We’re going to need more than optimism to get through these trying times. I will remain optimistic that the long game is still in play, but an end to a culture that excuses and encourages sexual violence (among other insidious things) needs to end before we can set our sights on the promises of the future.