Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Learning President

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Back in March, 2007, before I owned an Obama button (which I acquired the day of the New Hampshire primary, when I did a hour or so of phone bank calling, ugh), I posted something on the mastery or learning mindset.  It came from Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, and I summarized it as follows:

The thesis is that there is an additional outlook, or mindset, wholly unrelated to intelligence, that frames how we look at problems.  The distinction is between a "fixed mind-set" that sees intelligence as static, and a "growth" or "mastery" mind-set that sees intelligence as something that can be developed.  The fixed mind-set about wanting merely to be smart, but the mastery mind-set is about wanting to learn.  As a result, if you simply are smart but not a learner, you would have a tendency to discount effort, avoid challenges, give up easily in the face of obstacles, and be defensive, particularly about making mistakes.  Learners, on the other hand, like challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, embrace effort, and tend to find lessons in mistakes.  I thought one of the conclusions in a diagram of the model was interesting - it generalizes that fixed mind-set confirms a deterministic view of the world but a mastery mind-set gives a greater sense of free will.

Over at PrawfsBlawg, Ken Simons offers up the thesis that part of the reason Barack Obama won was because of his "academic temperament."   I think he's on to something, but I don't think the right answer is academic temperament.  With all due respect, I've met a lot of law professors, and a lot of non-law professors, and I'm still not convinced there is a greater likelihood you have the mastery mind-set because you are a law professor. 

What I think I responded to in Obama from the very beginning is what Laurence Tribe describes in his touching essay today:  "Barack Obama's unique ability to explain and to motivate, coupled with his signature ability to listen and to learn."

Honestly, I don't recall, at least since Kennedy, a learning President.  And I'm not sure about Kennedy, because I think his personal peccadilloes might have disqualified him.

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Agreed. I think an example of this is the reports out of that White House meeting on the bailout plan. Sounds like he really did listen before he spoke. And I agree that this is not necessarily an attribute held by, or limited to, professors. I suspect it is more of his community organizer background than his law prof one. Though he did teach seminars and that would require a lot of hearing and replying not just lecturing.

Posted by: Alan Childress | Nov 6, 2008 8:45:06 PM

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