You could probably spread blame around over the media circus that’s become President Obama’s televised speech to school children. The speech is scheduled for tomorrow at Noon, EST and its full text is now available online here.
Let’s start with the blame due the Obama White House. I guess they might be blamed for not anticipating the attack from far right wing talk show hosts over a plan to speak directly to school children. After all, critics who blithely throw around terms like “Nazi,” “holocaust” and baby “death panels” (thank you Sarah Palin) when describing a plan to make health insurance universal in this country could hardly be expected to miss the opportunity to mine a 1:1 with impressionable children for all the nefarious and dark implications imagineable.
Then there was the self-inflicted wound caused by Obama’s Dept. of Education, which published on its Web site some suggested ideas for lessons or in-class activities to accompany the speech. One was to have children write a letter to themselves about ways they could “help the President.” That’s an unartful phrase, for sure, but we all kind of see what they’re shooting for — well except for Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin who took the phrase, put it in President Obama’s mouth and ran with it for all it was worth. The “help the President” line turned out to be perfect, allowing Mr. Obama’s vocal opponents to press their two most effective lines of attack: that he’s a shallow celebrity and that he’s a crypto Communist interested in indoctrinating all those unwilling or unable to see the Black Helicopters hovering just above his head. Let’s face it: Beck, Limbaugh and crew aren’t “pundits” so much as provocateurs — their role since January has not been to color the news, but to get people angry, make dark and portentious sounding predictions about the coming revolution (Socialist, that is). If it takes lying and distortions to do it, so be it.
The debate on the airwaves has permeated local communities across the country. In Colorado, a good friend of mine had to opt his second grader “in” to the Obama speech after parents, scared by what they were hearing on Fox and conservative radio, pressured the local school administration. Even here in Massachusetts, the issue has prompted racorous debate. I’m on a listserv for State School Committees, where there’s been a heated debate, replete with charged references to the Third Reich and accusations of racism that invoke Boston’s shameful history of segregation and race riots. The rancor doesn’t reflect well on either side, frankly. And, as is so often is the case in brush ups like this, the needs or opinions of the school children in question have been pushed to the side — the better to clear space for the grown ups to fight.
As is so often is the case in brush ups like this, the needs or opinions of the school children in question have been pushed to the side — the better to clear space for the grown ups to fight.
Here in Belmont, a community listserv has had an active, though much more level headed debate, with many supporting the address, but some residents expressing reservations about the notion of speech to children that could, in theory, contain political arguments. Its worth noting that Democrats have made similar arguments when the issue was a Republican president (Reagan, the first President Bush) addressing school age children.
Fortunately, our Superintendent has taken what I think is an entirely prudent and thoughtful approach to tomorrow’s speech. In a notice published on Thursday, Superintendent Entwistle indicated that he has spoken with the principals of our public schools, encouraged them to make the speech available, both live and recorded. Beyond that, principals and teachers will make the call about whether the speech and accompanying lesson plans work for their class and their students. That sounds just about right to me.
Being charitable: I think there’s just something about the notion of the words of politicians being piped into classrooms that just smacks many folks in this country as authoritarian and un-American. That’s OK — except when it makes us clam our ears shut to a message that we really might benefit from hearing. It’s also worth noting that the United States has, in the past, required and tolerated much more overt expressions of leader worship. My wife, who grew up in Sudbury in the 1970s, recalls being given a picture of President Gerald Ford to keep in her desk at school (or, perhaps, hang on her wall at home). I can’t even imagine the blowback should the White House suggest that students be given pictures of President Obama to keep, but I’d imagine the persons of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Hugo Chavez would feature prominently in the overheated rhetoric.
It’s worth noting that the United States has, in the past, required and tolerated much more overt expressions of leader worship. My wife, who grew up in Sudbury in the 1970s, recalls being given a picture of President Gerald Ford to keep in her desk at school.
Hopefully the release of the text of President Obama’s speech (and former First Lady Laura Bush’s endorsement of it) will put the debate to rest. Far from enlisting school kids to help him fight with legislators on Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama uses his own personal story of struggle, hard knocks and stellar achievement to deliver a message that I’d like to think even today’s polarized politicians can rally around: the need for school children to have hope for their futures, to reject the illusory world of shallow celebrity and easy money, to work hard, study and never give up, despite odds that may be stacked against them. Here are a few excerpts:
“I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star,” Obama will tell children.
Chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things…the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.
“That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures…you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.
“No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.”
In short, President Obama’s message isn’t Socialism – its humanism. More than that, and in the great tradition of American thought, its an optimistic message: a story of hope and redemption and second chances. That should be a message we can all agree with.