Today K-12 students in many school districts across the country had the opportunity to listen to an address by President Obama. Despite predictions from conservative parents and pundits that Obama would go off-script to drone left-wing talking points, the speech (video, text) was pretty bland, in keeping with--and some have argued even less political than--addresses by former presidents George H. W. Bush (1991) and Ronald Reagan (1986, 1988).
You can go elsewhere for pure political commentary on the speech--I'm going to keep (mostly) mum on my opinions about the speech (good, if bland--I didn't find it as inspiring as younger folks might, but I'm feeling pretty jaded about education right now, working as I do for the University of California) and the furor surrounding it (inane and yet infuriating). Look to the end of the post for a couple folks, one from each side of the political spectrum, who speak my mind. But first I'll round up some of the reactions of kids, parents, and teachers.
Students at one school in Pennsylvania reported, "It sounded like the standard try-hard-and-do-well speech" and "It's the same stuff (you hear) all the time. It wasn't really inspiring." The Voice of Deseret blog has a round-up of students' reactions to the speech.
Joan Gallagher-Bolos shares the letter of protest she wrote to her local school board. She explains that the district where she works took a different approach, and as a result this was her lesson plan:
As a science teacher, I plan to have the president's speech playing in my classroom and then discuss whether or not his thoughts will help solve any of the 20 greatest scientific, global problems as outlined in the book High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Fix Them. The idea of disagreeing with the president's thoughts is as welcome as agreeing with them and as welcome as not understanding them...as long as a student has a well-formulated opinion. This is the foundation of developing a constructive educational community. Without this freedom, I would not have the opportunity to make this lesson really come to life. And I believe my students will find the day eye-opening, challenging and—dare I say it—even inspiring. This is the type of environment in which our greatest historical thinkers thrived. Don't deprive our children of these experiences.
Speaking of lesson plans, Facing History and Ourselves offered discussion questions--pretty damn good ones, too, including "What should be the role of the president when it comes to education? Is it appropriate for the president to speak directly to students? Why or why not?"
Laura at Geeky Mom found the speech at once inspiring and logical:
I love the "if you want to be x, then do x in school" logic of this and other sections of his speech. If my kids don't see it in school today, we're going to watch it together later. Kids need to be inspired and the President, any president, regardless of party, is inspirational to kids. What kid doesn't think they might be President some day? I feel a twinge of sadness that this whole thing has become a controversy, fueled by ignorance and hatred. What a small-minded country we've become.
Wesley Fryer feels an opportunity was missed for school districts and teachers to demonstrate (or learn!) the power of live, synchronous discussions via social media or other technology.
Akela Talamasca writes that fear of a potential radicalism is what brought parents to protest the airing of the speech in schools. Yet at MomGrind, one blogger had a hard time finding the alleged socialist content in the speech, even after a close reading:
I’m carefully reading through Obama’s speech to kids right now, looking for the “socialist,” “partisan” content that scared parents so much, and I just don’t see it.
Perhaps I’m naive, or maybe I need to work on my ability to better read between the lines, but all I see are important, encouraging messages about the importance of education, of personal responsibility and hard work; about how you need to learn from your failures and not let them define you; about asking for help when you need it; never giving up on yourself; and about your individual success being part of the nation’s success – wait, is that the radical part of the speech?
Even if you worry about what the president might say, how about taking this as an opportunity to teach your kids about critical thinking and free speech? How about telling your children that the president will give a speech, and they may be required to listen to it at school, and they may agree or disagree with the things he says and should politely express their opinion once the speech is over and the teacher opens it for discussion?
Katie Connolly wonders if President Reagan's widely lauded speech following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger would be as warmly accepted in today's political climate:
In 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger launched, school teacher Christa McAuliffe was among the crew. Awed and inspired by McAuliffe, teachers and students across the country watch the launch live in their classrooms. Thousands of school children were glued to television screens when, horrifyingly, the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after take off killing everyone on board. At the time, Chester E. Finn, President of education think tank the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, worked for the Reagan Administration in the Department of Education. When Reagan decided to address the nation about the Challenger disaster that evening, Finn recalls school children being encouraged to watch the President's speech to help them deal with the trauma. "That was one of his fine moments," Finn recalls of Reagan's speech. "Not one single solitary soul that I am aware of criticized him." But today, if the response to President Obama's address to school children is any indication, the incident would likely be cast as "Conservative President Seeks to Take Advantage of National Tragedy." How did America get to this point?
At Secular Right, Heather Mac Donald had a few bones to pick with the president:
The overheated right-wing pundits were on to something after all. Obama’s speech to the “nation’s students” was pompous, ridiculously long, chock-full of ed-school bromides, and wholly beyond a president’s proper role.
Why should students study, according to Obama? Because they will develop “critical thinking skills” from “history and social studies” that will allow them “to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free.”
How about studying because you will gain actual knowledge–not just “critical thinking skills”–that will lift you out of ignorance? How about for the love of learning and beauty? How about because facts matter?
(I've come across many critiques like Mac Donald's, and on the one hand I want to applaud anyone who attempts textual interpretation instead of repeating talking points from either major political party--but in the interest of full disclosure: Today I gave a talk to 50 university faculty members about the importance of incorporating critical thinking skills into their courses, as students arrive at university able mostly to absorb "facts" (many of which may not actually be true) rather than contextualize them.)
Republican Ranting thinks the furor was much ado about nothing, but one blogger at Chicago News Bench felt that while the address in itself was boring and bland, the presentation of the address played too much into a cult of personality surrounding Obama.
I'm going to stray from this reaction round-up now and close with a couple quotes from blog posts written before Obama gave his address, one from each end of the political spectrum. Each speaks my mind in many ways. The first was written by Will Richardson at Weblogg-ed. I wish more parents had insisted on the kind of interpretive and analytical opportunities Richardson describes.
It would seem to me that there should be no better place for my children to watch that speech (or any other, for that matter) than in a place where ideas are encouraged, where critical thinking about those ideas is a natural part of the conversation, and where appropriate response and debate can flourish. Where the adults in the room lead my kids to dig deeper, to validate facts, and consider the many levels of context in which every speech and every debate takes place. Where the discussion around it is such that it lays to rest the concern that many seem to have about this particular speech in general, that in some way the President will be able to “indoctrinate” our kids into some socialist mindset. If schools are the fully functioning learning communities that we hope they are, they should be the place where our kids learn to make sense of ideas, not to fear them. That, however, is not the message we are sending.
All of this speaks to the ever narrowing role we as a society have assigned to our schools. And that is truly something to fear. School is the place kids go to learn the stuff they need to pass all of the tests, not the place that they go to engage the diversity and complexity and beauty of the world. If we cannot offer our students wide ranging opportunities to examine the world from many sides and teach them how to do that with rigor and respect, then we subvert the very idea of school.
I keep thinking of how much could be taught in this moment: oratory, research skills, statistics (drop-out rates, etc.), history, media, analysis, debate, composition, social justice, and on and on and on.
I keep thinking of those teachers out there right now who have had a level of confidence and professionalism stripped away by school districts who have ceded to parents wishes to avoid rather than to trust them to teach.
This next excerpt comes from The Unquiet Librarian (aka media specialist/teacher-librarian Buffy Hamilton), who writes that she did not vote for Obama, but still feels the censorship was out of place:
While I do not agree with many of President Obama’s policies (and did not vote for him) nor those of Arne Duncan, I DO believe in intellectual freedom. I am disturbed by the nationwide hysteria that is resulting in subversive forms of censorship. How can we say we want to raise a generation of critical thinkers when we don’t allow access to all viewpoints and ideas in our schools? Freedom of ideas and liberty must be permitted for all perspectives, not just those that fit the agendas or political views of one certain group. I totally respect a student’s right to “opt out”, but do we require this kind of opt-out paperwork that is sewing forth from hundreds of school districts for other guest speakers or special broadcasts? Do we deny access to all viewpoints that may differ from our own whether the medium be books, the Internet, or other vehicles for information? No! This is what information literacy and freedom are about people—having access to as much information and varied viewpoints as possible and letting individuals come to their conclusions.
Remember also that for many children, the speech may be the only encouragement they get to follow their dreams and to achieve those dreams through hard work and education–not all children grow up in nurturing homes with responsible parents, and you might be surprised to see how many there are in your own neighborhood.
What are your post-address thoughts? Was the speech inspiring? Was the furor much ado about nothing? Was the address a thinly-veiled attempt to inculcate students into socialist thinking? Or something else entirely? And, regardless of your political affiliation, how would you have reacted to George W. Bush giving a speech to kids on the same topic?
To borrow a question from Facing History and Ourselves: What should be the role of the president when it comes to education? Is
it appropriate for the president to speak directly to students? Why or
Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.
More from living