I touched on the growing controversy surrounding President Obama’s address to school kids earlier in the week. As I said, I thought Obama’s speech would be pretty harmless and I expect that the speech will be filled with the usual platitudes and educational cheerleading. That’s fine and is the sort of feel-good thing we should expect the President to do. However, I did find the “lesson plan” released by the Administration to be a little weird. I think it was this memo, not the speech itself, that got people wound up and paranoid to the extent that some school districts across the country aren’t going to air the speech in their schools.
Supporters of President Obama have pointed out that both Presidents Reagan and Bush, Sr. also addressed school children. And they were also criticized. For instance:
As Barack Obama prepares a nationwide broadcast to America’s students next Tuesday, it has been revealed that Democrats complained in 1991 when then President George H. W. Bush broadcast a speech from a Northwest Washington junior high school.
In fact, the House Majority leader at the time, Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), said “The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students.”
Such was reported by the Washington Post on October 3, 1991 (h/t KY3 Political Notebook via Chuck Todd)
The difference, I’m pretty certain, is that neither Reagan nor Bush put out a comprehensive lesson plan, much less a poorly written one, beforehand in preparation for their speeches.
The Obama Administration has fallen to blaming this misunderstanding on the “inartfully worded” memo and has changed at least one “suggestion” from, “Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president” to “Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.” That’s a smart change and more indicative of what the President’s address should aim to do a la Reagan and Bush. Inspire the students about education in general by encouraging them to think about themselves (that’s what kids do best, anyway!). Shy away from anything that could be inferred as Presidential hagiography. President Obama is also going to release his speech ahead of time. Another wise move.
So, the lesson plan is one reason–and probably the biggest–why people got upset over this. Over-exposure is another. Since he took office, we have seen or heard the President speaking at us about nearly every aspect of our lives, from health care to the economic crisis to the baseball All-Star game. People who disagree with Obama’s politics are just plain getting sick of the Obama Show. Yet, despite all of the media exposure, at least they could switch the channel or turn the page. But with this address to the schools, they see Obama circumventing their ability to control who or what has access to their children. I think they are over-reacting and that part of being a parent is discussing such things at the dinner table. Re-programming, if you will. Dan Riehl (h/t) thinks the backlash is symptomatic of a deeper conflict going on within the country:
That what once would have been a non-event is so incredibly controversial suggests to me that a great many Americans likely feel disconnected from the nation’s political affairs right now, as well as extremely concerned about what the future’s going to bring. The crisis Rahm [Emmanuel] suggested taking advantage of doesn’t just cut one way, after all. And I doubt that any alienation, or all the concern came about from just 9 months of any one term.
If, in his speech, he tells kids to do their homework and listen to their teachers, he will be doing something good, especially for African-American kids, who are, all sources and studies report, desperately in need of hearing that performing well in school isn’t some kind of betrayal of their race.
If he does use the speech to do some politicking on his agenda, there’s going to be trouble in the schoolhouse. As the nation learned in June and July, it turns out there are few things more boring than listening to Barack Obama discuss health care; school-age children by the millions will be shifting in their seats, rolling their eyes, and beginning to think seditious thoughts if they are forced to sit through such a thing.
Basically, I think most kids are going to hear Charlie Brown’s teacher. Mwa mwa. Mwa, mwa mwa mwa mwa. BUT, if some come away inspired to learn, all the better.