Obama: No one’s too cool for school

The true lesson of Obama’s contentious schools address was that he connects with the kids, but lacks a vision for education.

Alex Standish

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Over the past couple of weeks Republicans from Virginia to California have worked themselves into a tizzy over President Barack Obama’s national address welcoming American students back to school on Tuesday.

Republicans warned that Obama planned to use his speech, which was delivered at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, to peddle ‘socialist ideology’. His address was shown live on the White House website and on C-SPAN, the American public service network, at noon so that classrooms across the country could tune in and listen to the president’s advice to work hard and stay in school.

A classroom activity accompanying the speech, which was produced by the US Department of Education, asked teachers to get their students to ‘write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the President’ (1). This riled Republicans across the nation and the instruction was changed to ‘write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term goals’.

For the past couple of weeks, the partisan row has got talkshow phonelines, chat shows and the blogosphere buzzing. Hundreds of up-in-arms parents in Maryland, Virginia, Texas and other states demanded that their children be exempt from the classroom activity. Several principals and school administrators capitulated and set about making separate arrangements for students of Democratic and Republican parents on Tuesday, which in many states was the first day of the new school year.

But when Obama’s speech transcript was revealed on Monday, the ranting and bickering started to calm. As it turned out, the speech contained no socialist propaganda. As a matter of fact, it contained no political or ideological messages at all. It was simply a pep talk instructing students to value their education and urging them to take personal responsibility: ‘We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.’ (2)

By the day of Obama’s speech in Virginia some Republicans appeared embarrassed by how their party had handled the situation. After reading the text of the speech, Jim Greer, the Florida Republican party chairman who last week accused Obama of spreading ‘socialist ideology’, admitted: ‘In its current form, it’s fine.’ (3)

This is not the first time that a president has delivered a national address to school children in the US. Nor is it the first time that American parents have requested that their children be withdrawn from listening to a presidential speech. Back in 1988, Ronald Reagan encouraged students to ‘ground yourself in the ideas and values of the American Revolution’ (4). And in 1991, George Bush senior gave a national address to schools urging students to say no to drugs. On both these occasions some parents requested from schools that their child be able to opt out of the talk.

Nevertheless, there is something new and revealing in the vitriolic overreaction of Republicans to Obama’s speech this week. While Obama’s ratings have declined significantly since his inauguration – and right now he is struggling to win support for healthcare reforms both from the political parties and the electorate – he still has something that the Republicans lack. That is, the ability connect with people outside his own party, particularly with young people.

During the presidential election campaign, Obama won widespread backing because he was seen as offering something new and promised change. His pragmatic, post-partisan form of politics appeals to young people, many of whom have little connection to, or interest in, the aging and the increasingly aloof political parties. Some are inspired by Obama’s message of hope and belief in people and his school address continued this theme:

‘Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer… That’s the opportunity an education can provide. Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a senator or a Supreme Court justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.’ (5)

Such a message of personal achievement doesn’t exactly jar with what schools are trying – or should be trying – to achieve anyway. As one principle said after reading the transcript: ‘It sounds like he is going to give my speech.’ (6)

Another way in which Obama successfully makes a connection with young people is by ensuring them that he empathises with them. This is a generation raised in a therapeutic society, who are taught to be in touch with their emotions from the moment they enter kindergarten (if not before). Obama is careful to let them know that he knows how they are feeling, that he knows what they are going through and that he can identify with the kinds of challenges they face:

‘I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in. So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have.’ (7)

Been there, done that.

It is this ability of Obama to connect with, and speak directly to, young people that Republicans are so scared of. They are, as Helen Searls has argued on spiked, a party in pieces. The Grand old Party has been reduced to defending a few minority values: they want an end to gun control and tougher migration controls; they are pro-life and against same-sex marriage and they oppose the expansion of state healthcare insurance.

Overall, few young people are likely to be inspired by a set of values that were important for their parents’ and grandparents’ generations but that are now increasingly marginal viewpoints. Republicans are chasing their own shadows.

Of course, there is a big difference between making an emotional connection and making a political connection with people. While a presidential welcome-back-to-school address is not quite the same as a proper political speech, Obama’s rhetoric of personal identification and achievement still rings hollow without an accompanying political vision of where America should be heading. Today, the country’s economy and democracy are on shaky grounds and if politicians fail to demonstrate that they have a plan – based on sound values and political programmes – then how can they expect young people to be inspired to contribute to the country’s future?

There is also a strong element of hypocrisy in Obama telling children and young people to take responsibility for their own education. He urged kids to do their part in schools, but what is his party doing to raise the embarrassingly low standards of education that many American students receive today?

Obama’s plans for education are largely a continuation of the inept policies adopted by his predecessor George W Bush, such as expanding pre-school education, accountability and more charter schools (see Under Obama: no child left unmonitored, by Alex Standish). The only hint of a vision of the role of education that Obama articulated in his school address was a pragmatic point: education is useful for getting a job.

While there is quality education in America, there is also much confusion about the purpose of education, with schools now being asked to perform various social, psychological, vocational and political tasks that only serve to cloud the meaning of education and the value of learning. The American education system is in desperate need of a hard discussion about what a quality education looks like. Facing up to the tasks needed to revive education is something Obama has yet to take responsibility for.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University and author of Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the moral case for geography, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) After a school brawl, Obama talks to kids, Time Magazine, 8 September 2009

(2) Prepared Remarks of President Obama’s Back to School Event, the White House website, 8 September 2009

(3) In School Speech Obama Avoids Political Issues, New York Times, 8 September 2009

(4) From the Archives, Ronald Reagan’s 1988 Speech to Students, Gotham Schools

(5) Prepared Remarks of President Obama’s Back to School Event, the White House website, 8 September 2009

(6) Presidential Pep Talk Kicks Off Year for Millions of Students, Sam Dillon, New York Times, 9 September 2009

(7) Prepared Remarks of President Obama’s Back to School Event, the White House website, 8 September 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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