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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Another View on Obama's School Speech

Thanks to Dan for another stint at Prawfs. Paul Horowitz raises the interesting question of the reaction to the President's upcoming speech to school children. I see it a bit differently.

I am certainly a political conservative, but I have no objection to the President addressing school children and talking about the importance of education. Indeed, I think that an African American President addressing poor and minority children on the value of education could be a powerful and positive message. I have no problem with the President using his bully pulpit for that. 

But, in  a world in which the next campaign begins as soon as the last vote is counted, it does not surprise me that a President's unprecedented choice to address a captive audience of millions of school children would create controversy. I think there would be have been much the same reaction if George W. Bush (who a number of people seemed to consider a theocratic fascist war criminal) had proposed the same thing. In fact, when George H.W. Bush addressed students at a D.C. school in a  live broadcast that schools across the nation were encouraged to show to students, Democrats cried foul.

In our country, the President is the head of state but he is also a politician. When he wishes to invoke his status as the head of state and ask the rest of us to put politics aside, he must put it aside as well. In the context of a speech to school children, this means avoiding references to disputed matters of policy and the President's agenda - even at the simple level that one would use to speak to school children. It means avoiding the slogans of his campaign. It means that the speech cannot be about the President himself.

Many conservatives don't trust the President to do this. Part of the reason for that is our political culture in which we routinely assume either bad faith or ignorance on the part of our opponents. (We see that in one response to Paul's post calling reaction to the President's speech "racist.") Part of it is that conservatives, fairly or not, have come to see the President's eternal campaign (and all Presidents have them) as rooted more in personality and the elevation of the person of the candidate than has generally been the case in American politics. We can, depending on our perspective, lament, dispute or sympathize with these reasons for the negative reaction of many to the proposed speech.

But part of the reason is the administration's own fault. Lesson plans that called on children to write to the President about how they could "help him" either played into the hands of conservative critics or created anxiety in the minds of those who would otherwise not have been concerned.

Posted by Richard Esenberg on September 5, 2009 at 10:02 AM | Permalink


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Since the Bush and Reagan speeches were broadcast and schools could tune in or not, I think you'd have to know how many showed it to say whether the reaction was unprecedented.

Couldn't one also look at contemporaneous news reports (now freely accessible through Google News) to see whether local newspapers were reporting that schools had specifically decided against showing the speeches?

Schools had less technology available back then; my husband recalls that he didn't see the speech, not because his Alabama high school had any objection to watching a Republican president, but because they didn't have TVs in the classrooms.

But that sort of passive failure to watch the speech is quite different from the letters to the editor, statements from school boards and principals, etc. reflecting opposition to the very idea of the president addressing students. Which is what we've had with Obama.

People who believe that there is no greater concern among certain Americans about Obama's sheer legitimacy as a president than there was about Reagan or Bush I are fooling themselves about the rationality of their fellow citizens.

Posted by: PG | Sep 10, 2009 12:52:54 PM

Since the Bush and Reagan speeches were broadcast and schools could tune in or not, I think you'd have to know how many showed it to say whether the reaction was unprecedented.

As for my personal blog, although I doubt you'll find an endorsement of creationism.

Posted by: Rick Esenberg | Sep 10, 2009 10:40:48 AM

Christian is right that the reaction from state and local politicians, as well as non-politicians, is unprecedented. G HW Bush's speech drew some Congressional Democrats' gibes about the use of taxpayer funds to create a broadcast that just happened to be a little more than a year from a presidential election (one that Bush ended up losing). It did not result in tens of thousands of students being kept out of school or "opting out" of watching the speech, nor in scores of schools refusing to broadcast the speech at all. The level of vitriol toward Obama from conservatives goes far beyond cliched partisan bickering. I suppose he's gotten his wish of post-partisanship in that sense.

Thomas, your reading actually provides a helpful lesson in "Reading in Context," which is a target skill in most statewide standardized exams. When one reads in context, one derives the meaning of a text from its totality, rather than reading each sentence as isolated and unconnected to its fellows.

So let's try reading that original lesson plan in context:

Extension of the Speech: Teachers can extend learning by having students

* Create posters of their goals. Posters could be formatted in quadrants or puzzle pieces or trails marked with the labels: personal, academic, community, country. Each area could be labeled with three steps for achieving goals in those areas. It might make sense to focus on personal and academic so community and country goals come more readily.
* Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals.
* Write goals on colored index cards or precut designs to post around the classroom.
* Interview and share about their goals with one another to create a supportive community.
* Participate in School wide incentive programs or contests for students who achieve their goals.
* Write about their goals in a variety of genres, i.e. poems, songs, personal essays.
* Create artistic projects based on the themes of their goals.
* Graph student progress toward goals.

In context, it's fairly clear to a person with a high school level education that the sentence refers to "what they can do to help the president in his desire for them to achieve their goals for themselves personally and academically, as well as for their community and country." The entire rest of the text block is about their goals.

The Ed Dept, which admittedly should have the statistics to know better, foolishly thought that Americans were capable of this Reading In Context skill. Conservatives quickly proved the Ed Dept wrong, which is the only reason the original language was changed in order to spell out, in a manner that even the unskilled reader could understand, what was meant.

Posted by: PG | Sep 9, 2009 11:50:43 PM

In his next post, Prof. Esenberg will explain why opposition to school prayer and "teaching the controversy" of creationism are more examples of Democratic failures of etiquette.

For more of this on a regular basis, don't forget to visit his blog, Shark and Shepherd.

Posted by: John Foust | Sep 7, 2009 2:26:39 PM

After the President of the United States speaks to school children about the value of education, Republicans will make opposing comments extolling ignorance.



Posted by: Mike Licht | Sep 7, 2009 12:12:24 AM

Rick - I think the problem with "unprecedented" is that there's not only similar precedent from Bush 43 but also Bush 41 and Reagan. Maybe even further back. As Kevin pointed out, Reagan's speeches were not simply anodyne, stay-in-school, don't-use-drugs speeches. Far from unprecedented, the speech would more comfortably be described as following a long line of tradition. While some have probably objected to each of these former speeches, I'd call the vitriol of people like the GOP chair of Florida (who suggests, ignorantly, unabashedly, and with an apparent skepticism of the executive that would be more welcome if it weren't eight years late, that Obama wants to indoctrinate our children with socialism) - these people are the ones acting in an unprecedented manner.

Posted by: Christian Turner | Sep 6, 2009 7:59:55 AM

It seems that Democrats engaged in a similar "willful disregard for reality." That education may be within a President's responsibility does not make a speech about it apolitical. It may be, but only if it is about education and not the President or his agenda. To believe that there may be political advantage in enlisting school children in an effort to "help" a politician is hardly evidence of paranoia, racism or political derangement.

I wrote the word "unprecedented" before learning of the prior speech (which I referred to in the same paragraph). I should have stricken it. I am not sure that the Bush speech was quite the same - if only because the technology has changed - but it is close enough to be instructive. And what it confirms is that a President's political opponents are likely to be suspicious of purportedly "apolitical" uses of the office.

As I said, I don't have any particular objections to the President's speech, but there is an etiquette to these things. Perhaps the conservatives' fears will prove to be unfounded. Perhaps they will be unfounded because they were expressed. But - at least in the context or our current political culture - they are not particularly surprising.

Posted by: Rick Esenberg | Sep 5, 2009 10:51:01 PM

Howard, the suggested assignment was to "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president," full stop. Which presumably could include things like "win re-election" or "remake the health care system" or "raise taxes". It's hard to find anyone who thinks that's a good idea for a variety of obvious reasons, which is why the Obama administration withdrew the suggestion. And yet you continue to defend it. Didn't you get the memo?

Posted by: Thomas | Sep 5, 2009 10:34:38 PM

Yep, unprecedented -- all the way back to 1988, when Reagan shilled for his tax cuts to schools on three different days.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Sep 5, 2009 8:17:13 PM

I think Tim Rutten is on the mark in today's Times: "Calls to boycott Obama's speech to kids offer a disturbing lesson in paranoia"
See http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-rutten5-2009sep05,0,4285184.column

From another LA Times article on the controversy:

Thanks to conservative talk radio and the right-wing blogosphere, Obama’s speech to children has been turned into a lighting rod for socialism.

“As far as I am concerned, this is not civics education--it gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality,” said Oklahoma state Sen. Steve Russell. “This is something you’d expect to see in North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”

Even the chairman of a state Republican Party, Jim Greer in Florida, has joined the fray, warning that Obama is trying to "indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 5, 2009 5:16:19 PM

The President's job (as all Republicans are going to remind the public throughout 2010) is to lead the national government and to get things done on matters of national concern (which, in the general public understanding, means pretty much anything). So asking how students could "help him" improve public education, etc., is the same as asking how students could help the federal government (which he leads, in our public understanding) improve public education, etc. And it takes a pretty willful disregard for that reality to read "how can you help me" to mean anything else.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 5, 2009 4:49:09 PM

Here's Jim Lindgren's punchline at Volokh: "While perhaps not "on all fours," [George HW Bush's] 1991 precedent seems to be a solid one for President Obama's speech — indeed, in some respects it's uncannily similar."

Posted by: Bryan | Sep 5, 2009 4:43:05 PM

How do you characterize it as "a President's unprecedented choice" when in the same paragraph you describe Bush doing the same thing? You also must be aware of Reagan making an address.

Conservatives have gone off the deep end if, in questions like "What is the President trying to tell me? What is the President asking me to do?" they see only indoctrination. In a world in which conservatives are supposed to be about personal accountability and the value of the individual's efforts, it's pretty odd that they decry what are obviously appeals to the individual's drive to do his or her best.

Posted by: Bryan | Sep 5, 2009 4:35:04 PM

Hmm. Was there any chance that he could write say something so vanilla that the critics couldn't spin it somehow? For instance, he is supposed to know that he had to ask for help in the third person (is helping the "President" a problem too?)?

Posted by: Joe | Sep 5, 2009 4:01:20 PM

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