Ok. So here's the text of the speech
. Is there anything "wrong" with it? No, of course not. And especially not now that Obama and his speechwriters have had a sufficient preview of what the reaction was likely to be if they did cross any lines. There is nothing at all wrong with this speech. Parts of it are even good or, at least, they strike the right chord.
But there is room for criticizing it nonetheless--as there would have been plenty of room for criticizing it, I suspect, if any other president had delivered it. I do not think that Bush or even, maybe, Reagan would have done any better. I don't think most teachers or parents would do better. And that's the rub. If you're going to do something that's never really been done and tout it with the kind of fanfare that this thing has had, shouldn't you have something new to say? Shouldn't you attempt to inspire?
The trouble with this speech is that it reads a bit like a scold. Essentially, it says that you should stay in school and work hard so that you don't become a loser. Further, you'd better take responsibility for yourself because no one is going to buy any of your excuses. (Yes . . . gotta admit that as a parent, I especially liked that part.) But this speech was not supposed to be for parents. And I wonder whether the best way to inspire kids to learn is to warn them of the consequences of failing, chastising them that they whine too much, and (again) asking them to "do it for their country." In varying degrees (except, I think, for the last motivation here cited) those calls to perform may or may not succeed in getting something out of a stubborn soul.
Fear and shame are always powerful motivators . . . though I had been given to understand that they were somewhat out of fashion among liberal Democrats. The call to patriotism and service to country is a nice touch too. But how many people have ever really studied harder for a test because they trembled for their country in the face of an "F"? I was always a lot more inclined to tremble for something closer to the seat of my pants.
Strikingly missing from his discussion of self-interest rightly understood, is any notion that education is a good in and of itself. In this speech (as for far too many Americans) education appears merely to be a means to an end. Education is described as something of a burden and a pain (which, of course, I understand that it can be at times) but never as something that has the ability to make your mind and heart soar. My point is that he does not make the thing sound very attractive apart from the good it might do for an individual's job prospects and the future economy of the nation. It's all very . . . I don't know, cog and wheel.
Why not any talk of the ability to connect with the great minds of the past . . . transcending time and place? Why not any talk of the prospect of discovering great and hidden mines of scientific treasure? Is there something more that a kid with a penchant for science, for example, can hope for other than being the next inventor of a device like an iPhone? Not that there's anything wrong with such practical and lucrative occupations . . . but did that inventor go into his field with only that purpose in mind? Did he do it to serve his president and his country, or did something more elusive and alluring seduce him? But might there not be some near indescribable pleasures in the pursuit of scientific--and all other--truth apart from its relative usefulness and capacity to keep us all from being "losers"? Why was there no discussion of the "mere" beauty of truth?
But I don't wish to be too hard on Barack Obama for this shortcoming. For, as I say, I would not have expected much better from any Republican on the subject. And that is why, ultimately, such displays are--ironically, perhaps--not of much utility at all.