Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Inspired Rhetorician or Finger Wagging Drag?

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.

Categories > Education

Discussions - 10 Comments

I thought that the big issue was the materials that the Department of Education wanted to go along with the speech, more than the speech itself. The materials made it sound like the Adminstration was trying to recruit the kids into a larger political movement.

Reagan DID do better--much better:

"Last week the American people freely elected our government. Some ballots were cast by people who were rich and famous, and others were cast by most ordinary people, but each person had the same, one vote. These ballots were cast in secret, and they were counted in the open, not the other way around. What we in America take for granted is something that's rare in history and all too remarkable on this globe, the Earth.

And it's not just that our government is the oldest of its kind, but that it's based on the world's most revolutionary political idea. You can see that concept in the very first line of our Constitution, and it begins with three simple words: ``We the People.'' In other countries, in their constitutions -- they all have constitutions, and I've read a great many of them, those other ones -- and the difference is so small, but it's found in those three words. Because their constitutions are documents by the Governments telling the people what they can do. And in our country, our Constitution is by the people, and it tells the Government what it can do.

It's remarkable to realize that in this century even brutal totalitarian dictatorships kneel at the feet of our Founding Fathers when they try to counterfeit the practices and institutions of democracy in order to claim legitimacy for their ruling their people. Dictators today from Afghanistan to Nicaragua do not want to be called Czar or Commissar; they want to be called Mr. President and to pretend that they rule in the people's name, even if they don't. Yes, even Communist dictators holding power through force, against the will of the people, acknowledge the triumph of the American idea when they go through the motions of holding phony elections, forming rubberstamp legislatures to ratify constitutions that will not be honored, and then using our words to call their regimes democracies or republics.

I wonder if they realize that this vision of economic freedom -- the freedom to work, to create and produce, to own and use property without the interference of the state -- was central to the American Revolution when the American colonists rebelled against a whole web of economic restrictions, taxes, and barriers to free trade. The message at the Boston Tea Party -- have you studied yet in history about the Boston Tea Party, where, because of a tax, they went down and dumped the tea in the harbor? Well, that was America's original tax revolt. And it was the fruits of our labor -- belonged to us, and not to the state. And that truth is fundamental to both liberty and prosperity.

We should always remember that there are the things that change and the things that don't change. The machines will change -- the horse and buggy to the automobile and so forth -- but the people don't. The permanent truths which give meaning to our lives don't change; they are, as I say, permanent. The basic values of faith and family will be just as true when people are living on distant planets as they are today. So, for America to gain greatest benefit from all the exciting new technologies that lie ahead, we will also need to reaffirm our traditional moral values, because these values are the foundation on which everything we do is built. So, yes, I would encourage you to study the math and science that are at the basis of the new technologies. But in a world of change you also need to pay attention to the moral and spiritual values that will stay with you, unchanged, throughout a long lifetime. "

Wilson . . . yes, but not quite. It is an excellent speech. But it's not explicitly about education in the same sense. There's probably some speech out there by Reagan that I don't know about (and certainly can't remember from experience) on education. And I'm willing to bet that I'd find it more inspiring than the thing offered by Obama today. But my broader point was the simple one that all of us are too often guilty of failing to inspire young people with a lust for learning because it is, in and of itself, something worthy and lovely and fine. It is too bad that the President failed to do that today . . . for if he had done it, I'd have had to eat a lot of crow.

Here's more discussion of the guidelines. And it's worth asking if Obama's speech would have been different had there been no public criticism.

Ben Boychuk makes some very sensible points here: --with which I, largely, agree. I was a bit miffed, however, that I was not notified about my kids watching the speech today. I expected at least that much courtesy. And I still think that it was a bit of political posturing using kids as pawns to boost his sagging poll numbers . . . though that's not the first nor the last time we'll see that!

I've got a bad case of vertigo after reading through your posts and comments on this topic, Julie.

First, there was this statement in your first blog-post on the matter - just factually incorrect on its face:

"The President of the United States would not call a national assembly of school children, would he? It's just not done." (from here: )

along with all of your by now typical amateurish psychological analysis of Obama (he wants to remake America in his own image) and describing the event as a "partisan spectacle." [Hmmm....wonder who made it that?]

Then, as you became aware that you were siding with the hysterical fringe, and it might actually reach that extreme end where you could possibly be embarrassed a bit, you began backpedaling, talking about it less as a partisan spectacle, but just not hip and cool, the way the kids like things to be. We got:

"Most Americans, even little ones, don't trust a President who thinks he's all that. And, when the grown ups responsible for making your life drudgery tell you that you should think he's all that, there's double reason for finding him to be a humbug."

Must make it tricky to teach about the merits of conservative-claimed icons - Lincoln, the Founders generally, Churchill, etc. "These guys, our Founders, weren't all that - they were actually kinda meh, but somehow they managed to pull off the quasi-miraculous feats of our Declaration and Constitution..."

Initially (first blog-post), you predicted that he would "talk too condescendingly" to the kids, and you scoffed at Obama's "pathetic belief in the power of his words to accomplish things" and how he actually "bought into the narrative of his legion of sycophants regarding his persuasive abilities." You painted a picture of a guy too big for his britches (I bet Kate loves that phrase!), like say, someone who would be so audaciously hubristic as to pose as a combat pilot and land a plane on an aircraft carrier to prematurely declare victory before a "Mission Accomplished" banner. Such a speech, by such a questionable figure as Obama, should stay modest in its form and goals.

But then, you actually go and complain that he didn't wax eloquent that "education is a good in and of itself." You're disappointed that he didn't "talk of the ability to connect with the great minds of the past . . . transcending time and place" or "the prospect of discovering great and hidden mines of scientific treasure." He should speak of the beauty of truth/Truth! (yep, I'm sure that would have saved him from a lot of right-wing harping, from, say, you)

His words don't and can't accomplish things, but he should try to persuade kids to think about education as an abstract good.... okay, then.

You've prepared yourself a heaping plate of crow but you've proven to be quite SOPHISTicated in not noticing it before you. Almost reminds me of Bush's comic sketch at the White House Correspondents dinner, where he made light about "those WMDs have gotta be here somewhere!"

Craig, how much do you suppose the speech changed from when announced to when delivered based on the criticism? We cannot really know, can we?

I like that phrase well enough, but not so much in the context. I didn't actually have much of a problem with the idea of a presidential speech to school-aged children. Julie and I are agreeing to disagree about that. To me, this whole thing points to the polarization of American political rhetoric and passion. I do not think we can, or even should, all agree about political issues, but but I would like to save big fights for big issues. This did not look to be a big issue to me.

Besides, as James Taranto said in his "Best of the Web" the other day,

"The White House must've loved this. All they had to do was release the prepared text of the speech, and as long as it actually was a pep talk and not a political or ideological rallying cry, many of their opponents would be made to look like nuts. And indeed, the speech, which came out yesterday, is totally innocuous. Mission accomplished."

Yet, Craig, even here, you are not saying that the president was sincere or idealistic in having given the speech. Is there a point to your comment other than a poke at Julie?

My point (and since this isn't my blog, I hardly think I'm required to make an initial statement; I am, per this section's moniker, making a "comment" on what Julie said.) was to critique the (d)evolution of Julie's remarks about Obama's speech. To use one of her favorite words, there's a tell in that evolution, and that is Julie's chronic ODS - Obama Derangement Syndrome. Obama's speech went from being a partisan spectacle (with a disturbing potential for brainwashing) to inadequately deep to just pointless. Julie hinted in her first paragraph that the speech was changed in reaction to the early reactions. I think that's rather doubtful, and I'm not alone on that: (that's the site that Dick Cheney cited during a debate!)

If anything, Julie's reaction - and the right-wing's generally - shifted more than the subject(s) and wording of Obama's speech did, in order to maintain the appearance of being at least technically sane.

I shouldn't have to even point this out, but being opposed to the hysterical reaction against this speech (AND the innocuous materials) hardly makes one a dutiful backer or cheerleader for Obama. Far from it.

My own view of his talk to the schoolkids was that it was mostly harmless, and for some people looking for something to motivate or inspire them in some way, perhaps they found it. It certainly wasn't anything that parents should have expected notification for.

I'll leave you with this fun story about a Texas school district that "didn't allow students to watch President Barack Obama's webcast live in the classroom Tuesday. But on Sept. 21 the district is busing some students to Cowboys Stadium to hear former President George W. Bush speak on a school day."

I thought I did not detect you cheering Obama's speech.

Part of the difference between Julie's reaction and mine is that she has actually skin in the game - or rather, flesh and blood. My youngest is in high school, though she was home sick with flu on the day of the speech and actually watched it, online, for fun. She found it boring and patronizing and not much fun at all. My girl picked up on how to watch the speech online by reading Drudge Report, which she frequents more than I do. She enjoyed being able to discuss the matter with her history teacher and I am happy she is happy. Given her age and temperament, she is not so impressionable as children the age of Julie's.

Parents, being responsible for their children, have a right to be cautious about what those children might hear. People who send their children to private schools think they have the right to expect more concern from the school's administrators and teachers for parental viewpoints. Parents are making sacrifices to send their children to such schools. If there comes to be no discernible difference between the private school and public ones, then why bother making the financial sacrifice?

Being generous, (though even to me it seems fatuous) perhaps the Texas school district sees a trip to hear a former president speaking, someone who is part of history, is different than hearing what could have been a partisan political speech.

As to whether or not the speech was changed, a White House spokesperson saying that it was not much altered is not an impressively objective observation.

Finally, that Obama took over an automobile company, seems to wish to take over the American health care system, has put the American economy into a staggering debt, not to mention a few other political oddments here and there, is it really any wonder that there are a lot of people who are distressed and worried about what he might say? We are being wrenched leftward and many Americans do not like it. Obama does not seem so moderate as all that. This may not bother you, but it bothers many of the rest of us quite a bit.

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