President Obama's speech to the nation's schoolchildren is pissing me off.
It's not just the fact that he's doing it. That's part of it — and I'll get to that in a second. What's really pissing me off is that it's highlighting how hopelessly and insipidly partisan our national discourse is. On the one hand, the loudest voices decrying the speech are offering bizarre hyperbole about how Obama is going to indoctrinate our children in Marxist ideology, and suggesting that only sheep will let their children listen. On the other hand, you've got the smirking, eye-rolling folks who are suggesting that if you don't support the speech you must be stupid or a Glenn-Beck-level frothing nutcase. I've tried discussing this and explaining my viewpoint several places, only to have supporters of the speech furiously attack strawmen they have erected rather than reading what I actually wrote. That irritates me.
But now to the substance. No, I don't think President Obama will indoctrinate or mind-control our children in one speech. I don't think that his speech will be a socialist primer. I don't think it will harm children. I think it will probably be a rather shallow and content-free speech, skillfully delivered, about trying hard and staying in school. It may or may not include some boosting of Obama Administration educational programs; we'll see when the text is released on Monday. In terms of content, though, it is likely to be largely inoffensive.
But I still oppose it.
1. It has nothing to do with the speech coming from Obama.
I don't like any of them.
Now, some of them are more offensive than others. Reagan's speech was unabashedly partisan, a crass celebration of his own administration's policies:
Only 5 years ago our economy suffered from high inflation, high interest rates, mushrooming government spending, and steadily increasing unemployment. A lot of people couldn't find jobs, and people on fixed incomes were finding it harder to buy the basics, such as food and shelter. Well, we got inflation down, interest rates down, and our economy created over 1\1/2\ million new jobs just last year alone. The poor are now increasingly able to dig themselves out of poverty, and that's been good economic news.
The good news in defense is that our Armed Forces, which were suffering from neglect and low funding, have now made a comeback. Morale is up in the services, and the quality of our men and women in uniform has never been better — and I mean never. As a matter of fact, we have the highest percentage of high school graduates in uniform today than we've ever had in the history of our nation, even back when we had the compulsory draft. In addition, our nation has encouraged a more realistic sense of defense needs.
Bush I's was more subtle, with only one section that really touted his own policies:
Progress starts when we ask more of ourselves, our schools and, yes, you, our students. We made a start nationally now by setting six National Education Goals to meet the challenges of the 21st century. By the year 2000, at least 9 in every 10 students should graduate from high school. We should be first in the world in math and science. We need to regularly test student's abilities. Every American child should start school ready to learn; every American adult should be literate; and every American school should be safe and drug-free. Reaching those goals is the aim of a strategy that we call America 2000, a crusade for excellence in American education, school by school, community by community.
We'll see Monday how Obama's ranks on this scale. Suffice it to say that I think our political leaders have no business using a captive audience of schoolkids to make a stump speech. The nation's students are not the property of the government. The government is there for them, not vice-versa.
2. The Speech is Inherently Political
Look, a speech by the President is by its nature political. Obama — like Reagan and Bush before him — has multiple audiences. One, nominally, is the schoolkids. But others include the press and the voting public. The speech, I submit, is primarily for the benefit of those latter audiences.
Here's why. The speech, as I understand it, is for grades K-12. No speech aimed at that wide range can be age-appropriate. Either you leave behind the younger kids to say something worthwhile to the older ones, or you dumb it down to the point that the older kids are bored, or most likely you manage to do both. You can't aim a speech of any real substance to the range K-12. You can, however, aim the speech to the other audiences listening — the press and the public that will view the speech via the press.
Any speech by a partisan elected politician aimed at those audiences is political — even if the speech is kept so inoffensive that the only political message is the implied one "look how much I care about kids and education."
That's why object to it. The kids, in this scenario, are primarily props, stage dressing for the message the President is sending to his intended audiences. They are foils. Now, the President uses foils in nearly every speech. A speech to a union or a business group or a small town or a foreign audience contains messages not just to the live audience physically present, but to the people who will see that the President cares about unions or small manufacturers or Belgians because he's talking to them.
That's okay for adults who are voluntarily present at the speech. But it's not appropriate for children who are there involuntarily.
3. Kids should not be used as foils
Kids are in school to learn math and reading and (so that certain segments of society will have something to freak out about) science. They are not there for the political benefit of our elected leaders. Allowing politicians to use their power and influence to conduct all-hands speeches to kids, so that they can reap the resulting publicity and goodwill, is a crass use of our children. That's true even when we really like the message. It sets a terrible precedent. It also conveys a harmful message below whatever explicit message the politician conveys explicitly: that the kids' lot in life is to sit and listen to politicians when the politicians want to talk to them. That's the first step towards an inappropriately canine attitude towards government.
The attitude that we should allow politicians to give speeches to our children for the benefit of the politicians, not for the benefit of our kids, is offensively servile in a free people.
4. The value to kids is extremely dubious.
Supporters of the speech say that the President will merely exhort students to work hard and stay in school, and that this message is absolutely inoffensive. But ask yourself — how many students who were inclined to slack off or drop out will actually change their minds because they sat through a 15-minute speech by the President? This, to me, is magical thinking about rhetoric.
The far more likely outcome is that kids will be (1) mystified (if they are young), (2) thrilled by the excitement of the President speaking to them (a non-substantive emotion, and not one I think is worthy of cultivating), or (3) bored stiff. The likelihood is magnified by the shotgun approach the President has taken by speaking to grades K-12.
John Scalzi, who comes to a somewhat different conclusion than I do, paints what I think is an accurate picture:
anyone who thinks that school children would watch this upcoming speech with anything more than dutiful, glassy-eyed boredom has forgotten what it’s like to be a schoolkid being forced by adults to do things for incomprehensible reasons. I would be no more concerned about Obama indoctrinating kids with a televised speech aimed at them than I was when Bush did the same thing when he was in office; the kids will find it equally lame regardless of who is president.
But it's precisely because I think the speech will be of such low utility to students that I think it is illegitimate to make them listen to it. The speech is of far greater utility to the President, who will get huge amounts of attention from the press and from adults. But that's not a good reason to pester our kids or use them as props.
5. The tone of the "lesson plan" is creepy and inappropriate
The Department has edited the original draft of the plan, which regrettably asked kids to contemplate how they could support the President. Even the Department concedes that was boneheaded. But even the revised versions encourage what I view as a submissive, credulous, and even fawning approach to the speech:
Create a “concept web.” Teachers may ask students to think of the following:
Why does President Obama want to speak with us today? How will he inspire us?
How will he challenge us?
What might he say?
Do you remember any other historic moments when the president spoke to the nation?
What was the impact?
Suppose President Obama were to give another speech about being educationally successful. To whom would he speak? Why? What would the president say?
What are the three most important words in the speech? Rank them.
Is President Obama inspiring you to do anything? Is he challenging you to do anything?
Notably absent is the question "did you agree with what the President said" Supporters will say that's because the President will only talk about studying hard and staying in school, and no one could reasonably disagree with that. That response makes my point for me; a speech by a politician that is too mild and inoffensive to provoke disagreement is a puerile speech.
I know the lesson plan I'll give my kids when they get home. It will closely resemble the talks we have with them about how to view commercial messages with skepticism:
Why do you think the President wanted to talk to you? Do you think he wanted to talk to you for the reasons he said, or for other reasons? Do you think the President wanted to be seen talking to you? Why or why not? Why do you think it would be useful to the President to have other people see him giving a talk to kids? Do you think the President meant the other things he said? Why or why not? Do you think that something is true just because the President says it? Do you think you have to agree with the President to be a good citizen?
A lesson plan for a political speech is not the same as a lesson plan for, say, a math lesson. The Department of Education's lesson plans presume agreement with the President and presume that the President's speech can be taken at face value, as sincere. Those are not appropriate assumptions towards government to cultivate in our children.
7. It's possible to disagree with the speech without freaking out:
One of the familiar rhetorical tools that supporters of the speech are using is the claim that opponents are hysterical, crazed, agitated, etc. These are the words we use when we want to minimize someone's viewpoint without addressing it. Certainly some criticism is stone crazy. But there are legitimate reasons to oppose it, as I have said.
The fact that this form of using kids as props is so common as to be banal is not a reason to support it; it simply means that we should put the speech in a larger context. But social attitudes towards government are built slowly, over time, one incident at a time. We have to start somewhere in making the point that politicians are there to serve us, not vice versa. It's reasonable to start with kids, and it's reasonable, when politicians decide to make a big deal of something, to make an issue of it in return.
I'm not going to keep my kids out of school. I'm not going to carry a sign. I'm not going to be waving my arms. But I'm going to continue to articulate my viewpoint, and I'm going to try to use this as an opportunity to teach my kids more about skepticism towards government.
Edited Monday at 11:00 PST: here are the prepared remarks. It's mild on the politics, particularly compared to the Reagan speech. This part contains a smuggled political viewpoint on the role of government:
I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.
I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.
But that's fairly mild.