Tue 8 Sep 2009
Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility. I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn. I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox. 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.
He then goes on to describe how important education is — and I agree. But the problem is, as highlighted by the portion in bold above, education is not just about how hard you work, or how responsible you are, or how responsible your parents are. Well, to be fair, right now it is — because the educational system is doing such a bad job, the only variables left are how hard you self-educate, and to what extent your parents can teach you, or purchase extra teaching for you. Which is why life success is so correlated to those things. But this is not how it should be.
The entire point of a public education system is to give those who don’t have those pre-conditions for success a chance — and ours is failing precisely those people. And, despite that poor education, I believe that most kids (apparently this is addressed at school children of all ages, k-12) are capable of seeing through the silliness of Obama’s speech, most likely due to the practice they’ve had with all the other authority figures who have lectured them over the years. By talking about “responsible teachers” he’s basically providing cover for what we must frankly admit are terrible teachers (like all professions, there are good and bad teachers, but it is not a coincidence that there are more bad ones at schools that produce bad results) and terrible schools. If you’re a young boy in an inner city school where teachers and administrators assume you’re just a thug and refuse your your correct homework because “you’re too stupid to have done this right without cheating” then Obama’s speech is not going to motivate you. It’s just going to reinforce what you already know: that this system had a responsibility to inspire you, but that it doesn’t really give a shit. And so you’re going to check out.
And perhaps more importantly, this is why Democrats should be the one who don’t want Obama to speak to the kids — this makes him the public face of their education –
Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too.
– their really bad education. When kids drop out of school, (or more accurately, mentally drop out) they don’t say “wow, Obama was right, I just wasn’t responsible enough.” No, they say “school sucks, it’s their fault.” Sure, we can say this betrays their lack of responsibility because they’re blaming the school instead of themselves — but have you seen what their schools are like? These kids aren’t stupid. They’re just looking at a system that seems designed to imprison, abuse and disrespect them, and deciding that maybe they don’t really like those things very much. And now Obama is the one telling them to stick it out, and if it doesn’t work out as well as he’d thought, it’s because, well, you’re just not responsible enough:
But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.
And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.
I nearly laughed out loud at the “best schools in the world.” Yup, school kids, stop failing in your responsibilities to yourself! That’s definitely the only thing standing in your way! I think my response would’ve been a lot more profane if I were still forced to be in school. No offense to adults like Mr. Obama, but here’s what you don’t get: kids see right through this crap. If you’re telling them that the teachers (and incredibly, the president himself!) are trying really hard to make our schools the best in the world, they are not going to believe you, because they actually have to spend every day in those schools. If you then follow up with how “if only they were more responsible, they could grow up to be doctors and senators,” they are going see how stupid that is. To the extent that they buy into the system, they will feel betrayed. To the extent that they’ve already checked out, they will see this as just another stupid adult telling them to work hard and everything will be great, despite how that isn’t working in the reality they see every day.
That’s what struck me: this is a very, very conservative speech. Especially in light of Tyler Cowen’s “What is Conservatism“:
4. On the domestic front, education is the keystone issue. Societies succeed if strong family structures support an emphasis on learning and acculturation. While this does not rule out public sector education, if public sector education works the credit is not to be found in the public sector.
10. Responsibility is a more important value than either liberty or equality.
It’s long been a conservative stereotype that the poor or unsuccessful are that way because they’re lazy, irresponsible or don’t try hard enough. Why is Obama the one saying this?Cheap shots:
The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.
Actually, America IS about people who quit when things got tough, and who didn’t adequately love the country they were citizens of — Britain. Here’s the story kids might know if their history classes weren’t so useless: the British empire treated its colonies in the New World like crap, so instead of paying what (compared to today) were really low taxes, (largely for military defense) we quit and founded our own country. The founding of America is the story of a great power mistreating those less powerful than it until the weaker party left the corrupt system and struck out on their own. Which scenario is Obama trying to analogize here?
The problem with the “don’t quit just because things get tough” story is that it depends on why things are tough. Are things tough because the task is difficult and challenging? Or are they tough because the people in charge are making it tough for no good reason? If the latter, then it’s more of a “escape from abuse” kind of story. But it’s actually illegal to try to escape school, and extremely difficult to get your abusers fired. And it will not be lost on the students that Obama is the one in charge of the laws that make it that way.
Because when you give upon yourself, you give up on your country.
Seriously? Is this what we’ve come to? When you don’t try hard at school, you’re betraying America? How is this not a parody of a crazy Republican president from South Park? How about this: when you betray poor school kids, you’re betraying America in a much worse way.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.
Sigh. Honestly, this just puts the icing on the ridiculous-Republican-stereotype speech. Update: Lee Siegel agrees, and I’m pretty sure from reading the article that we’d agree on little else.
From the CNN article:
Amy Veasley, a parent from the Dallas, Texas, area, said Monday she was surprised by the controversy.
“The president of our country wants to call our students to action. I’m not sure why parents wouldn’t want their students to hear out the leader of our country,” she said.
A Baltimore, Maryland, teacher who asked not to be identified bemoaned the fact that the country has “become so polarized that we believe that our president is an enemy and not our leader.”
During Bush’s presidency, she said, “whether I disagreed or not, I still saw him as a leader.”
Okay, here’s the problem. The president of the United States is not, and should not be seen as a “leader.” If nothing else, the Bush presidency should be a good example of that. Maybe if we thought of the president less as a leader then things like, well, all the stupid stuff from the Bush administration would happen less. There is a reason the presidency is called the “executive” branch. He executes the things the duly elected representatives tell him to. Perhaps again, if the civics classes weren’t being so poorly taught, we would know this — the role of the presidency should be subservient to the people, and that is not what people mean when they say the word “leader.” I’m not optimistic for the educational opportunities being offered to Baltimore kids.
In the end, all the controversy here will be completely lost on the only people who matter here. It’s not really going to seem like much of a big deal to them. Just another talking head adult lecturing them about how important their education is, while doing nothing to improve it, and telling them that if they fail, it is because they weren’t responsible enough. Blah, blah, move along, nothing to see here. Let’s go to recess.
Update: the kids react!
On September 8th, 2009, I watched President Obama give his speech. Some kids got a note from their parents and got to do fun stuff instead. I was very jealous. I listened to him talk about school and how it was the first day of school (although it wasn’t) and other boring stuff for FIFTEEN MINUTES! To a kid that’s a looong time in school.
During the speech, my friend and her friend were talking, and my teacher said they were being very disrespectful to the president, the leader of our armed forces (blah, blah, blah and some other stuff).
Later, in the library, a kid in my class said that he was very happy that Obama beat McCain. I asked him why. He said (and this is the funny part) that he would bring back slavery and raise taxes! I said how do you know that? He said, “Because I watched the news” and I said “You don’t watch the news if you think that!” and it was basically back and forth from there. But when he said he said HE knew more than MY MOM, it was a fight worthy of a war. I was so mad I broke my pencil and later, my crayon.
My daughter, who attends middle school, told me that she understood the the take-away message from Obama’s speech to be “The future is your responsibility,” a thought she found unpleasantly burdensome. Generally, she thought the speech was long and boring.
Elementary age kid from the same family:
My elementary school aged son just got home and he too thought it was boring.
When I asked my fifth-grader how it was, she told me simply, “It was good.”
“It was good,” is typically her tween shorthand for “I don’t know because I wasn’t really paying attention/was listening/doing/daydreaming about something else,” and so having my suspicions about how much she actually got out of it, I asked her about various parts of the speech.
Beyond the introduction and some of the more interesting non-Obama anecdotes, she had mostly tuned it out. It was far too long, and I’m sure before he was halfway through his self-referential bloviating that her eyes were more glazed than a Krispy Kreme doughnut.
Yeah, I realize (from glancing at their content) that these blogs are already pretty anti-Obama to begin with, so no doubt this colors the parental perspective of their kids, but still — is this really surprising? That some old guy talking about “responsibility” was going to be boring to kids? I mean, in terms of actual outrage, I’m about as upset about the speech as I am about the White House’s architecture — but if I can’t make fun of the president for being boring and silly, well then that’s no fun.