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Random thoughts on Obama’s school speech

The full text of the speech, as released by the White House previously, is: here.

Kimberly writes:

In my house, we are just not amused by status quo politicians. So, I tried not have a lot of hot feelings either way about Obama making a speech for school children, or the right wing response to it. (Though, I was suspicious of a government leader making a speech to school children.) I saw the whole argument mostly as a Clash of the Titans (Democratic leadership and Republican leadership) which I felt I could in no way come out the winner by arguing about.
But, okay, I was on the phone with a friend who has two teenagers, and since she was going to listen, I thought I would, too.

These are my comments on the debate about Obama’s September 8, 2009  speech to school children:

I am not sure I like the fact that government money was used to organize a speech the President makes to all public schools. Of course, there is some element of putting someone on a podium the first day of school that is giving that person some clout and glamour that they are exploiting to enhance their public image for power and the next election. I also think it is a way of the President and federal government jumping in to co-opt all the work done by teachers, local school districts and state governments. The federal government doesn’t even fund schools that much, and does not control them. But, by doing the welcome speech, it will appear that the federal government is the “host”. That is a wrong and unfair impression to give to school children and their families.

If children were going to have to hear a welcome speech to their new year, seems like there should be time allotted for other leaders than the federal government leader. Kind of like equal time, where if a Democrat speaks, a Republican speaks. Though, in this case, I think who the alternate voice should have been would be more complicated. It would have been a way to display other voices than the federal government who are responsible for education.

Some of the additional voices I was thinking might have been considered to also take the podium, with equal hoopla to the President, for the opening of school speech are:

  • A leader from the local school board;
  • Any woman politician (So children don’t get used to thinking that only important men give them instructions from podiums.);
  • A parent PTA leader (So children realize what a role their parents play in funding schools and shaping education.);
  • A member of the peace movement (Partly because the role of the President is “Commander in Chief” and also since more and more it seems the bottom line purpose of the US government is war. This would allow students to see peace activists as leaders who make room for education to happen.);
  • A representative of a Non-Governmental Organization/NGO or non-profit related to education rights (So children understand that part of what creates our universe and keeps our schools well funded are the groups who lobby, pressure, study and hold government accountable.)
  • A union member who could discuss how workers, especially workers well trained by labor unions, created the physical space for our children to gather and learn.

I also found the music to be a fascinating reflection on the event. I noticed that President Obama entered to the music “Hail to the Chief”. Choosing that music leant an air of importance to the speaker and the event. Though, I noticed the song was played with a tempo and feelings that was somewhat lighthearted. It could have sounded more march-like and martial, or more sombre and serious. Instead, it sounded upbeat and celebrational. I would call it a “peppy rendition” of “Hail to the Chief.”  More of Obama’s image of hope and positive action. And, what was that ending march? I believe it was Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” That is very uplifting, and something that most school children can relate to. Great choice.

As for Obama’s speech, I think it was very simple and yes, non-partisan. Though, I would say that it came from a very patriarchal paradigm. The basic premise was kind of preaching the Protestant work ethic, and telling students, in subtle language, to obey.

Obama probably thinks that his instructions to “Pay attention to the teacher,” are the most simple and necessary advice. Though, that advice contains so much patriarchy and misdirection. It really comes from the place where the teacher is the know-it-all authority figure pouring knowledge into obedient young people. In fact, there is so much to pay attention to in a classroom:

  • A student should pay attention to his own basic needs, so that he doesn’t pee on the floor.
  • A student should pay attention to the patterns of thoughts and feelings she has that contribute to or distract from her learning, so that she becomes a better learner.
  • A student should pay attention to his peers, because how he interacts with them will be the best preparation for a life of work and cooperation.
  • A student should pay attention to her textbook, the information it has, and who wrote it, and with what biases.

Then, yes, pay attention to the teacher, because no human being deserves to be ignored when they are trying to do their best to communicate with you and get your attention.

As a child-centered educator, I loved that President Obama said, “Find out what you are good at…” That was probably his most progressive advice. Many democratic schools and good teachers realize that instead of foisting a formulaic curriculum on students, you should focus on students strengths, let them spend extra time on subjects they excel at and interest them, and realize the value of helping even young children steer themselves towards a career/mission path. Though, President Obama suggested that students would learn what they were good at by doing the discrete assignments that teachers foisted upon them.  That just seems shallow. And, a way to pretend that the formula subject requirements of structured schooling could actually enable – rather than hamper – students from discovering what they are good at.

Obama ended his speech with, “God bless you. God bless America.” I am not sure that was appropriate either. There are many students and families who do not believe in “God.” And, having the important man get on the podium, say words about the project at hand, and leave the podium assuming that there is a singular god in heaven who might bless everyone, seems like a lot of lobbying for traditional religion.

I also think that a lot of politicians just say, “God bless America”, because they think that they are ending with someone very simple, good and unifying. It reminds me of someone who says, “I love you”, when they don’t really mean it.

But, worse, it is imposing religion on the public school children who were in some instances encouraged and in others coerced to watch the speech. In America, we have freedom of religion. And, for some people, that means believing in no god, or more than one god, or a god who exists, but does not go around blessing modern nation-states.

2 Responses

  1. I just realized, someone should do a mash-up video with Obama’s speech and the Principal McGee speech from “Grease.” I believe that Obama and Principal McGee share about the same level of faith in the patriarchy.

  2. […] Comments kwilder on Random thoughts on Obama…wilderside on A Michael Moore/Ralph Nader co…kwilder on A Michael Moore/Ralph Nader […]

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