Health care politics have come to education.
Just as it quickly became impossible to have a rational discussion about health care as August wore on, we could be heading that way on education. If you haven’t heard (don’t get cable news?), President Obama plans to give a speech to the nation’s schoolchildren next week. To accompany it the Department of Education prepared a – gasp – study guide with some ideas for how teachers can use the speech as a, dare I say it, teachable moment.
Conservatives are screaming that this is unprecedented and amounts to indoctrination and a violation of the federal prohibition on involvement in local curricular decisions. Even the usually level-headed Rick Hess has run to the ramparts. We’re getting lectured on indoctrination by the same people who paid national commentators to covertly promote their agenda.
Please. Enough. The only thing this episode shows is how thoroughly broken our politics are. Let’s take the two “issues” in turn.
First, this speech is not unprecedented. For instance President George H.W. Bush gave a couple of these back-to-school style speeches as well as other speeches addressing the importance of education. In fact, in 1989 when he was criticized for doing so by Democrats, then-House of Representatives member Newt Gingrich said, “Why is it political for the president of the United States to discuss education?” He went on to argue that, “It [the speech] was done at a nonpolitical site and was beamed to a nonpolitical audience. . . . They wanted to reach the maximum audience with the maximum effect to improve education.” Gingrich was right then and he’s right now. A 1991 Bush speech was carried by CNN and PBS, by the way.
More recently, George W. Bush gave speeches at schools, exhorting students to serve, and so forth. And good for him for doing so. In fact, a Bush Administration Department of Education official told me privately that they, too, tried for network or other national coverage for education speeches but couldn’t get it. So if conservatives have any legitimate gripe here it might be media bias.
For its part, the study guide goes nowhere near the federal curricular prohibition (which prohibits any federally mandated curriculum) and it’s equally innocuous. It includes ideas on how students can write about what the president said, what they thought of it, as well as background questions about who the president is and what the office does. The original version included one idea for students to write a letter to themselves about how they can help the president. This, in particular, set off a firestorm. But the context was a letter about how you can help the president by doing well in school! It wasn’t a request for how you can help him pass health care reform, achieve U.S. goals in Afghanistan, elect Democrats, or regulate Wall Street. That’s because the speech is about doing well in school.
That part was changed today. And too bad. I thought we elected Obama to be the one to say enough of this silliness.
A related firestorm that’s being linked with the speech controversy has broken out over a basically civic-oriented and sometimes flip PSA about service. You can watch it on You Tube here. Conservatives see it as a pledge to Obama, and at the end Demi Moore says as much. But it’s in the context of service to your community and country. I might have chosen different words than Moore (who comes off as almost inviting toward the President) but watch it and decide for yourself if the republic is really threatened by Moore’s sentiment. Seems to me the scariest part is when Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers says he wants to work with the elderly.
This country faces serious education problems. Problems that condemn too many Americans — especially poor and minority students — to lives of constrained choices and lowered goals and problems that over time threaten our quality of life. Yet we’re debating this stuff? Maybe this is how it was in Rome. In any event, let’s hope we can do better than this.