Never Mind The Grad Rates, Here Come The Chili Peppers!

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.

13 Replies to “Never Mind The Grad Rates, Here Come The Chili Peppers!”

  1. Thank you for a level-headed and thoughtful review of the issues here. The reaction to the president’s plans has been disquieting, if not surprising. I thought people would like Obama to use his bully pulpit to advocate the virtues of hard work, persistence and personal responsibility. (Those aren’t code words for “socialism.”) He received accolades from many commentators, left and right, for his speech to the NAACP. So why is this suddenly part of a sinister plan to brainwash America’s children.

    Too bad that we have to waste time with this nonsense.

  2. I agree. This is just…nuts. It’s unbelievable to me that “because I didn’t vote for him” has become a reason to ignore reality and create some other version of the truth. I keep thinking of my 5 year old saying “la-la-la I can’t hear you” with her fingers in her ears…I lived through 8 years of Bush and I was at least civil as he started a war, drove the economy into the toilet and trashed the environment.

  3. Do we have a video of your FoxNews debate yet? Would be instructive to compare what you said midday with what you’ve written here.

    “Seems to me the scariest part is when Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers says he wants to work with the elderly.”

    I’m glad that you inserted that joke into your blog post seamlessly. It must’ve taken at least 4 tries at the end of today’s interview.

  4. Innocuous?

    “write goals on colored index cards or precut designs”

    “create posters”

    “interview and share about their goals”

    The only thing I don’t see is foldables. Of course, maybe that’s because I didn’t read the whole thing.

  5. I am writing to offer some encouraging news that comes out of a school district located in one of the most conservative parts of Colorado — located in the Congressional District that sent Tom Tancredo to Congress. Here is a portion of the press release the district issued about the President’s address:

    “Recently a communication from the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, went out to schools across the country announcing a Presidential address to students that will take place on September 8th at 10 am (Mountain Time). The invitation encouraged schools, teachers and students to watch the Presidential address through this live streaming event. The purpose of this address as outlined by Secretary Duncan is to challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning. What sets this presidential speech apart from previous events is that the President is speaking directly to school-age students.

    The District considers this address as similar to having a guest speaker in your student’s school. We encourage schools to handle this speech as they would any other historical event. If your student’s school decides to have an all-school activity related to the Presidential address, you will receive advance notice. Schools will provide an alternative option for families who object to participating in the viewing. Click link below for opt-out form.

    Let’s hope cooler heads like those in Colorado’s Douglas County School District prevail across the nation today.

  6. While I agree that the furor over “indoctrination” has gone overboard–and frankly, the story about the controversy has now overshadowed the controversy itself–I think that showing some concern over the aggrandizement of our President is entirely reasonable.

    After seeing the White House’s original lesson plans (“Write letters to yourself about how how you can help the President” and “How will the President inspire us?”) and the cloying nature of some celebrity statements in the “I Pledge” video (“I pledge to be of service to Barack Obama”), there is a sense that supporters may be crossing the line between respecting the office and worshiping the office holder…and that the administration is enabling that audulation.

    I welcome the opportunity for my children to watch the President’s message and then have an educated discussion about it around our dinner table. However, I can’t help but be concerned that the Kennedyesque promise of the 2008 election is in danger of morphing into “Ask not what Obama can do for you, ask what you can do for Obama.”

  7. “I pledge to be a servant to President Obama” … “How you can help the President” … As Jeff Foxworthy might say, if this doesn’t disturb you, you might be a liberal. Not only on a partisan level, as it serves a President who is also the head of the Democratic party, but on a philosophical level, because it accepts the nanny / mommy role of government that drives convervatives nuts. While it’s in the “context” of service to the commmunity, why in the world is doing well in school presented as a way to help the President, as opposed to helping ourselves and each other? Whether he’s liberal or conservative, the President is our servant, not the other way around. Call me paranoid, but after seeing kids sing “O-Ba-Ma” in their classrooms and watching goofballs like Moore and Keidis declare their allegiance to the Great One, there’s reason to be a little concerned about indoctrination.

  8. “Why in the world is doing well in school presented as a way to help the President, as opposed to helping ourselves and each other?”

    Because students will feel that their president is setting an ambitious goal and is personally asking each of them to contribute by reaching high for their own personal academic goals. In the context of the speech, this makes a whole lot of sense. Conservatives can pout all they want about how this “accepts the mommy role of government”, but they can’t argue with the influence and symbolism a president realistically wields as the leader of the free world, no matter how ineffective one deems him/her or government as a whole.

    If anything, this entire ordeal gives us a good look into our citizenship’s collective level of reading comprehension. We’ve obviously got a lot of work to do.

  9. I am a high school student, and I personally think that all of the controversy over Obama’s intended speech in silly. I’ve read that some people opose the speech because “hearing only one side of the story, young people may be swayed” to think as Obama does. Ridiculous! If we don’t listen to his speech, we really will hear only one side of the story: whatever our parents tell us. Students need to hear other people’s opinions so that we will know how to make our own decisions when we are adults. If we live sheltered lives now, we won’t be able to function as adults in the future. Do we really want the future citizens of America to be close-minded zombies unable to think for themselves?
    Always remember, we are the future.

  10. “hearing only one side of the story, young people may be swayed” to think as Obama does.

    Obama’s side of the story: Work hard in school, value education, take personal responsibility.
    I hope young people aren’t swayed to the other side of the story.

  11. I live in South Africa and the violence in schools over here is becoming a huge problem. I find Obama’s words very motivating and hope that we see a change, not only in America but also around the world.

  12. For heavens sake, why can we not just support the President no matter who he is? I agree with Chris in that “doing well in school” is an “Everyman” problem. What happened to courage, honor, and hard work amongst the masses. It seems a lot of what we do now is sit back and criticize.
    I teach high school seniors in a rural setting that is half affluent and half “destitute” and find that education is valued by few. What a nasty comment on our status in America. I am thankful the President wishes to take time out of his busy schedule to impress and inspire our young people with the importance of education. It’s something many of the parents in my community aren’t doing. Oh wait, they are too busy worrying about an inspirational message being forced on their child.

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