Speaking Truth to School Children

On the weekend I read the text of the talk Barack Obama gave on Tuesday to a public school in Virginia and through the medium of technology to students throughout the nation who wished to see and hear him on their school televisions. I think of Ray Bradbury’s story “Fahrenheit 451″ and plasma walls at times like these.

I’ve written over the years as have others on the errors of having a Federal Department of Education and the Obama speech and it’s reach into the classrooms of America’s kids is an example of why so many have tried to rid our country of that intrusive and unnecessary bureaucracy. Despite Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of the speech as essentially “conservative” — I beg to differ.

The speech was undeniably an intrusion by the federal government directly into the neighborhood school with its end run around the district and state school boards — the remaining link parents have with the public school. School board members are traditionally elected. This, no matter its content, rules the talk anti-conservative.

Many will cleaverly dissect the speech because it is full of so much to ridicule as it pertains to Obama’s actual life and it’s containment of obvious errors, for example pointing out to children that they may be the next inventor of an iphone as an enticement to stay in school when it is well known that both Apple’s and Microsoft’s creators were college dropouts; but that’s not the point of this essay. My point is to illustrate how much the material world and the “me” culture has become a part of the American culture; and to possibly redirect some to consider an alternative.

“The story of America,” Obama says toward his conclusion, “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. It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation.”

That’s just isn’t true. Only a relatively small percentage of the Colonists pressed for Independence in 1776 and a central government thirteen years later. And no one’s kids were forced to go to school by the state as they are now. It’s an important piece because it illustrates how much in balance freedom is with the truth, and how important it is to lead others to the truth if they are to remain free. Is this what’s happening in our public schools these days?

About one-third into the talk Obama says, “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.”

That’s a heavy load to put on K-12 kids considering the fact that over 40 percent of those “graduating” from public high school lack grade profficiency in math and composition and many who get into college must take remedial writing and math classes just to stay in school. On the basis of those results, kids have been granted diplomas who quite possibly cannot work out in their mind — and certainly not on paper — what their or the nation’s greatest challenges might or should be. Might it be contended that they don’t know how to think? to reason?

“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,” Mr. Obama says. ”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,” he continues, “the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.”

In an article on the kerfuffle “the speech” was causing The Wall Street Journal reported that “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that some of the materials provided to local school officials were poorly worded and may have lead to some confusion about the speech’s goals.” Not the kind of admission you want to make as the director of a federal bureaucracy already at least partially responsible for launching a generation of functional illiterates into remedial programs.

In numerous articles and books, Fr. James V. Schall has written on the life of the mind. Those of the Judeo-Christian tradition are guided by rules. “Do not lie” requires knowledge of The Truth and for one seriously considering piety begins a life long inquiry of The Truth.

Contrast Mr. Obama’s responsiblity you have to yourself with Fr. Schall’s response to a question in an August 2005 interview “…by reading or teaching, we are at best brought to the banks of the river of intellect as it flows on. When we jump in, we sink or swim by ourselves. But we already have a mind that, as mind, is ours, not of our own making. This mind is not given to us to think whatever we wish, but to think whatever is true. If what we wish is not true, it is no virtue to stick to our wishes. Tests of truth exist. We should know them.”

Obama says, “But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher.”

And so we return to that “me” culture, the essence of which is what is good for me, what is it that I want. And this is so totally different from what parents who kept their children away on Tuesday want and in the pursuit of which we should hope that God will grant His blessings.

[This article was previously published by www.acton.org and is used by permission.]

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  • plowshare

    Not only were children not made to go to school in the 18th century, but it is my understanding that there were no state-supported schools at all, nor schools supported by local government, unless one considers schools run by established churches to be exceptions.

    By the way, there is a widespread misconception that the First Amendment did away with established churches in the USA. In fact, several New England states had established churches well into the 19th century. The First Amendment expressly forbade Congress to pass any law “respecting” establishment of churches–and “respecting” was meant in the sense “pertaining to.” So the federal government had no power to disestablish those New England state churches.

  • DWC

    I have been a bit baffled as to the uproar on this. The speech itself is rather innocent. I believe the rift has been on some sort of practice the NEA was pushing for regarding instituiting lesson plans that seems to infringe our parental rights and catered to Obama far too much.

  • Joe DeVet

    Our culture basically gets the public education system it deserves.

    That’s why we “deserve” the spectacle of Obama giving advice directly to our school children through the auspices of the public education system. Our culture, not grasping the difference between voting for American Idol and the American President, gave us this man as our chief executive.

    The system of public education was broken already. It now remains only to be pulverized.

  • elkabrikir

    DWC the reason for the uproar is this:

    There is a contentious debate at this time regarding healthcare.

    Obama’s people have used progaganda to influence children: Demi Moore’s “I Plegde” video which was shown to children. And other blatant attempts to inluence children that occurred during the campaign.

    The text of the worksheets was inappropriate and was revised once parents read the contents. The Department of Education even apologized for the original worksheet’s contents.

    Although the speech Obama delivered was innocuous, we do not know the original speech’s text.

    He announced the unprecedented National Speech to Children late in the day, as though under the cover of darkness. Parents don’t trust this man that sought to change our economy and way of life (Obamacare) without public debate and in a matter of two weeks.

    I’m thankful for the “flash fire” of parental outrage. It tells Obama that we’re not only watching, but we’re on the playing field ready to advance our cause.

    Hope this helps.

  • I know that in the 18th century, post-revolutionary Boston was 90% literate, without any sort of government-funded schools whatsoever. We would be far better off if we separated school and state: http://www.sepschool.org

  • jpckcmo

    On November 14, 1988, Reagan addressed and took questions from students from four area middle schools in the Old Executive Office Building. According to press secretary Marvin Fitzwater, the speech was broadcast live and rebroadcast by C-Span, and Instructional Television Network fed the program “t o schools nationwide on three different days.” Much of Reagan’s speech that day covered the American “vision of self-government” and the need “to keep faith with the unfinished vision of the greatness and wonder of America” but in the middle of the speech, the president went off on a tangent about the importance of low taxes.

    I had children in school at the time and don’t think they were permanently scarred by the experience. In fact, they are both independently thinking, intelligent adults. We have tried to use these events as opportunities for discussion with our children, and I would hope the Obama speech gave that opportunity to many families yesterday, whether they agree with him or not. I agree that the lesson plans were inappropriate, and when called on it they were altered or retracted–they were always optional.

    Actually, I think this discussion has been a great thing and has been very enlightening for me. And you can bet that by making it “verboten,” kids all over America are going to be downloading it on their computers as soon as they get the chance!

  • goral

    I think making the case for Obama by citing a comparison to Pres. Reagan
    is like comparing the prophet Mohammed with Jesus.
    They’re in a different league, but who knows, maybe his revised speech will encourage more slackers to graduate.

  • jpckcmo

    I totally agree that they are in a different league.