Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The 18 Minute Gap

So the President gave his speech to the nation's schoolchildren today. You can read it here and watch it here. As I predicted, it was perfunctory and hortatory. Here's a representative paragraph:

That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.

Did the President say anything that merits an objection? Not that I can see. Was it necessary for him to make the presentation? Not that I can see.

As it happens, my school-age kids didn't end up seeing the speech anyway. My son doesn't start school until tomorrow (a perk of being in the top dog class at his middle school) and my daughter reported that her school was "too busy" to bother, since it was the first day of school and they had other things that needed attention. Based on reading the speech, it wouldn't have bothered me very much if they had seen it, since the message was so noncontroversial. My guess is that the experience of hearing President Obama tell them that they need to work hard and wash their hands would have almost no impact on their lives. They've heard all that stuff before from their parents. Pretty much every day. My kids don't really need the reinforcement. But thanks anyway, Mr. President.

And that is where the issue lies. It's quite possible that somewhere in this nation, some kid may be inspired listening to an African-American President touting the same wisdom that all 43 of his predecessors would have offered in a similar situation. The problem is this: the message needs reinforcement. And the reinforcing message needs to come from parents. And the problem isn't the children. The problem is the parents who can't be bothered with the tedious business of rearing their children. To the children of such parents, such words typically fall from the speaker's mouth like road gravel. The sound is a dull roar that doesn't signify much.

President Obama may want to be a shining example to the youth of our nation. It's a noble thought and for the sake of this discussion I'm going to assume that he had no ulterior motives beyond trying to offer his life story as a good example for the youth of this nation. And while I disagree with the President's politics, there's no gainsaying that his life story is an inspriational one, just as the stories that Horatio Alger penned some 130 years ago were similarly intended. But President Obama's postmodern, picaresque Horatio Alger story is just that -- a story. It can't replace active, involved parenting. His Washington-based ministrations can't provide the individualized attention a child needs to understand the world. And beyond that, doing such things is not his job. He could give an 18-minute speech every day (and sometimes it sure seems like he does), but the gap would remain.

And as long as President Obama continues to go back to the well of his own experience to provide justification for what he does today, he delays the work that he does need to attend to. Beyond the current war of his choosing (health care), there are a lot of other challenges afoot that need attention, right now, many of them in the foreign policy arena. Education is a crucial issue, but the responsibility for administering education falls at the local level and there are many, many people who have the responsibility for dealing with it. My daughter's school principal can't do much about what is happening in Afghanistan, Honduras or Israel and he wouldn't see it as his role in any event. He's better situated to assist in my daughter's education than the President of the United States. And I'd prefer that the principal do the job, since Mr. Obama has other pressing duties. At some point, the time for speechmaking comes to an end and the president needs to start doing other things. I think we're past that time now.


my name is Amanda said...

Which is just a long way of critisizing the President's intentions in not-crazy manner, Mr. D. IMO, never de-value the power of a symbolic message, especially if the message happens to come from a role model. People change their lives all the time, or become inspired to work toward some ambitious goal because of some symbolic occurence or message. Yes, parents (and teachers) matter the most, but there's nothing wrong - or pointless, or redundant - by hearing a positive message from the President when you're a child; afterall, US children are also citizens of this country.

Mr. D said...

Well I'm glad you think I'm not crazy, Amanda. That's something. We'll have to agree to disagree on this -- my point is that there are a hell of a lot of things that ought to be a larger priority for this President than giving long speeches to schoolchildren. And if you look at the list of things I mentioned, especially in re foreign policy, he's dropping the ball.

Bike Bubba said...

I don't know that the message was all that positive. If you asked the Founding Fathers about it, they would have given you an earful if you'd suggested that an education was about "finding a good job" or "serving your country." There were also some areas where Obama demonstrated profound tone deafness.

Thankfully it wasn't completely a campaign speech, but it was worse than a complete waste of time, as Obama completely bungled what education is really for.

Mr. D said...

If you asked the Founding Fathers about it, they would have given you an earful if you'd suggested that an education was about "finding a good job" or "serving your country."

True, BB, but that ship has sailed, with Capt. John Dewey at the helm.

The Moose said...

Public schools. They exist to waste children's time. This doesn't move the needle at all. They exist to inculcate certain values (not necessarily the ones you want). This doesn't move the needle at all.

From my point of view, public schools are already indefensible. This is just a very, very small cherry on top of the very large cake.

Gino said...

ok, without looking further into it, i'm going to take a vicious stab and say that the blogger formerly know as ben has now become a moose.

Mr. D said...

I don't think so, Gino. I have another guess, but I'll not share it here.

Bike Bubba said...

Certainly the ship has sailed, but that shouldn't prevent men of sound mind from going for the lifeboats. And just as obviously, the term "men of sound mind" does not appear to include our President.

Mr. D said...

I take your point, BB. Guess I'm feeling cynical about it these days, but that usually passes.