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Secular Right


Obama's Speech to The Children

September 08, 2009

By Heather Mac Donald

The overheated right-wing pundits were on to something after all. Obama’s speech to the “nation’s students” was pompous, ridiculously long, chock-full of ed-school bromides, and wholly beyond a president’s proper role.

Why should students study, according to Obama? Because they will develop “critical thinking skills” from “history and social studies” that will allow them “to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free.”

How about studying because you will gain actual knowledge—not just “critical thinking skills”—that will lift you out of ignorance? How about for the love of learning and beauty? How about because facts matter?

If the “critical thinking skills” that Obama thinks will “fight poverty and homelessness” led to an awareness that out-of-wedlock child-bearing is the greatest cause of long-term poverty in this country, I might reconsider my contempt for the critical thinking cult and for the ed-school mantra that education is about learning how to learn, rather than about hard-won knowledge.

But I doubt that that’s what Obama had in mind. I also doubt that he expects that “critical thinking skills” will reveal that homelessness is overwhelmingly a function of substance abuse and mental illness, or that it is often a lifestyle choice by people who want to live outside the rules of normal society.

When Obama wants students to use their “critical thinking skills” to make the nation “more fair and more free,” he probably didn’t mean getting rid of racial preferences, either.

It’s Obama’s prerogative, of course, to summon up the usual litany of liberal social causes as the be-all and end-all of existence and education—science and math are desirable for “curing diseases like cancer and AIDS, and developing new energy technologies and protecting our environment,” he said. No one would object to curing cancer or developing clean energy; these are noble pursuits. And he gives at least passing acknowledgement that business exists and that working in the for-profit sector can actually have social benefit beyond providing an occasion for taxation: “You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.”

Still, I have to admit that the knee-jerk opposition to the speech, which had struck me until now as another depressing sign of how paranoid and overheated the opposition to Obama had become, was more right than wrong. No, Obama is not trying to enlist troops for the socialist takeover of the economy; his speech is no more radical than the thousands of commencement speeches that froth out from college greens every year. And obviously the call for hard work and personal responsibility is welcome; had the speech been directed explicitly at black students, I wonder if the conservatives would have blown their tops.

Pre-speech, I had decided that it was more insane to object to the President addressing school children, than for the President to address them in the first place. (Though I had fully in mind Gene Healy’s brilliant analysis of the late arrival of children in the presidential public vocabulary, and the legitimate critique that presidents really have more pressing obligations within the constitutional framework than worrying about children). Why shouldn’t the President be a momentary and non-partisan presence in the classroom, making visible a part of our government, I thought.

But reading the speech, I have changed my mind. The impression it gives is of an enormous ego and sense of boundless power and portfolio. Even if Obama had not announced: “I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn,” the speech still makes you ask: Who, exactly, are you to be saying these things to children? Isn’t it the role of teachers and parents to encourage hard work and a love of learning? Is the president also the Great Roofer and Parent and School Purchasing Department in the Sky?

I’m not ready to buy into the entire right-wing critique of Obama as a dangerous threat to liberty or as the very embodiment of “The Left.” But this speech does suggest a disturbing lack of perspective.

Original Source:



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