The top story on the Hartford Courant’s website right now is entitled “Reactions Vary in Connecticut To President Barack Obama’s Speech to Kids.” Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the story lacks a single reaction from a student to Obama’s speech. Indeed, a single meager sentence describes the speech itself. Instead, the article consists primarily in cowardly bloviation from school administrators regarding why they did not carry Obama’s speech to Americas students, a tradition inaugurated and continued by every Republican president since Ronald Reagan.
As someone who spent his entire pre-collegiate education in Connecticut’s public schools, I feel like I have some experience with politics in and surrounding the classroom. My earliest political memory is casting a vote for Bill Clinton in my elementary school’s mock Presidential election. I fancied myself a Democrat. A friend, who thought himself a Republican, told me that I ought to have voted for Dole. “Bill Clinton is going to fire my grandfather,” he said. This didn’t make sense to me then. That friend is now regurgitating roughly the same line as an up-and-coming member of the national College Republicans, except “fire” has been replaced with “kill with a death panel.” I would hesitate to say that his views haven’t evolved, and would rather simply explain how mine have.
As a civically-minded student, I watched as Republican elected officials in my town sought yearly to slash the education budget. Annually, teachers and students and parents would get up in public meetings and implore their officials and fellow citizens not to cut AP programs, or after-school sports, or whatever was on the block that year so that those in the schools would have the opportunity to better themselves if they so chose. Often these requests fell on deaf ears. AP programs were called “taxpayer funded college credit,” rather than a necessary prerequisite if a student wants to get into a competitive institution of higher learning. Each year more students would sit in smaller classrooms and be afforded fewer opportunities.
I watched as Republicans around the country sought to strip or cripple science in our textbooks. I watched teen pregnancies increase as sexual education was curtailed by Republicans who thought themselves excellent moral arbiters. I came to know a couple of things. The first was that to be a public school student in the United States is to be a political football from the age of six to the age of (hopefully) eighteen. The second was that if one values a public education, one oughtn’t be a Republican. These lessons were not taught to be my any ex-hippie or socialist idealogue teacher, as the stereotype seems to be. Rather they came negatively from watching those in civic life who were openly hostile to a reasoned discourse and informed debate.
Currently we have a President who has inspired and empowered a previously unreached and unreachable demographic. Scholarship continually shows that a crucial element of raising educational standards and closing achievement gaps is increasing the educational involvement of the nuclear family. The President recognizes this and has spoken on it in the past, as other Presidents have. More importantly though, the Obama family is a powerful and modern example that activists seeking to improve education in this country have long hoped for. President Obama is a former teacher, a powerful writer, and a stirring orator. Not only should he be allowed to speak to America’s students, but he ought to speak to America’s students.
And yet we find ourselves once again in a silly–and I can think of no nicer way to describe it–situation. An element of this country, their own education belied by their general ignorance of the Presidents policies, actions, history, ethnicity (I could go on, getting embarassingly fundamental in my noun selection), have shrieked discordantly at the prospect of the elected President of the United States speaking to students in the public education system. Believing that in his speech telling students (as the Courant puts it all-too-briefly), “to take responsibility for their education, stay on track and set high expectations for themselves,” the President is actually somehow brainwashing and Communisting their unfortunate children. School administrators, as they always do, balked in response, and an event that should have passed generally with a “well that’s nice!” has instead been turned into another face-in-palm spectacle of general ignorance.
We have certainly taught something valuable to students with this sad story. One can only hope that they’re able to perceive it through the noise.