The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Much ado about education

Dallas schools should tune in to Obama’s speech this afternoon

When President Obama broadcasts a live speech on education to schoolchildren around the country this afternoon, huge chunks of Texas won’t be watching.

Around the nation, conservative commentators and Republican officials have lambasted the speech as an attempt “to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.” Hundreds of parents have protested the event and threatened to keep their children home from school. Texas has become the eye of this national storm of indignation.

As a result, school districts around Dallas have adopted a number of policies. Richardson students will have to get permission from their parents to watch the speech. Students in Mesquite, Plano and Lovejoy won’t be tuning in. Dallas and Highland Park principals will be left to decide for themselves whether to let their students watch.

The liberal intelligentsia has reacted with scorn, stopping just short of calling concerned parents ignorant and backwards. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the whole thing “silly” and compared the issue to schools banning classic books. Education Secretary Arne Duncan riffed on the theme with his own label of “just silly.” Andrew J. Rotherham, of the DC “think tank” Education Sector, said, “This is coming out of right field.” Bob Ray Sanders, writing in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram said the whole thing would be “laughable if it were not so tragic, so sinister and so sickening.”

As is so often the case, things are much more complex than the liberal outcry supposes, and parents have a right to be concerned. Direct addresses to schoolchildren have been misused throughout history to reinforce a cult of personality around a political leader. While no one thinks the White House is trying to foster a docile movement of Obama Youth, the Department of Education originally intended to ask students to think about what “they can do to help the president,” a study question rightly dropped for its shades of Orwell.

Parents are worried that an address from the president might subtly encourage an awe of Obama in their children’s impressionable minds, a worry not confined to Republicans. While the White House points out that President George H. W. Bush also once broadcast a speech about education to schoolchildren, it doesn’t mention that liberals at the time accused him of attempting to play politics with their children. Liberals and conservatives are equally guilty of sheltering their children from opposing worldviews.

The concerns of parents and Republican leaders are legitimate, if overblown. But they should let their kids listen to Obama, anyway.

Hearing directly from the president will inspire a generation coming of age in an era of civic indifference. It will have an even greater impact on students who know their parents don’t much care for Obama. Those parents should explain to their kids that even though they don’t agree with everything the president says, in this country we believe in free and open debate, in giving everyone a chance to be heard. Talk about a teachable moment.

Obama’s speech also just might be a good one. According to his aides, the president will encourage students to study hard, stay in school, and take responsibility for their learning, a message I would hope to be non-objectionable. If Obama sticks to that message, as I’m sure he will, it could do untold good in a country in which one in ten students don’t finish high school. One speech won’t end America’s drop-out crisis, but it’s a good start.

To be fair to conservatives, some have taken this exact view. Although he’s expressed some concern, Texas governor Rick Perry has said, “Hearing the president speak is always a memorable moment” and that he’s “certainly not going to advise anybody not to send their kids to school that day.” Pretty reasonable remarks from the guy who last year seemed open to the idea of secession.

When the day is done, all this will probably seem like a lot of fuss over something as non-controversial as a president encouraging kids to work hard in school. No one’s life will have been permanently damaged for not hearing Obama’s speech. But we’ll have missed an important chance. Those students whose parents and school districts won’t let them hear Obama speak are the ones who stand to learn the most about open debate in American democracy. Wouldn’t that be educational?

Nathaniel French is a junior theater studies major. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].

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