Next week, President Obama intends to speak to the nation’s school children. The reports are that the message he will deliver emphasizes the importance of education, urging them to work hard and stay in school. This is not a new idea: President George H. W. Bush did it in 1991, urging them to “study hard, avoid drugs and to ignore peers who think it’s not cool to be smart.” According to the New York Times, Democrats called this a “political message” and were angry that he used taxpayer money for it.
Some parents are in an uproar over Obama’s speech, saying that they don’t want their children exposed to his “socialist agenda.” I find their upset pretty unnerving, for several reasons.
Channel One. A large number of middle- and high-schools participate in Channel One News, a 12-minute program piped into every classroom which students are required to watch. It is a commercial production, with ads for a variety of products aimed directly at kids. Analysis by the Media Education Foundation shows that even the 10 minutes called “news” most are soft news, sports, and stories with product tie-ins; only 2 minutes are devoted to current events, and those without much depth.
Parents complain that President Obama’s one speech has not been reviewed by the Texas Board of Education or local school boards, who are legally required to approve curricula. No one has made this complaint about the hour per week children spend exposed to the people Channel One holds up as heros and models in flashy ads and soft news.
Education. While we have two major political parties in this country, they differ much more about means than ends. Both parties recognize that education is important, that there are cultural pressures to be “cool” that work against kids’ efforts to complete their education, and see the need to combat this trend. Members of both parties have a pretty decent respect for children’s vulnerability, and do not travel around school urging children to vote Republican or Democratic when they grow up. I would be willing to have even the politicians I trust the least go to a grade school and urge the kids to be diligent and work hard: it’s the right message, and they need to hear it.
President George W. Bush was visiting a grade school, with plans to give an “importance of education” message, on Sept. 11, 2001 – we all remember the pictures of him in that eerie time between the first and second planes hitting the World Trade Center, listening to a child read a book. He visited dozens of schools since; I never heard of anyone keeping their child home so that they would be preserved from his “warmongering” or his “neocon” ideology – using the over-heated language that it being launched against President Obama’s address to students.
Respect. Kids need someone to look up to. For the most part, our culture offers them the fast-lane life-styles of sports and music stars, replete with alcohol and drugs, sex without marriage, bitter and broken relationships, and few positive role models. Even their public-service messages to stay in school fail when kids know they dropped or failed out of school. They need some models of people who are serving the public good, who are smart. Just about any elected official should be able to serve as such a model, and we do children a disservice to undercut the model because of policy differences.
Electoral participation. We do our children a double-disservice when we convey the message that even listening to a member of a different political party is so dangerous that a short speech could somehow wipe out all of the effects of home life, church, civic organizations, and “indoctrinate” them in an alien creed. Even if a President were so foolish as to give such a speech – highly unlikely – that’s just not how persuasion works.
Instead, the hubbub, keeping kids home from school or requiring them to spend the duration of the speech in an alternative classroom doing make-work encourages a deeply paranoid view of the political process. What kid will want to grow up and enter public service, or be able to work constructively with members of different political parties after a childhood of being indoctrinated into a one-sided view.
American values. It’s time to begin remembering what it means to be American, and passing that along to our kids. The values of political debate, of giving respect and even friendship to people with whom we disagree, to trusting even our political opponents to have basic common sense and dignity. The parents creating this uproar are, in my view, sending all the wrong messages to their children.
Equal time. Instead of keeping the kids home, why not agitate for a requirement that the kids also hear a message urging them to work hard and stay in school from a prominent Republican? It’s sure a message they could stand to hear more than once.
[See New York Times: “Some Parents Oppose Obama Speech to Students“]