On President Obama’s Address to Students

by Matthew Koslowski on September 9, 2009
in Essays

With all the controversy swirling around President Obama’s Address to Students, I was curious to see what he would say yesterday.

I wanted to form my own opinion of the address. I had avoided reading all of the advance press that I could. I knew there was talk of school boards voting to prevent its presentation in school; I knew conservative talking heads and shouting mouths had condemned the very idea without any advanced copy, had dismissed a political tradition; I knew there were parents who were thinking of keeping their children home as a boycott.

As much as I had anticipated the speech, I was disappointed by his speech. More than disappointed, in fact: the President’s speech made me angry.

To Boycotting Parents

Before I discuss my own reaction to the address, I would like to address any dissenting parents who may be reading this. The act of boycotting this speech I find particularly baffling.

What an opportunity you missed! Let your children watch the speech in school, watch the speech for yourselves after work, and then over dinner sit down — or make the time, as Obama’s mother made for him — and discuss with your children what they heard, what they took away, and how you disagree. Show your kids that you respect and value them.

If you disagree with what the President said, explain to your children why and make an argument for an alternative. If you found that the President’s address was full of propaganda, find instances of it in the speech and point them out to your children. Your children are going to need to think critically in the future and this was an excellent opportunity to help them exercise that skill.

Why School? and the President’s Address

“When was the last time you were moved by a high-level speech about education? I don’t mean by the personal testimonials we hear at graduations or award ceremonies, but by a policy or political speech.”
– Mike Rose from “In Search of a Fresh Language of Schooling” in Why School?, page 25.

As I mentioned in The Marketplace and Ideas, I have been thinking of the purpose of school lately.

Inspired by an interview on Marketplace, I read Mike Rose’s book Why School?, which I intend to review soon. The book questions of the way we think about and discuss schools and the purpose of public education. I have begun rereading it and I continue to think about the purpose of public education.

I agree with Mr. Rose that a robust, healthy public education system is vital to our nation. In fact, I think public education is a civil right. At its best, our school system is our strongest public institution, one with the greatest chance of actually furthering an informed and civil democracy.

My Hope for the Speech

Mike Rose summarizes what I hoped to hear from President Obama yesterday:

“We need public talk that links education to a more decent, thoughtful, open society. Talk that raises in us as a people the appreciation for deliberation and reflection, or for taking intellectual risks and thinking widely–for the sheer power and pleasure of using our minds, alone or in concert with others. We need a discourse that inspires young people to think gracefully and moves young adults to become teachers and foster such development.”
– Mike Rose, from “In Search of a Fresh Language of Schooling” in Why School?, page 29.

While some elements of that were there in the speech, I found the overall speech weak. The President’s words seemed so divorced from reality; it was simply a high-level policy speech.

A Weak Presence

I know that Obama can give a powerful speech. I think of his Inauguration Address. While the quality of the video I watched did not help — the audio track and the video track lost their synchronization early in the speech — the President did not seem engaged in what he was saying; he looked wooden and tired.

His words did not light a fire under the students. The only cheer from the crowd that I remember was when Obama asked the crowd to give a round of applause to the Senior Class President who had introduced him.

He did not work the narratives of any student into the body of the speech. Although he dropped the names of three students who struggled against difficult conditions to succeed, that’s all they were, name-dropping in an effort to create the appearance of inspiration. The three students were listed, one after another, in a formulaic way: “I am thinking of {student’s name here} from {town here} who rose above, who overcame {insert challenge here} and who is now going onto college!” He gave more time to J.K. Rowling and Michael Jordan.

Talking about Jordan was effective for me and I imagine for the parents of the students. Michael Jordan does offer an inspiring quote — Jordan said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.” — but his career with the Chicago Bulls spanned 1984 through 1998. Most high school seniors were only 6 or 7 when Jordan retired from the Bulls.

Is it OK to Fail? Or Not?

“These people succeeded because they understood that you can’t let your failures define you — you have to let your failures teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently the next time. So if you get into trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to act right. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.”
– President Barack Obama, Address to Students, September 8, 2009

What angered me most about Obama’s speech was rhetoric about learning from failures. In this age of high-stakes testing, this age of “objective” metrics, this age of No Child Left Behind, where that schools fail to meet certain metrics are punished by having their resources reduced, there is not space enough to let a child fail. In this age of 25 to 30 kids to a classroom, there is not time enough for a teacher to give a struggling student individual attention.

It is grand to tell a child to take responsibility for his or her education. But how do you expect a child to do that? What skills do the children have to take responsibility for their own education if they have never learned study skills?

Mike Rose points out:

“No one, no one, develops free of local and broader-scale institutions (from sports clinic to the military), social networks, government projects and programs (from transportation infrastructure to school loans), and so on. …it does not diminish the important of individual commitment and effort also to acknowledge the tremendous role played in achievement by the kind, distribution, and accessibility of institutions, programs, and other resources. And these resources, as everybody knows, are not equally available.”
– Mike Rose from “Introduction” in Why School?, page 10.

When I was in high school, my grade was a test grade for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. Our results did not matter and even if we failed all of the subjects, we would receive our diplomas.

Now students who repeatedly fail the MCAS are granted not a diploma but a certificate of attendance. What if the MCAS were actually an assessment system, a test administered to judge what needed to be reinforced, what areas students had not achieve competence or mastery but that just offered an assessment of the schools? I think that kids would be able to take more intellectual risks, the type the President thinks we should be taking.

When I went to college, I wanted to double major in the Humanities and the Fine Arts. Although I had no technical training in high school, I could have enrolled in the Bachelor of Fine Arts specialty degree. I received a lot of Bs and Cs in my studio art classes and often heard, “You’ve got good, solid ideas that are worth pursuing but your technical skills in drawing or sculpting are weak.”

Because I was afraid of losing my scholarship, I gave up my art classes. I was afraid to take the risk to become the artist I wanted to become. Despite options that I had, I decided to make an economic decision and change course to be less of a drag on my family. And, I’ll admit, seeing those Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs in art bruised my ego.

And I am sure students in middle school and high school hesitate and refuse to take risks for a host of reasons, gentle egos and many others. I think of one of the first essays I wrote here, Testing, Assessment, and Feedback. Students failing should not result in stigma and sorting them to the bottom of the pile. If a failure is accompanied by strong feedback and guidance, a person can roar back.

Life Circumstances Don’t Matter

“But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life — what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home — none of that is an excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school.”
– President Barack Obama, Address to Students, September 8, 2009

Poverty and illness, violence in the home and in the neighborhood, working parents or neglect, and even homelessness. These are realities for many people in our nation. These are real challenges. President Obama pays lip service to these challenges being “no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school.”

Each person’s life has its own hardships. And challenges do need to be overcome but some challenges are much greater than others. But simply stating, “Stay in school because you’re letting yourself and your country down,” is not enough. Obama knows the power of story and narrative, but this speech was lacking in it.

As I said above, he mentioned three students who were college-bound despite their hardship in a formulaic, abstract way. Why didn’t he pull together a grand narrative or interweave a small number of narratives?

Parental and Adult Involvement

Obama urges kids to turn to a parent, a teacher, a coach, or other trusted adult to ask for help and to turn to for guidance. He was lucky to have a mother who cared enough to wake up at 4:30am to teach him, to guide him. But how many kids have parents who can do that? And what teacher has time to give the kind of individual attention the children really need?

I want to get into teaching to help kids learn, to help them learn to think independently, and to turn them on to power of literature to allow them to enter the thoughts and experiences of others and to offer them a vocabulary to talk about their own thoughts and experiences. But I am daunted by the idea that I will have five or six sets of 25, 30, or even 35 kids sitting in my classroom, all with different levels of achievement in reading and writing that I will have to help guide. It is a challenge that I will not shy away from and that I look forward to.

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