Monday, September 07, 2009

A look at at Dear Leader's planned speech to students

Raw Data: Obama Speech to American School Children

There are a lot of perfectly fine portions -- perfectly appropriate from any President to the start of any school year. The problem is the embedding.

For starters, I don't like his early assumptions:

I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it's your first day in a new school, so it's understandable if you're a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you're in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could've stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.

Maybe even without Dear Leader's pep talk some kids really are excited to be in school and learning. I know my granddaughter was jazzed to start "big girl school." My kids, like my siblings and friends and me, tended to greet the first day of school with great excitement. And when I was a teenager I was awake and about long before it was time to leave for school -- I had a job babysitting for a woman who worked an early shift. I was over there long before most kids were awake. I got her kids up and dressed and off to their carpool before I hustled myself off to school. A lot of kids of all ages work -- many on farms, which require that the entire family be up and about before dawn. So I resent his implication that the kids aren't excited to start a new year, that they resent being dragged out of bed.

But now we get to the really objectionable part. The Noble Struggles of Our Dear Leader:

When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn't have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday - at 4:30 in the morning. ....

Then he goes back to lecturing what he clearly assumes are a bunch of shiftless bums, haplessly left in the hands of uninspiring teachers Dear Leader has admonished to do better, and bred by indifferent parents who need Dear Leader to scold them into turning off the XBox and TV:

So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I'm here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I'm here because I want to talk with you about your education and what's expected of all of you in this new school year.

Now I've given a lot of speeches about education. And I've talked a lot about responsibility. I've talked about your teachers' responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn. I've talked about your parents' responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don't spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.

And, of course, Dear Leader's leadership is desperately needed at all levels:

I've talked a lot about your government's responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren't working where students aren't getting the opportunities they deserve.

Now he's back to scolding the slugabeds:

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world - and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed

And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Now that he's done tearing down the kids and everybody around them, from their classmates to Congress, he starts to build them back up:

Every single one of you has something you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a good writer - maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper - but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor - maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine - but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

Now he finally goes on to talk about why education is important. And all of this would have been fine if he hadn't proceeded it with the subtle scolding about how lackadaisical everybody would be if it weren't for Dear Leader imparting to them the lessons he learned on his Sainted Mother's Knee.

Then he suddenly starts to sound like Eisenhower reeling from the launch of Sputnik:

And this isn't just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.


We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don't do that - if you quit on school - you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country.

That part's a little overblown, but it's old hat so I'll not find fault with it. Nor with this:

Now I know it's not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.

But where he could hold up any of a number of role models -- preferably some politically unobjectionable ones like Abe Lincoln and Booker T. Washington -- he instead extols his own triumph over adversity, even holding up his wife as Dear Leader's Noble Consort:

My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn't always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn't fit in.

So I wasn't always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I'm not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn't have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

Then he finally gets back on track and goes to encouraging the kids:

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don't have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there's not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don't feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren't right.

For a single paragraph. Then he resumes the scold:

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 - that's no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying.

Then he's back to encouraging the kids and finally brings up some inspirations that aren't Dear Leader:

Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future. That's what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.

Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn't speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.

I'm thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who's fought brain cancer since he was three. He's endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer - hundreds of extra hours - to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he's headed to college this fall.

And then there's Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she's on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.

Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren't any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.

I don't quite like "I expect all of you to do the same." How about, "I know that each of you, deep inside, has the courage to do the same." Make it about lifting the kids up, not scolding them with what Dear Leader happens to want from them.

He moves on with a solid pep talk:

That's why today, I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education - and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book.

Maybe you'll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you'll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you'll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn.

Then suddenly he gets banal:

And along those lines, I hope you'll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don't feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

That's insipid rather than objectionable. Which leads me to wonder what committee he ran the speech past. I can just picture some public health official saying, "Tell the little snots to cover their faces when they sneeze!"

The next section is actually pretty good, other than the "I want you to" tone:

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it. I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you're not going to be any of those things.

But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won't love every subject you study. You won't click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won't necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That's OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who've had the most failures. JK Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

These people succeeded because they understand that you can't let your failures define you - you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn't mean you're a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn't mean you're stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.

No one's born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You're not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don't hit every note the first time you sing a song. You've got to practice. It's the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it's good enough to hand in.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don't know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust - a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor - and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

And even when you're struggling, even when you're discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you - don't ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough. It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

It's the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

So today, I want to ask you, what's your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country? Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you've got to do your part too.

So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don't let us down - don't let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.


The Dutchman said...

You know, there’s a huge problem in this country with inner city blacks who think that doing well in school is “acting white.” Time after time we read stories about some kid who starts out well in school, is accused by his fellows of “acting white,” and then ends up in a gang, or on crack, or just messed up.

And no one is doing anything about it. I don’t see Oprah telling ghetto kids: “Be like me, act white!” I don’t hear Michael Jordan saying: “I got where I am today by acting white!” Bill Cosby is about the only one talking about this, and just about every black leader has turned against him.

And now the President of the United States, probably the most famous, most admired black man on the planet, is trying to do something about it — and all you can do is be snotty?

OperationCounterstrike said...

I second the above post. You right-wing loons are so into hating President Obama that you complain when he tells kids to work hard in school???

Talk about a derangement-syndrome. Sheesh.

GrannyGrump said...

Evidently you didn't read the entire post, because I praised a lot of the things he said. It was his "Be Like Dear Leader, Who Is An Inspiration To All" framing that I found fault with.

Subvet said...

"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Luke 14:11

Evidently B.O. never heard those words in Jeremiah Wright's church.

The Dutchman said...

Let me get this straight.

First "B.O." walked the walk (working hard, getting ahead), but now he's not supposed to talk the talk (urging others to do the same)?

What good is his example if he hides it under a bushel?

Do you think Snoop Doggy Dog, Method Man, or Chuck D should be the only kind of African-American who blows their own horn? Gangsta' rappers are not going to let any false humility keep them from recruiting young men to their lifestyle, why hand-cuff the President so that he can't be a HIGHLY VISIBLE good example?

GrannyGrump said...


If you like this sort of thing, I'm sure Kim Jong Il has a nice place for you in his propaganda ministry.

Kathy said...

"Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips." Prov. 27:2. Were there not other examples Obama could have pointed to? I'm not saying his is not a good example of how a young man from a broken home can rise to positions of great power and influence (esp. when coupled with Chicago-style politics); but there is something dissatisfying with a self-serving person, and this proverb nails it.

Kathy said...

How much you wanna bet that something like this was in the original speech, before the public outcry?

Chad Tonka said...

How much you wanna bet that something like this was in the original speech, before the public outcry?

Give me a break! He was asked a direct question by a student. What was he supposed to say, “Sorry, can’t answer that because Newt Gingrich will get upset.”

You can speculate for days about what “supposedly” was in this speech. How about this one:

Did you hear that B.O. was going to say that school lunches should be militantly vegan, until the public outcry?

How about this:

Did you hear that B.O. was going to say that school PE class should be two hours of Falun Gong exercises, until the public outcry?

Make up your own, they’re fun!

Kathy said...

Considering that the Obama team planted a child to ask a question at the town hall meeting he had -- the daughter of a Democrat/liberal supporter/activist -- and the question enabled him to launch into a general attack and discussion, I don't trust, "He was asked a direct question by a student."

runningatlarge said...

My children's district decided not to play the speech. Thank God there's one not blindly following, and thank God it was ours!

Subvet said...

I read the lesson plan put out by the DOE prior to the speech, there seems to be a serious disconnect between the two. Almost as if the plan was written with a different speech in mind, a prime example being the bit where students are encouraged to write letters to themselves asking what they could do to help the President. That doesn't quite jibe with the speech we heard.

There were other examples, thats just the first to come to mind.

The Dutchman said...

The comparison to Kim Jong Il is utterly specious.

Kim Jong Il is the pampered son of a dictator who has accomplished nothing in his life and is in no way a good example. (Much the same could be said of G.W. Bush.)

President Obama is a self-made man from humble origins who played by the rules and made a success of himself. Even if you don't like his policies, he is our president, and he does command a "bully pulpit" that he was using, in this case, in an entirely constructive way.

Several years ago, when the war against Irak was new, my daughter was given a "Presidential Scholars" award at her 8th grade graduation. She wanted to protest, turning her back to the presenter when her name was announced, but we insisted that she accept the award, because in the role of encouraging education, the President was acting correctly in making those awards. Not one of our friends whose children were getting the award (and our children were in an advanced program, so many of them did) allowed their kids to protest, even though virtually all of them were anti-imperialist. Now that the shoe is in the other foot it simply saddens me that right-wingers can't be big about it when the President is acting in a non-partisan capacity.

Subvet said...

"...when the President is acting in a non-partisan capacity."

You're kidding, right?

Just the way the speech was presented was extremely partisan. Addressing the children of the entire nation is something that hasn't been done before. It's indicative of the "Big Government" mentality that this thing was performed in the manner it was.

Let me be clear, the speech itself was totally devoid of anything negative. He may have been making an overabundance of references to himself but B.O. said nothing offensive.

It was the manner/mode he used that I find offensive. The Federal Government shouldn't be involved IN ANY MANNER with my child's education. Catholics who follow the doctorine of subsidiarity know what I'm talking about here. The education of children is best accomplished on as local a level as possible, for proof of this reasoning check out how often homeschooled kids outperform their peers.

By presenting a national speech aimed at all of the children this administration further greases the skids for the greater acceptance of government involvement in our daily lives.

That mindset is most at home in the Democratic Party and THAT alone makes this speech extremely partisan.

Chad Tonka said...


While you are extremely passionate about this subject, you seem to not understand the educational system in this country.

The Federal Government shouldn't be involved IN ANY MANNER with my child's education.

This statement is so absurd it’s difficult to know where to start. Given the history of this country, it’s imperative that the Fed Gov assist states in education, from funding basic infrastructure to stopping local ideologues (e.g. Jim Crow laws and racial segregation). I won’t go into the minutiae of important policy innovations the Dept. of Education is responsible for, from curriculum to promoting healthy school lunches and playgrounds free of toxic waste. But in a broader, philosophical sense, public education is critical for installing the virtues of citizenship we all hold dear.

By presenting a national speech aimed at all of the children this administration further greases the skids for the greater acceptance of government involvement in our daily lives.

Yet Presidents as different as Reagan and Clinton both spoke at schools. You are missing the larger point – it is important for children to understand what it means to have a government. Unless you believe that there should be no government at all.


Kathy said...

But in a broader, philosophical sense, public education is critical for installing the virtues of citizenship we all hold dear.

I'm no grand historian, but I think this statement is bull crap!! Since the federal government has been involved in education, educational standards have gotten much worse, and our "virtues of citizenship" have gone in the toilet.

Subvet said...

Chad, as the government has become more involved in education the quality of it has soared like a mudseeking missile. Correlation doesn't automatically equal causation but in this case it's definetly a case of cause & effect.

Dragging in Jim Crow? Don't people like yourself EVER get tired of playing the race card?

FWIW, I spent the first nine years of schooling in Catholic institutions. The effect of the DOE was minimal compared to the public schools, I believe this resulted in the superior education I received. Looking at the stats for public vs. private schools bears me out. Cut out a meddlesome, distant beauracracy and test scores rise.

While many Presidents have spoken at many schools, I don't recall a nationwide address before this. Maybe I'm wrong, could have happened during my drinking years.

Regardless, it would still be wrong. Our Chief Executive is the highest paid civil servant in the land. The key word there is, "servant". He owes his position to the will of the people, therefore he works for us. He isn't some messianic figure come down off a mountain to lead the great unwashed multitudes to the Promised Land. He's just the hired help.

And I don't like the hired help talking to my kids without my permission.

Kathy said...

One of the things that bothered me about the address was the instructions (or whatever) released before it, so that the teachers could talk about how the students could be not just more patriotic or more studious, but could help Obama more. Something along those lines. [My kids are too young for school, and I'm planning on homeschooling, so I didn't memorize the thing -- just shook my head and went on.] That, coming on the heels of the various celebrities' "I Pledge" video, in which they pledged allegiance to Obama, or whatever -- that was just too much.

Chad Tonka said...


You make some brash claims, but your logic does not follow. Your argument is essentially this:

“The reason private schools out perform public schools is because public schools have a “meddlesome, distant beauracracy” (sic)

This argument is so deficient is does not even come close to a weak version of causality (that you claim). While it is true that private schools outperform public schools across a variety of indicators on a national level, there are many regional variations that your position cannot address. It is also true that private schools have higher tuition rates (on a national level) which means their student populations tend to come from affluent sectors. It is also true that wealthier families place a high value on education and spend more time per child on out-of-school work. I’ll stop there, but you should be careful about invoking “stats” as an explanatory device.

Dragging in Jim Crow? Don't people like yourself EVER get tired of playing the race card?

That’s a funny comment. It means either you don’t think Jim Crow ever happened and I am making something up, or maybe you think it could have happened, but that was a long time ago (nearly 50 years!!) and the effects have attenuated. In either case, you display an ignorance of not only educational policy in this country, but a more general lack of knowledge about US history.


Gramjen said...

This speech was really controversial in public and private schools alike. There were many children kept home in order to avoid being required to see it and it is understandable why many parents would choose to object in this manner.