Our local school system is grappling with the "Obama speech problem," suggesting that perhaps they'll require permission slips for elementary students and leave middle and high school decisions up to the individual teachers. Amidst the droves of crazies in my town who are already storming around demanding that their precious children be protected from the Big Bad President, I wrote this letter to my son's middle school principal:
Dear Mr. Rxxxx:
According to the official literature of Strongsville City Schools, [my son’s school's] mission, in addition to committing to academic excellence, purports to espouse a climate “built on the cornerstone of mutual respect.” It is in that spirit that I ask you to honor President Obama’s request to play his speech for your students this Tuesday, knowing that it will engender discussion not only about the content of his message—encouragement to value personal responsibility and education—but the controversy surrounding it.
The history of education in this country suggests a long-fought struggle over the goals of schooling: Are teachers meant to impart a given body of knowledge, or to nurture critical thinking? I have come to believe that their job entails a little bit of both. Sure, facts are stubborn things, but they can be interpreted myriad ways and through disparate lenses. Please let our middle schoolers know you respect both them and our country’s president by letting them hear his ideas, put them into the context of what they have already learned about the world, and come to their own conclusion.
I am not interested in sending my son to obedience school, where the expectation is knee-jerk compliance toward community or even my own values. Your job is to move him toward an evaluation of the facts on the ground and the application of the principles of autonomy and reason, an endeavor that would be impossible without the primary evidence of the speech itself. Please do the right thing.
(Mother of XXX, 7th grade)
PS: Hiding behind the kind of legal proceduralism that would require parental signatures for such a self-evidently upstanding occasion as a president speaking to the children of his country is cowardly and, worse, an abdication of your duty to foster independent thinking. The very act of suggesting something untoward about the speech or the man is itself prejudicial. Your teachers should show the speech live, and you should support them wholeheartedly. Not a single parent, teacher, administrator, or child need agree with the president’s politics for this to be the clear decision of an enlightened school administrator.
PPS I would like to hear from you about how you plan to proceed on this matter.
It occurs to me that my post and others dealing with the Obama school speech issue are not addressing the particular point that my conservative friends insist is the heart of the matter: that a lesson plan accompanying the press release about the speech included this suggestion: The students should "Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals."
At a recent gathering a good friend of mine became emotionally wrought—her anger and frustration were palpable—whenever I mentioned the inanity of keeping a sitting president from talking to school children about the importance of education. Through gritted teeth and an apparent heroic effort at restraint, she maintained, “It’s not about that. It’s about the letter.” She absolutely insisted that no such objection would have occurred had that lesson plan not been included. It’s important to note, by the way, that she and others seemed to have no idea what the lesson plan actually said and that it had been retracted. Most importantly, they didn't seem to know that it was one among many suggested lesson plans, and I wish I'd emphasized that. There were many, many questions and suggestions in those admittedly lame lesson plans, perhaps 40 or 50 when you counted the K-12 ones all together. It’s the cherry picking of that one that reveals something about the cherry picker. It’s naive to imagine that the absence of that single suggestion would have alleviated all this angst.
I made the mistake of musing about racism, suggesting that while I hated to throw that reductivism around lightly and had deliberately avoided it during the primary and national election campaigns, I couldn’t find a better explanation for the outsized reaction to the man himself and his so-far moderate policies, most of which aren’t even on paper yet. Unfortunately (and understandably, really), my friend heard me call her a racist and stopped engaging, other than to insist, yet again, that it was about that letter, which served to massage a “cult of personality,” a FOX-donated bumper sticker phrase if there ever was one.
When my friend wanted to know, “Why is it racism? Why can’t it just be that we don’t like the man?” I should have said that cherry picking to find a flaw can be done on anyone. Examining why a minor thread of arrogance or ineptness results in major outrage and teeth gnashing is the valuable and necessary question. I’m still not sure I’m comfortable using the word racism. I’m trying it out, but I have to admit that if Hilary were in his role right now I think we’d be seeing similarly disproportionate rage, albeit of a slightly different variety. We’d all be toying with the word sexism, I suppose. In the end, maybe it’s just extreme tribalism, the kind of partisanship that takes no prisoners.
So we really are talking around each other, my friend and I. When she thinks I'm missing the major point, that I and other liberals who claim to be confused by the mayhem are really disingenuously ignoring the real issue--that letter demanding that the narcissistic Obama's ego be massaged—we are in fact thinking that it's she who is missing the real point—What made them go looking for that silly lesson suggestion in the first place?