Verner column: Mr. Obama’s teachable moment
Regarding the mini-furor brewing over President Obama’s Tuesday address to the nation’s schoolchildren, I don’t know which is more mordantly funny ó the wingnut paranoia that finds socialist plots in the president’s every facial tic and utterance, or the bleeding-heart belief that a presidential speech and accompanying “lesson plan” might have an indelible effect on young minds.
Given our abysmal dropout rate and the chronic achievement gap that continues to plague black students, it’s worth a try, I suppose, just as it was worth a try back in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush gave an address to schools nationwide from a junior high school in Washington, D.C. The White House at that time urged the address be broadcast to students, and, according to published reports, it was carried live by the Cable News Network, the Public Broadcasting System, the Mutual Broadcasting System and the NBC radio network. Bush began his speech by saying he was talking to “millions” of students “all across the country.”
“When it comes to your own education, what I’m saying is take control,” Bush said. “Don’t say school is boring and blame it on your teachers. Make your teachers work hard. Tell them you want a first-class education. Tell them that you’re here to learn. Block out the kids who think it’s not cool to be smart. I can’t understand for the life of me what’s so great about being stupid. …”
Wow, controversial stuff, isn’t it? Yet, just as some conservatives ó especially those in the more distant galaxies of the blogosphere ó have thrown a hissy fit over Obama’s planned remarks, Democrats back then accused the president of politicizing education.
“The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students,” said Rep. Richard Gephardt, then the Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives. “And the president should be doing more about education than saying, ‘Lights, camera, action.’ ”
Of course, Bush’s fellow Republicans defended his speech, including then-House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich.
“Why is it political for the president of the United States to discuss education?” Gingrich asked. “It was done at a nonpolitical site and was beamed to a nonpolitical audience. … They wanted to reach the maximum audience with the maximum effect to improve education.”
Let it be noted that Bush’s 1991 remarks brought no discernible changes in the educational or political landscapes. The dropout rate did not decline. SAT scores did not surge. The cheating rate did not plunge. There was no rush on pre-calculus or advanced biology classes. Nor did America’s youth suddenly begin sending their lunch money to conservative political action committees.
So even if President Obama’s speech is actually a cornerstone of his sinister plan to turn the nation into one big collective of arugula growers, as some would have us believe, he won’t succeed. As our hard working teachers well know, children learn much more from the daily examples of their parents than from attempts at “indoctrination” by distant authority figures. The teachable moment won’t come from Obama but from the messages parents and our educational leaders themselves send students ó about cynicism, hysteria and the ability to discern fact from fiction.
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Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post.