President Obama is to give a speech to American schoolchildren on Tuesday. There has been a pretty strong reaction to his giving that speech, and I have to admit that I am a bit mystified by that reaction. Apparently the Department of Education came up with a suggested “lesson plan” related to the President’s remarks that involved schoolchildren writing letters to themselves about what they can do to help President Obama, and some commentators have reacted negatively to that. Still others have suggested that the President is trying to establish some kind of cult of personality, as if a single speech could convert kids into brainwashed automatons.
This whole issue is another example of how everything a President does is now viewed from the perspective of partisan politics. I think everyone, of every political stripe, agrees that kids should be encouraged to stay in school, work hard and study, and get a good education. Why can’t the President, as duly elected leader of our country, speak to kids to deliver that kind of consensus non-partisan message? Isn’t he an appropriate person to deliver such a message, and perhaps in doing so to convey to kids the importance of the issue?
When I was in grade school in Akron, Ohio, our classrooms included the American flag, portraits of Washington and Lincoln, and pictures of the current President. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of every school day. We learned about past Presidents when we studied American history, and students would talk about what the President was doing when we discussed current events. We watched national events, like the launches of the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, and were encouraged to think of ourselves as Americans who wanted America to succeed. I have no doubt that if President Kennedy or President Johnson wanted to give a speech to schoolchildren on the need to study — say, to study science to help America win the space race with the Soviet Union — it would have been accepted without much comment.
I think President Obama should give his speech. Who knows? It may actually convince some kids to change their study habits, and equally important it may convince some people that not everything the President does should be viewed suspiciously, as if it is necessarily a means of obtaining some kind of incremental political advantage for his political party. Even in this jaded, hyperpoliticized world, I think Presidents sometimes still should be able to do what they sincerely believe is in the best interests of the country as a whole. Talking to kids about school is one of those instances.