The Engage Family Blog

Official Blog of The Family Policy Council of West Virginia

President to Students: Stay in Schools I Never Attended

with 2 comments

Today, President Obama is to address the students of America’s schools.  A few private schools will likely tune into the address, but mostly public schools will be the ones carrying the address live across the country.  It is an address that has been met with not a little controversy.

Critics of the President cite the original “proposed lesson plans” and attendant “I Pledge” video that asked students to make a “pledge” to President Obama as attempts to indoctrinate our children in neo-socialism.  The White House has since, commendably, backed away from the controversial lesson plans.

Now, the President will simply offer a relatively benign speech, one that is commendable of any President who would dare his nation to dream bigger and do more.    (For more on this point, see Al Mohler’s insightfully balanced piece on the subject.)

Still, I have mixed feelings about this address.  It is laudable that President Obama is offering a challenge to the students of America to set goals, dream big, achieve what others say is impossible, etc.  And, I don’t have a problem with a President addressing students; in fact, I find such a speech a good lesson in civics for our students.

Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but feel a bit of an Orewellian tone to the President’s speech.  It’s also unfortunate that I see very little regard given to the parent’s role in education within his remarks.

My frustration over the President’s remarks today are not out of an irrational fear of indoctrination; if I’m concerned at all, it is over the expansion of paternalism.  Mostly, I’m entertained by the irony of the speech.  In the end, like many others, I’m left wanting something more.

First of paternalism.  The President seems to be playing the role of, “parent-in-chief” in this speech.  He will explain up front that his speech is not directed to parental duties.  He says:

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.

Maybe, but I’m not quite convinced, considering most of the educational initiatives proposed by the President seem to avoid parental involvement and/or choice in education – except to say that parent’s need to be involved in helping professional educators educate our children.  (For more on that, see Dale Lee’s piece in today’s Charleston Gazette.)

In fact, in President Obama’s address today, he will mention the word “parent” only 8 times.  His speech carries the tones of paternalism usually reserved for parents talking to their kids and, in that regard, again implicitly tells parents, “Because you’re not smart enough to do it, I’m here to make sure your kids know what their job in education is supposed to be.”  As a parent, I don’t like that.  As a public policy advocate, it rubs coarsely against my conservative predilections.  Why not elevate the importance of listening to mom and dad to our children?  In this way, it seems the President misses a great opportunity to affirm the family unit, opting instead for affirming the sufficiency and supremacy of professional educators.

What he does make clear is whose responsibility it is to succeed in education:

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.

The “responsibility you have to yourself?”  What does that mean exactly?

In some sense, I see where he’s going.  He’s encouraging hard work, dedication, goal-setting, and having that “never-say-die” attitude that American’s have been famous for for centuries.  Undoubtedly, one can have the greatest teachers and parents, but unless the student agrees to be diligent and do the work, it’s much for naught.

Still, it is fundamentally clear – even from his own words – that this cannot be accomplished alone.  At a minimum, the President concedes, you will have to have parents, teachers, and schools in which to be exhorted, educated, and enriched.

It’s not the President’s job to provide for the education of the children of America (beyond his own of course).  It’s not even the school’s, county’s, or general taxpayer’s job to provide for the education of children.  And, it certainly isn’t some rhetorical village that is in the habit of raising children to provide for the education of children.  Fundamentally, it is a parent’s right, responsibility, and grand privilege to provide for the education of their children.  Is it too much to hope our President would loudly affirm that truth?

And, I would argue, it is the job of the parent to ensure the student’s diligence, not hope that the child at some point decides to do it on his own.  Suggesting that children set their own goals to achieve is heartwarming, but is it realistic?  In the short-term, perhaps, but what about the long-run?

The fact of the matter is yet-to-be-educated students don’t know enough to know what goals to set for themselves.  At a minimum, the parents who bore them and know them best ought to be counseling and coaching them according to the strengths they see in their children.  What is more, shouldn’t teachers and parents dare to set audacious goals for their children – ones students themselves would have little or not knowledge of formulating for themselves, let alone motivation to achieve?

This is a lesson that the President should know something about.  He witnessed it first-hand as a child.  This is where the irony comes in.  In his speech, he will say:

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.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

President Obama is the product of a quasi-homeschool environment.  According to his Wikipedia page, President Obama was educated from ages 6-10 in Indonesia at either the Indonesian Public Schools or some local private schools.  It was during this time that the young future president had his education supplemented by his mother at home.

You see, his mother understood that it wasn’t the Indonesian (or, later, American) government’s job to educate young Barack.  It was her job – and, I dare say, privilege.  Where the schools were inadequate, she provided extra tutoring.  Where young-Barack slouched, his mother straightened him up and got him back on track.  It wasn’t something she left to the “professionals;” it was a responsibility she carried with honor.  At the kitchen table is where a future Ivy Leaguer, US Senator, and President began his education, given to him by his mother.

Once he moved back to the United States, President Obama attended a myriad of private schools, including the $17,000/year Punahou School in Hawaii.  Unlike many critics of President Obama, I find this fabulous!  In fact, I think it is excellent that he and Michelle sent their children to the private University of Chicago Laboratory School and now send Malia and Sasha to Sidwell Friends, a private school used by many prominent citizens in Washington, D.C. to educate their children.  It’s great!

But here’s the irony, today President Obama is addressing the thousands of public schools in America that neither he, nor his children, have ever attended.

I don’t begrudge him of it.  I just find it ironic.  Apparently, educational choice is good enough for the poorest displaced American family in Indonesia and clearly sufficient for the most elite Hawaiian.  As the product of home and private schooling, why is the President unwilling to discuss choice in education for the rest of America?  Should we not, in the name of social and Biblical justice, afford the same educational choice to the unemployed single mom that the richest lawyer or banker in town can afford?  Not if we view education as the form and function of the state, not the privilege and responsibility of the parent.

West Virginia has a chance this year to take a step – albeit a small one – towards choice in education in the creation of charter schools.  Parents who are able can also join the ranks of hundreds of families across the mountain state who are choosing to home-school their children.

Whatever the effect of the President’s speech today, I hope parents across this country use this as a “teachable moment” to remind themselves of their duty to provide for the education of their children.  And, let us hope that it evokes a new discussion on the structure of education in America, one that will return the reigns of education to the parent, providing all parents with the same opportunities for home-education and school choice once given to a future President.

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Written by Jeremy Dys

September 8, 2009 at 8:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. I love how he ended it: “Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.” I wonder if he’ll get sued for the oft-touted (though strangely absent from the founding documents) “separation of church and state”? Hmmm . . . .

    Amy Salberg

    September 8, 2009 at 2:39 pm

  2. Jeremy,

    Great blog piece. Who’s your ghost writer? Seriously, excellent and well done!


    David Monreal

    September 9, 2009 at 12:13 pm

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