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As I watched President Barack Obama walk onto the stage today at Arlington’s Wakefield High School, a few thoughts crossed my mind. First, the audience may have been Obama’s best in months. The raucous applause that greeted him was not unlike that at a Jonas Brothers concert. This made me think the administration’s crew should have upped the cool factor by playing a rock version of the stale “Hail to the Chief.” That might have been the perfect way to snag the 13- to 17-year olds who are soon to be the 18- to 25-year-old voting demographic. They sure needed something to liven up the room some more before the speech — essentially a dad-style pep talk from the Father-in-Chief.
To be fair, the speech wasn’t bad. It was a far cry from any indoctrination or liberal-policy talk that some parents feared. I won’t criticize those parents for genuine concern after reports came out that teachers were going to show a speech of Obama asking students to “help the president.” It didn’t ease fears that the Department of Education distributed lesson plans for the speech. A suggested question for students to think about was “What is the President asking me to do?” If it sounds a bit creepy, it’s because it probably is.
Whatever the initial plans for the speech were, Obama rightly retooled it as the “stay in school” talk we hear from athletes, cops and G.I. Joe (“knowing is half the battle”). Parts of it were quite good. I especially liked the line about the responsibility kids themselves have for their own education. The rest of it was standard, non-offensive talk about how all it takes to succeed as a student in America is honesty, hard work and diligence. I have one request of Obama: can you hold the rest of Americans up to that same standard of responsibility when you speak to us? Thanks.
If there was anything offensive about the speech, it was in the audacity of its intent. Are Obama’s presence and words the missing factor in getting millions of American kids to succeed in school? Not bloody likely. Celebrities have been telling kids to read books and eat their veggies for decades, but most 10-year-olds still would rather have chocolate-chip cookies while watching “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Obama probably didn’t expect to solve our country’s education problems with this one speech, but today’s episode is typical of the president’s annoying need to attend to every issue personally. I know the idea is antithetical to the concept of the modern presidency, but it would serve Obama to step back from the spotlight. Listen to your own words, Mr. President! It’s up to teachers, principals, local leaders, family members, and most importantly parents to get kids’ butts in gear at school.
This is why many of Obama’s policies, like his opposition to school choice and increased federal presence in the education system, are so maddening.
The president clearly understands the importance of parental involvement in a child’s education. Why not support more tax breaks for parents who home school their children? The Department of Education has a litany of regulations and the power to withhold federal funds from states that want to go their own way of improving their schools; how about dismantling that tangled web of bureaucracy? Why stop funding a successful school voucher program in the District of Columbia that was getting the best students out of bad public schools and into excellent private ones?
Instead, Obama used the power and prestige of the presidency to make a glorified public service announcement on the first day of school. It’s nice, but it’s too much energy generated toward the wrong goal.
American children need their own father figures, mother figures, and responsible adults to show them the way. Sorry, Mr. President, but you can’t be all those things to every child.
Michael Warren is a senior at Vanderbilt University.
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