So they won't have to be a captive audience to the President's "historic" September 8th speech to public school students across the U.S., an event outlined in an August 26, 2009, letter to school principals from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:
In a recent interview with student reporter, Damon Weaver, President Obama announced that on September 8 — the first day of school for many children across America — he will deliver a national address directly to students on the importance of education. The President will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning. He will also call for a shared responsibility and commitment on the part of students, parents and educators to ensure that every child in every school receives the best education possible so they can compete in the global economy for good jobs and live rewarding and productive lives as American citizens.
Since taking office, the President has repeatedly focused on education, even as the country faces two wars, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and major challenges on issues like energy and health care. The President believes that education is a critical part of building a new foundation for the American economy. Educated people are more active civically and better informed on issues affecting their lives, their families and their futures.
This is the first time an American president has spoken directly to the nation's school children about persisting and succeeding in school. We encourage you to use this historic moment to help your students get focused and begin the school year strong. I encourage you, your teachers, and students to join me in watching the President deliver this address on Tuesday, September 8, 2009. It will be broadcast live on the White House website www.whitehouse.gov 12:00 noon eastern standard time.
In advance of this address, we would like to share the following resources: a menu of classroom activities for students in grades preK-6 and for students in grades 7-12. These are ideas developed by and for teachers to help engage students and stimulate discussion on the importance of education in their lives. We are also staging a student video contest on education. Details of the video contest will be available on our website www.ed.gov in the coming weeks.
And don't miss this gem at the letter's conclusion:
Not to worry, parents, I'm sure you rank in the Top Ten (#9—after teachers, the President, politicians, peer groups, television, the Internet, pop musicians, and community organizers) in the "People Doing the Important Work of Preparing Kids for Work and Life" category. The Catholic Church, however, has a much higher understanding of the role of parents in education:
As those first responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions. This right is fundamental. As far as possible parents have the duty of choosing schools that will best help them in their task as Christian educators. Public authorities have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and of ensuring the concrete conditions for its exercise. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2229; also see par. 1653).
Meanwhile, the Department of Education page has provided handouts to be used by teachers before, during, and after the speech, which include these suggestions (for K-6):
Does the speech make you want to do anything?
Are we able to do what President Obama is asking of us?
What would you like to tell the President?
And for grades 7-12:
successful. Who could he speak to next? Who should be his next audience? Why?
What would he say?
• What are the three most important words in the speech? Rank them. What title would
you give this speech? What’s the thesis?
• What is President Obama inspiring you to do? What is he challenging you to do?
• What do you believe are the challenges of your generation?
• How can you be a part of addressing these challenges?
Goodness, why didn't George W. Bush ever do this? (For the record, I think that one of Bush's most miserable failures was in the realm of education, beginning with his capitulation to Sen. Kennedy and going downhill from there.)
In related news, The Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), reports:
How can you finish in the middle of the pack and rate a "B"? That's a very kind curve, isn't it? Fortunately, Duncan has come up with an ingenious way to dramatically improve public education: "He is spending a record amount of money and making sweeping demands of the educational system." Thank goodness! It's about time someone tried something fresh and innovative! Why didn't Bush, Clinton, Bush, Sr., etc., think of that?
Duncan, however, has his work cut out for him: "Teachers and their unions are skeptical about linking instructor evaluations and rewards to student test scores, arguing that it only would encourage teaching to tests, not creating richer learning experiences for children." Perhaps those teachers and unions need to ask themselves: "What is President Obama inspiring me to do? What is he challenging me to do?" That and a few billion dollars should do the trick, right?
UPDATE: After writing the post above, I've visited a few blogs and sites where many folks are expressing legitimate concerns about the speech, while some are either, in my opinion, overreacting or saying things they simply shouldn't say. My post, as sarcastic as it is, wouldn't have differed much, if at all, if the President in question were George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan.
In my opinion, one of the great dangers of a liberal democracy (something emphasized by Tocqueville, among others) is a tendency toward a maternal state, a tendency that has been around in the U.S. for quite some time, arguably dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, if not further. This leads, slowly if not always directly, to an implicit or explicit belief that the State 1) possesses a sort of sacred place in the life of citizens, 2) is the primary educator and teacher of both children and adults, and 3) should use education and appeals to civic responsibilities in order to grow in size and influence. All of this is very problematic from a Catholic perspective, regardless of how negative, ambivalent, or positive you might be about public education.
It may well be that President Obama's speech will be non-offensive in content, containing exhortations to studying hard, being diligent, setting goals, and so forth. Fine. My issue with the speech, which I didn't make clearly enough above, is not so much with the content (although I'm very curious about what he will say), but the bothersome notion, which is hard to avoid, that the President of the United States is somehow Educator-in-Chief, or even Father-Figure-in-Chief. The fact is, public schools have been, for many decades now, run by a largely centralized, federal system; the direct influence of parents and communities in their local schools does vary from place to place, but it is impossible to deny the increased, often blatant, centralization of the system. This raises serious questions about a host of matters, including (but not limited to) the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, as well as the role of parents as primary educators of their children, a role that isn't distinctively Catholic in the least.
To put it simply, this speech, in my opinion, may well mark another small but sure step (symbolic, perhaps, but still substantial) toward what Pope Benedict has described as "The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself ... a State which regulates and controls everything." I could be completely wrong. I'm certainly interested in arguments to the contrary.
Finally, here is another quote from Pope Paul VI's Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis (Oct. 28, 1965):
In addition it is the task of the state to see to it that all citizens are able to come to a suitable share in culture and are properly prepared to exercise their civic duties and rights. Therefore the state must protect the right of children to an adequate school education, check on the ability of teachers and the excellence of their training, look after the health of the pupils and in general, promote the whole school project. But it must always keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity so that there is no kind of school monopoly, for this is opposed to the native rights of the human person, to the development and spread of culture, to the peaceful association of citizens and to the pluralism that exists today in ever so many societies. [par. 6; emphasis added]