After all of the rancor last week over his planned back-to-school address, it was predictable that in the end President Obama would offer a largely non-controversial speech about working hard and staying in school. If he sticks to the text released today, that is pretty much what he will do. Unfortunately, whether or not that was his original intent – and no one knows for sure but the President and his advisors – many Obama supporters will likely use the relatively staid final product as grounds to smear people concerned about the speech as right-wing kooks or out-of-control partisans. At the very least, such an outcome would be in keeping with a lot of the email I’ve gotten since the story first broke. But it will miss several critical points:
- No matter how innocuous the content of the speech, this could certainly be an address with very political goals, intended to cast the president in the warm glow of a man who just cares about kids. From kissing babies, to photo-op reading sessions featuring cute tikes on classroom floors, this could be just another instance of the old practice of using children as props for political gain. And how presumptuous of the president to make himself – rather than the children, their teachers, and their schools – the center of attention on what is the first day of school for millions of kids. Finally, add the parts of the speech that sound like the President patting himself on the back for overcoming difficulties as a youth, and the speech could easily have political aims.
- Many people feared, thanks to politically and ideologically suggestive lesson guides created by the U.S. Department of Education, that the speech would be an effort at indoctrination. Critically, it was only after very loud, initial outrage that the Department made changes to the guides and the White House announced it would release the text of the speech ahead of time. Yet administration defenders act like everyone knew from the outset that the speech would just be about working hard and staying in school. And who knows what the speech might have looked like had there not been so negative an initial reaction.
- Despite its generally innocuous tone, the speech does contain some controversial political and ideological assertions, including that “setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools” is the job of the federal government. Also, the things the President highlights as worthy aspirations are disproportionately government and non-profit work. And then there’s this self-aggrandizing assertion: “Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.”
- Ultimately, no matter what happens now that the speech has been published, one thing cannot be ignored or spun: When government controls education, wrenching political and social conflict is inevitable. Americans are very diverse – ideologically, ethnically, morally, religiously – but they all have to support a single system of government schools. As a result, they are constantly forced to fight to have their values and desires respected, and the losers inevitably have their liberty infringed. In this case, reasonable people who want their children to hear the President must fight it out with equally reasonable people who do not want their children to watch the speech in school. It’s a situation completely at odds with a free society, but as we have seen not just with the current conflict, but seemingly endless battles over history textbooks, the teaching of human origins, sex education, and on and on, it is inevitable when government runs the schools. Which is why the most important lesson to be learned from this presidential-address donnybrook is that Americans need educational freedom. We need universal school choice or crippling conflicts like this will keep on coming, liberty will continue to be compromised, and our society will be ripped farther and farther apart.