President to Children: Wash Your Hands

by Tammy Drennan

[Okay, there’s a ton of stuff out there about this speech, and I wanted to get your attention.*]

The big speech is today – September 8, 2009. Of course, it’s already on the web, so we all know what the president will say.

And what does he say?

It’s the type of rah-rah speech you’d expect. There are a few good, inspirational lines. There are the obligatory three examples of real people who did it that marks almost all political speeches today. There’s the “my story” part, too.

It’s hard to overlook the fact that the speech seems to have been written mostly for disadvantaged children, kids who face tough neighborhoods, low income families, absent fathers.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but you do have to wonder if these children are weary of hearing about how hard life is and how hard they need to work in the face of their trials. Mr. Obama’s mother, he tells us, dragged him up at 4:30 every school morning (for a time) to give him extra tutoring, but did she preface each session with a speech about how tough his life was and how he could overcome his disadvantages? This may be good and necessary for older students to hear, but it could be discouraging for younger children, who may wish that the grown-ups would just start being grown-ups (and I don’t mean only their parents).

Which brings is to another popular mantra in education circles today — the call on children to prepare themselves to save the world we’re messing up. We can’t even seem to manage to prepare them adequately, because we need them to do that, too.

The furor over the president’s speech comes, I think, mostly of people growing in their distrust of him – or maybe suspecting he’s more talk than feeling, that he doesn’t really connect with the common man. I’m not going to address that here – just make the observation.

I’m sure we could pick apart many past speeches by presidents to school children and find as much fault as we can with this one.

Of greater influence than the speech will be what teachers do with it, and that will, too often, be influenced by their own ideology. Not much can be done about that. It’s the chance parents take when they commit their children’s education to the state. We all have a worldview (though for most it’s not a consciously chosen one but one we picked up here and there along the way — with no small amount absorbed from our schooling), and it’s hard to prevent it from surfacing when we interact with others.

Normally, such a speech would have passed way under the radar of most people, parents included. A few kids might have been inspired, most would have forgotten the speech within minutes of hearing it or would not have paid attention in the first place. Teachers would have made some related comments afterward then returned to the lessons of the day. And the speech would have slipped into history as one more boring school lecture.

But the storm has turned it into something that will be examined, dissected, analyzed, criticized, praised, and used one way or another in schools, homes, the media, workplaces and on the streets.

Maybe that’s not so bad. It’s not the greatest way to get more people involved in the conversation about education, but it’s better than nothing.

* After a long soliloquy about how “you can do it, try harder, keep focused,” the president inserted this contribution to America’s future:

“And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.”

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