Warning: Hide Your Children, the President of the United States is About to Speak

ME/Sachs-obI apologize beforehand, but I can’t help but comment on the controversy surrounding President Obama’s planned address to the nation’s student body this coming Tuesday.  I got a taste of the strong opinions on both sides this morning when I updated my Facebook profile with a quick word of approval for the planned speech.

As a high school history teacher how could I not voice approval for the fact that our highest elected official has decided to take a few minutes from what must be a busy schedule to address the future of this country.  Instead what I was shocked to find was a deep-seated paranoia over what such an address may lead to.  One comment included the suggestion that since Obama is losing popularity with adults that he might be trying to make up for it by rallying children to his support.  Others actually believe that his goal is to brainwash or “indoctrinate” our children.  You can find such sentiments all over the Web.  What is one to make of all of this and what does it say about our country now that there is a significant portion of the population that actually believes that our students ought to be afraid of the president?

My concern is not necessarily with what has become an overly-heated and partisan political landscape.  That is the bread and butter of American politics.  Rather, I am concerned about the long-term consequences for our school children who are being used as pawns in this nasty little clash.  First, let me say that I am no stranger to the history of political partisanship.  I know my American history and I can take you to the beginning of the nation’s founding for what was arguably the most heated period in American politics – and it involved the Founding Fathers themselves.  Both the Federalists and Republicans believed that the other had betrayed the Revolution and was steering the nation down the road to disaster.  A number of these debates played out in public spaces as “affairs of honor” – the most notable being the duel between Burr and Hamilton.  I teach this history to my students.   Hopefully, my students walk away with a profound respect for the Founding Fathers as well as the realization that they had failings and in many cases succumbed to the same vices that define American political history.  However, through it all I do my best to maintain the distinction between the individual and the office.  In short, they see our elected officials at their best and at their worst.  While I teach my students to inculcate a healthy skepticism for government (as the Founders intended) I do not teach them to hate or to assume the worst about the people who occupy its offices.  What are we left with if we do so?

I fail to see how I can teach American political history if it problematic to have students view an address by the president.  How am I supposed to argue for the importance of understanding the leadership offered by past presidents if we as a nation are so fearful of having our students listen to the White House’s current occupant? More importantly, how do you expect us to teach civics and respect for our system of government if we have to protect our students from our own elected officials? I teach history as a way to broaden my student’s perspectives on the world, to see themselves as part of a larger community.  I want them to understand that the freedoms we take for granted come with responsibilities, the most important being civic engagement.

What is truly astonishing is that it is Conservatives who are leading the charge.  Whatever happened to the likes of Bill Bennett and others who constantly rail against the fact that young Americans have no respect for leadership or are losing interest in public service altogether?  Public apathy is supposed to be one of the biggest threats to our culture and yet it is hard not to think that the arguments against Obama’s address will not contribute to the problem.   It turns out that most of our recent presidents have addressed the nation’s student body.  President Bush asked childeren to donate a dollar to Afghanistan back in 2001 as did his father who took the opportunity to encourage students to take their education seriously.  Were Conservatives worried about the potential for indoctrination in these cases?  Much of the controversy surrounds a plan to have children write the president with suggestions on how they can help the nation.  I’ve read that the administration has decided to scrap this idea.  What a shame.  This could have been an opportunity for students to take an active interest in their government and would have opened up a wonderful teaching opportunity to reinforce the importance of civic engagement.

Finally, while I am not the biggest fan of Bill Clinton, I love that image of him shaking hands with President Kennedy.  If I remember correctly, Clinton had to weave his way through the crowd to position himself near the president.  We should leave some room for our children to look up to our highest elected officials.  After all, how we teach them to view public officials today is likely to shape the kinds of leaders they become.

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22 comments… add one
  • Mike Sep 8, 2009 @ 11:34

    I am a Reagan Democrat and for the most part think little of Obama. But I read the speech that was published by the White House and I can find no moral, ethical, political reasons for opposing my child hearing the speech. What the President said is the TRUTH!

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2009 @ 11:49

      The sad thing is that so many got worked up about this.

  • Craig Swain Sep 8, 2009 @ 7:34

    I think the more telling point here is NOT what the President said (or intended to say before the uproar), but rather the debate which occurred. All the talking heads discussed this at length (and BTW, Bill Bennett did weigh in, and applauded the President for speaking to the children). My observation is that neither side seemed to be listening. Both were talking past each other. The left wing shows (for instance Bill Press and Thom Hartmann) continually blasted the opposition for daring to oppose a Presidential address. In fact, I find much of the same rhetoric in your post, Kevin. On the right, there was NO argument that the President should NOT address the kids. Instead, we find, perhaps most eloquently explained by the aforementioned Bennett, that it was the tone of the message they opposed, (particularly given the very real and publicly recorded “suggestion” from the D. of Ed). The question on the right wing shows was “who is advising the President and what are they trying to do with this address?” Bottom line, both sides of the debate setup straw men to tear down. Neither directly engaged each other on the issue (what the President’s role should be) but rather tried to chain the opposition to an false position. Even when side by side the studio, the sides were talking different issues.

    My two cents – Presidents throw out the first pitch of every baseball season, by established tradition. So why shouldn’t it be a tradition that the President start every school year by leading the students nation-wide in the Pledge of Allegiance? Even opt out of the “under God” part if they wish.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2009 @ 8:05


      I pretty much agree with your analysis of the use of the strawman, though apparently I heard a very different message from Conservatives. It wasn’t simply about what the president was trying to do with the address, but about the potential for the “indoctrination” of students and/or using them as political pawns. I have no use for the Pledge of Allegiance so a yearly presidential address is fine by me. As for my own “rhetoric”, I could bite, but why bother. Thanks for the comment.

  • Scott Hendrix Sep 8, 2009 @ 5:43

    Thank you for this common-sense and very American response. The public paranoia and suspicion of Obama is frightening and undermines free speech and respect for the office of president that both Republicans and Democrats (but not rabid TV and radio talk show folks) hold dear even when they disagree! Last night I watched Frost/Nixon and there was a president who actually broke the law and abused the office entrusted to him. We are still trying to recover from that debacle. As I recall, Bush was reading to school children when 9/11 happened. I never voted for Bush but as president he had every right to address school children as well as read to them!

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2009 @ 5:53


      Thanks. I couldn’t agree more with you.

  • Valerie H. Gold Sep 7, 2009 @ 2:23

    What a shame that we seemed to come so far forward in an effort to obtain racial equality, and yet when we elect an African American President, people become so paranoid and believe that he is trying to “indoctrinate” children to his win political gains. This President was elected by a Democratic majority and has inherited a MESS, yet he is trying to make sure that this country heads in the right direction. He recognizes that our children ARE our future and the fact that he is taking the time to address them and encourage them to stay in school and accomplish greeat things is a beautiful thing! Why are people so paranoid? Everything this President does is attacked…no matter what the issue..war, health care, education. Essentially, people are afraid of change and although they seem to recognize that what we have been doing in the past has not worked, they are afraid to take a chance on new ideas and policies that could actually help re-shape our LOUSY economy. Why do people have a problem with getting kids to be creative and become critical thinkers? Isn’t that what EDUCATION is all about???

  • Sherree Tannen Sep 6, 2009 @ 4:58

    The Democrats share the blame for helping to make it difficult for President Obama to govern. I have faith in our President, though. He understands the art of compromise.

    In the Huffington Post on May 13, 2007 in an article entitled : “15 Years Ago: Rodney King Uprising Left LA in Flames and Me In Jail!” Van Jones talks about the “bankruptcy” of the left. Now Van Jones, schooled in the rhetoric of the left wing of the party, just as the right wing of the Republican party has its rhetoric, may be forced to resign. I hope not, because I think Van Jones can do a lot of good. Also, Condi Rice and Colin Powell were appointed to high cabinet positions by President Bush, and not too many white Republicans objected, to my knowledge, so a charge of racism should be carefully made.

    Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are in a league of their own. Limbaugh has been at it for a long time. The commentary of both men is getting traction now, for a number of reasons, and one of those reasons is that the Democrats are doing what the Democrats always do: they are moving too fast, and shooting themselves in the foot (which they also always do.)

    I am a lifelong, what might be termed “activist”, Democrat, as are the members of my family. I consider myself moderate, but people who know me best smile at that self-characterization, so I suppose I am “radical”. I am also uninsured, and know that we need healthcare reform. In the environmental group that I worked for in the 1980s, we worked on this issue, so I am aware of how long the wait has been. I am not in favor of pushing the bill through quickly, however. The bill is too important and the legislation needs to go through the full legislative process, as it obviously must now do. I am also more than ready for the change of the parts of our system that promote white privilege. I am not in favor of replacing white privilege with any other privileged system, however, which some rhetoric implies, (and the reality of which is nearly impossible, anyway, so the rhetoric is empty and false and prevents real dialogue that could lead to real change and address the crippling poverty of black communities and of reservations, and overcome institutional racism) In her book the Chalice and the Blade, which has its own flaws but that promotes some truly innovative ideas, Riane Eisler envisions a future in which we replace the “dominator” paradigm of ordering society, with a “partnership” paradigm of true equality of the races, and of men and women As I see it, President Obama understands this, and must somehow help us understand it. Also President Obama seems to understand that we must move past crippling rhetoric. In Ghana, the President both recognized the impact of the history of colonialism on Ghana in a moving speech in which he references his own African roots (full text on Huffington Post, July 11, 2009) and said that the present day problems in Ghana are not because of that past, but because of the present, and that Africa’s future is up to Africans. That statement does not mean that President Obama denies the past. On the contrary, he understands it well. It means (in my view) that he is putting the past in perspective, and asking that men and women in the present do not use the past as an excuse not to correct problems of the present.

    When it comes to Van Jones, I wonder what JFK would think about some of his rhetoric? Again, Van Jones’ rhetoric is almost divorced from his actual thinking, in my opinion, and is a relic of the rhetoric of the late 1960s, not of JFK’s era. Obama is squarely within a tradition that includes, completes, and in some ways transcends, the legacies of JFK and Dr. King. I am not so sure about Van Jones. I like Van Jones’ ideas, though, for addressing environmental problems and problems of race. It is hard to hear him, however, because of his rhetoric.

    In the McCarthy era, men and women were accused of being communists because they were artists, labor organizers, or Jewish. Now, some men and women who themselves say they are “Marxists” are accused of being communists, as if that should concern everyone. First of all, being a Marxist is not the same as being a communist. And, more importantly, even if the terms “Marxism” and “communism” were interchangeable: communism has proven itself to be a failed system, so what exactly does it mean when a man or woman describes himself or herself as a communist these days, and what difference does it make? I know a man who was a “card carrying communist” in his youth, and who is also a World War II veteran. I asked this man why he joined the communist party, and he said because he was 17 and in love with a young woman who had joined the party, so he joined too! Today this man is a Republican. As another example of extremes, in which the correction of an injustice is as nonsensical as the original injustice: why do non Muslims have to wear Muslim attire to swim in a pool in England? Yes, of course, Muslim women should not even have to ask, much less demand, the right to wear bathing attire that meets the requirements of their religious beliefs. But why do women who are not Muslim have to do the same? As to the subject of your post, Kevin, I wish that President Obama had visited the school that my young relative attends. It would have made his day for certain, since President Obama is already someone he looks up to (he is 11), and he has a picture of Obama in his bedroom.

    Limbaugh and Beck are demagogues. So are many on the news team of MSNBC. And yes, demagoguery can lead to tragic consequences, so we all need to tone down the rhetoric. I think President Obama will head that effort up in his speech next week. I hope everyone listens.

  • Dan Wright Sep 5, 2009 @ 13:28

    There were people on the left who hated Bush and people on the right who hated Clinton – maybe “hate” is not the correct word – maybe “passionately opposed” would be better. But that was just red state-blue state passion.
    With Obama it’s different. There’s a black man in the White House and a certain segment of the population cannot deal with that. And it cuts to the heart of the racial issue that has divided the country from its very beginnings.
    We don’t live is post-racial America but we do live in post-white privilege America. That’s very difficult for some Americans to come to terms with.

  • Richard Sep 5, 2009 @ 12:23

    The democrats control the government. They need to start taking ownership of their plans and stop whining, they dont need the republicans. The people of America will decide if their plans work, if they dont they will lose power for a generation. There is no such thing as bi-partisanship, its just a bunch of nice words.

    Republicans and Democrats have different views on the role of government in our lives, thats why there are two parties. Looking at how much the government grew under Bush you have to wonder.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2009 @ 12:36

      Thanks for the comment, but this has nothing to do with the content of this post.

  • Anonymous Sep 4, 2009 @ 22:19

    I can’t see the big uproar. I thought all good Republicans already had their kids in homeschool, away from the baleful influences of free thinking. So why are they getting upset about this?

  • Marc Ferguson Sep 4, 2009 @ 16:37

    I have come to the conclusion that the political right has decided to do everything they can to prevent Obama from governing, and this is but another piece of that strategy. Accusations of socialism, communism, and fascism have become common faire. Denying his very legitimacy, not only as president but even as an American, has become commonplace in public discourse. Republicans in Congress attach endless amendments to every significant piece of legislation, and Democrats accept them in an attempt to work cooperatively, yet in the end they vote en masse against everything. They obstruct all process. Lies and intentional misrepresentations are continuously spewed through their media outlets: Obama is gonna kill Grandma, the AmeriCorps program is an Obama Nazi Youth Organization, and on and on and on. They come out to town meetings not with the intention of engaging in debate and discussion but to hurl insults and prevent any real public discussion of the pressing issues of the day. Obama inherited a country in the midst of an economic disaster, and engaged in two wars, but we are treated to continuous accusations that he is destroying the country. Even a speech to school children about the value of education is decried as some nefarious plot to invade their minds, and is just another opportunity by the Right to attack the evils of public education. Endless pandering to the paranoia of their base. Fear, fear, fear, and more fear. They are pushing the same old crap they’ve been peddling since 9/11. What is shocking and disheartening is that it still works. And the irony, of course, is that this is the president who promised bi-partisanship, and has bent over backward to include the minority party in all negotiations over significant legislation. They are not interested. All they want to do is obstruct, and prevent Obama from governing. Unfortunately they smell blood in the water, and it only excites them and encourages this disgraceful, cynical behavior.

    Okay, political rant over…

  • Kevin Levin Sep 4, 2009 @ 16:10


    The Obama administration probably should have known better than to try to add to the president’s speech with ideas for assignments as it has allowed interested parties to interpret in a way that confirms their worst nightmares.

  • George Pillow Sep 4, 2009 @ 15:10

    While I agree that politics in America have been rough and tumble since Washington’s time, I think the current hysteria is different than anything we have seen before. The more I listen to the arguments of those who oppose the Obama administration, the more I believe that the issue is primarily one of race, not party or ideology. I knew many, many people who despised Clinton and thought he was a corrupt and vile man but they all would acknowledge that he was the duly-elected President of the United States. The sheer irrationality of the charges hurled at Obama — that he is a secret Muslim, a terrorist sympathizer, an illegal alien, a marxist bent on American destruction — and the raw emotion with which they are delivered in the face of overwhelming opposing evidence leads me to wonder at the fundamental complaint. More and more I think that 20% or so of the U.S. population hates and fears the man because he is the President and he is black.

    Of course, people who believe Obama is trying to kill them, indoctrinate the youth and establish the Islamic Communist World Government are gobsmacked if you suggest that his race plays any role in their reasoning. They will also challenge you to a bare-knuckle brawl in the front yard if you suggest that slavery was the primary issue of the Civil War. I would love to see polling data, broken down by race, region, age and gender that asked two questions: “Do you believe Barack Obama is deliberately trying to destroy the United States of America?” and “Do you believe slavery was the chief cause of the Civil War?”

  • matt mckeon Sep 4, 2009 @ 14:50

    I think the citizenship flap with go down in history like the Salem witchcraft trials or the massacre of the cats in the French Revolution.

    In England, they have a monarch that acts as national symbol, unifier and ceremonial head of state and military commander. The Prime Minister is a politician, either a statesman like Churchill or a nonentity. His office is powerful, but partisan, political, not above the fray. The trouble is, in the US we have mashed the two functions into the office of the presidency. The president is a temporary figure, a partisan politician, but he is also the head of state and the single political figure chosen by the nation at large. The president is part of the political process and struggle, but he has be above it at times.

  • The History Enthusiast Sep 4, 2009 @ 14:45

    I have no problem with Obama’s proposed speech, no problem whatsoever. The problem as I see it lies in the fact that *reportedly* (this isn’t verified), teachers will be assigning writing projects that focus solely on how they can support the President. One of our goals is to make students critical thinkers, and a project of that nature would squelch students’ individual beliefs and political views. A better assignment would be things like: “What elements of Obama’s policies do you agree with, and what do you disagree with? Explain why.” Or, for younger students who don’t necessarily have well-developed political opinions: “Why does President Obama believe that education is so important to the future of our country?” Both of these are innocuous (and maybe a bit boring).

  • J. L. Bell Sep 4, 2009 @ 14:16

    People complaining about this speech also don’t seem to trust their children to exercise critical thinking about what President Obama says. Apparently they distrust their children, or critical thinking, or both. Or maybe they just fear Obama’s supernatural powers of persuasion.

  • James Bartek Sep 4, 2009 @ 14:09

    They tried to get Lincoln to come and speak to students at my old elementary school a few weeks ago. Alas, it never happened. Parents raised such a fuss – something about trying to push a proto-fascist agenda. 😉

  • Kevin Levin Sep 4, 2009 @ 12:39

    As I said in the post I don’t want to get hung up on political partisanship since it is nothing new and both sides have mastered the art. That said, it is hard not to connect this to earlier questions surrounding Obama’s citizenship and legitimacy as president.

  • matt mckeon Sep 4, 2009 @ 12:21

    I mean, maybe trying to whip up a mob on a daily basis is some sort of political strategy. But I don’t think its good for the country.

  • matt mckeon Sep 4, 2009 @ 12:19

    People are absolutely hysterical about Obama. There is literally no action he can take, no matter how innocous that doesn’t draw screams of outrage. I’ve lived through Nixon to G W Bush and I have never seen anything like it, the fury and the paranoia.

    Health Care, Afghanistan, the economy, all these things are big issues and many points of view are possible. We need rationality now, but we’re not getting it.

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