The latest fad in wingnuttery is to be aghast that the President of the United States would have the audacity (ha!) to address our nation’s schoolchildren. I know I’m going to step on the new third rail–reality–a few times during the course of this post, but please bear with me.
While Roger can rewrite my hypothetical historical outlook all he wants, I wasn’t outraged that George W. Bush wanted to read to students. Or that his wife Laura was heavily involved in literacy programs. It’s perfectly and naturally acceptable for the elected leaders of our country to encourage us all to be good students. My dad used to argue that education was tantamount to homeland security.
This is from the fact sheet regarding the President’s address:
During this special address, the president will speak directly to the nation’s children and youth about persisting and succeeding in school. The president will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning.
Reviewing the fact sheet, the following items are not in it:
- We were wrong to go to war with Iraq.
- My ruse was successful: I was born in Kenya.
- You’re looking at your new communist dictator.
One of the principal reasons that these items are not going to be included in the address is because the address is going to be about PERSISTING AND SUCCEEDING IN SCHOOL. (The other principal reason is that most of them are untrue.)
Here is where continuing to thread the needle gets tricky because I’m going to bring race into the discussion. As you might’ve noticed, Pres. Obama is African-American (sometimes referred to as “black”). Reviewing both census data and NCES data, we find that the percentage of black students enrolled in public schools (2006) exceeds the percentage of blacks as part of the overall population (2000). “But wait,” I can hear you saying to yourself, “17% of public school populations versus 12% of the overall population isn’t that big a deal.” And I’ll actually even ignore the urban/rural distribution differences for now and highlight the aggregate data that makes Obama’s address a bigger deal: data on reading and math proficiency broken down by race, especially in the high school years. The racial differences in math performance are particularly striking.
If you didn’t have occasion to see the effect of exposure to Obama the candidate on black youth during the campaign of 2008, the basis of my entire post is likely to be lost on you. And, frankly, the socio-racial aspects of the argument are not as data-driven as the rest of why an Obama address is a good idea. I even thought about proposing a compromise address that included Michael Steele, Chair of the RNC. But as I continued to think about it, I continued to think about the magnitude of the impact for an elected black President to address black schoolkids who would have the opportunity to discuss the event with their parents, grandparents, etc. And I think the impact would be profound. And I think it would be profound for Obama to join with Steele at some point for a similar event focused on the importance of education. And possibly with Justice Sotomayor.
For large groups of people (often demographic groups) who have never had access to specific roles, firsts are important. The first people to hold those roles can have tremendous impact in terms of shifting, reducing, or eliminating barriers. I live in a majority-minority neighborhood, and I can tell you unequivocally: race continues to matter in America. There’s a certain irony, though: I would expect people who oppose affirmative action to be supportive of the notion of an Obama address. Non-white students will hear remarks from someone non-white who was able to achieve because of his education. There are worse things than opportunities for underperforming non-white students to do than hear someone in the position of greatest prominence in the entire world speak to them about performance. And when the generation of all students who heard Obama and listened to him grow up and enter the world, they will do so with the benefit of the lessons of good education that came from being good students and they will have, I think, a more profound understanding of what equality of opportunity is. By leveraging the ways in which race matters right now in America, Obama has more opportunity than most to make it matter less in the future.
So, frankly, I’m looking forward to the address, and I’m embarrassed at local policymakers around the country who are seeking to prevent it from happening in schools near them. Heck, I’d look forward to it even more if he admitted and acknowledged the ways in which his own private education benefitted him and how that relates to our broader system of education, although that might politicize the darned thing.
UPDATE: Clive Crook writing a few months ago on the urgent need for education reform, another compelling reason to not get in a bother but rather to be ebullient about Obama’s upcoming address. If you’re one opposing Obama’s address, note the stats on America’s standing in the world in education and ask yourself if you’re fighting the right fight.