David Danbom, Published September 13 2009
Paranoid right gets it wrongPresident Barack Obama’s speech to America’s schoolchildren is done, and the republic seems to have survived.
Who’d have thought this would be such a big deal? What’s wrong with the president – whose personal history is compelling testimony to the advantages education offers to all Americans – telling kids that it is their duty to themselves and their country to stay in school and work hard at their studies?
Well, the paranoid right, the same folks who believe Obama isn’t a citizen and who fantasize government death panels, saw a lot wrong with it. What if Obama tries to propagandize school kids, they asked, turning them into socialists or manipulating them into embracing gay marriage?
And how did the schools, pillars of a free society, respond to this onslaught? Too often, they folded like paper bags.
The Fargo public schools punted to the teachers, saying they could use the speech if it fit their curricula but refusing to broadcast it before
all-school assemblies. Who knew class time was so precious to a district that blew off two weeks last spring because of the flood?
The Grand Forks public schools’ response was, if anything, even more cowardly. In reaction to what Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson characterized as “a few phone calls at the district office,” Grand Forks decided that even individual teachers wouldn’t be allowed to show the president’s speech until they and their principals had reviewed it thoroughly. Do any of the self-styled inspirational speakers on the public school circuit undergo the sort of skeptical vetting to which Grand Forks subjected the president of the United States?
What makes Grand
Forks’ reaction especially disheartening is that it is not some benighted village where people burn books. Grand Forks is the Athens of North Dakota, home to the “flagship university” of the state! When a citadel of enlightenment such as Grand Forks displays such craven cowardice, how can we expect much from towns of lesser standing as centers of learning?
I believe that the public schools need to stand for what is right, and they need to model behavior for their students and their communities. They need to model courage, even in the face of “a few phone calls at the district office.” They need to model basic decency. And they need to model respect – respect for the presidency and the person holding the office – and respect for the learning process, which involves exposing children to people they or their parents may dislike and ideas with which they or their parents might disagree. Citizens in a democracy need to think critically and consider divergent opinions, and the public schools should be developing those abilities.
Yes, the republic survived Obama’s speech. Whether it can survive a public education system that increasingly abrogates its civic responsibilities remains to be determined.
Danbom is a local college history professor and regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org