barack obama, school, education speech
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
President Barack Obama delivers a speech on education at Wakefield High
School in Arlington,
Va., Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009.

Obama’s Back-To-School Address Spurs Mixed Reactions

September 08, 2009 03:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Parents, politicians and commentators disagree on the aim of Obama’s speech. Some say he’ll encourage students to take their education seriously while others contend that he’ll promote a political agenda.

Obama Addresses American Children

President Barack Obama’s back-to-school speech, scheduled to be delivered today at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., and broadcast live through the cable channel C-SPAN and the White House Web site, aims to “urge students to take responsibility for their own education,” the Daily Telegraph reports. 

But according to the Telegraph, some parents and critics disagree and claim that the president is “trying to pitch his arguments too aggressively to his audience of children.” The text of the speech, available on the White House Web site, focuses on the importance of students actively participating in their own education.

“We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems,” the text of the speech reads. “If you don’t do that—if you quit on school—you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.”

Due to parental concern, The Associated Press reports that “[d]istricts in states including Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin have decided not to show the speech to students,” in spite of urging from Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Other districts are allowing parents to let their children opt out of viewing the speech, according to the AP.

Opinion & Analysis: Education or indoctrination?

Obama’s speech was received with mixed reactions from many different spheres. Republican politicians in particular disapprove of the contents of the speech, considering it “a dangerous form of indoctrination,” blogger R. L’Heureux Lewis writes for theGrio.

“As far as I am concerned, this is not civics education—it gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality,” Oklahoma Republican state Sen. Steve Russell told the AP. “This is something you'd expect to see in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”

L’Heureux Lewis, however, is concerned less with the speech and more about “the lack of emphasis education has received” so far during Obama’s presidency. “Today's school address provides a narrative about why staying in school is important, but it doesn't tell us enough about what is being done to make sure students are not falling through the cracks,” L’Heureux Lewis writes.

Laura Bush, wife of former President George W. Bush and a former schoolteacher, stood by Obama’s address to American children. “There's a place for the president of the United States to talk to school children and encourage school children [to stay in school],” the Daily Telegraph quotes her as saying.

But Jim Greer, chairman to the Republican Party in Florida, condemned the speech in a press release last week. “I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology,” he wrote.

After reading the text of the speech, however, Greer’s outlook changed. In an interview with ABC News, Greer declared that “It’s a good speech,” and clarified that “encourag[ing] kids to stay in school” is “what a president should do when they’re gonna talk to students across the country,” ABC News’ blog The Note reports.

Parents have also expressed their misgivings about the contents of Obama’s speech, pressuring schools to cancel the screening event altogether or choosing to keep their children at home. Blogger Rachel Campos-Duffy advises in the blog ParentDish that “[f]air-minded parents are wise to maintain a healthy suspicion about whether the President's address is more about the marketing of the president and less about education.”

Related Topic: Previous presidential addresses to students

As the AP notes, former President George H.W. Bush also made a school address in 1991, which, like Obama’s, “drew criticism, with Democrats accusing the Republican president of making the event into a campaign commercial.” The speech, available through the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, also encouraged students to take charge of their own education and accept their responsibilities.

According to the blog PolitiFact of the St. Petersburg Times, Democrats heavily criticized Bush’s speech at the time. Patricia Schroeder, former Democratic member of Congress from Colorado, condemned the speech as wasteful, “using precious dollars for campaigns” when “we are struggling for every silly dime we can get" for education. The speech was well received by Republicans, however, who encouraged Bush’s hands-on approach to education.

Similarly, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan held a nationally broadcasted Q&A session with students, addressing the same issues as those raised by both Obama and Bush. As PolitiFact explains, “Reagan urged the students to stay in school and say no to drugs, but he also discussed overtly political matters, such as national defense funding, nuclear disarmament and—in surprising policy detail—taxes.”

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