On Tuesday, President Obama—following the precedent of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—delivered a “Back to School” speech to American students, beamed live via the Internet and C-SPAN into thousands of classrooms across the country.
It was a fantastic speech. Read it here.
I always love a good Obama speech. He’s a great, inspiring orator, and in recent years he’s delivered some of the best American speeches of the 21st century (such as this race speech from the campaign trail).
His speech to America’s schoolchildren was impressive as ever, and I hope that it inspired some children to want to learn, study, and succeed in school.
Unfortunately, in the days leading up to the speech, the buffoons of conservative talk radio and Fox News preemptively labeled the speech “socialist propaganda” and basically accused Obama of trying to indoctrinate America’s children.
Sean Hannity claimed that "it seems very close to indoctrination," while Fox News commentator Monica Crowley said "just when you think this administration can't get any more surreal and Orwellian, here they come to indoctrinate our kids"; similarly, Michelle Malkin claimed that "the left has always used kids in public schools as guinea pigs and as junior lobbyists for their social liberal agenda."
Maybe I’m missing something, but a careful read of Obama’s speech reveals that it is far from a propagandistic sales pitch for the social liberal agenda. On the contrary; It’s actually borderline conservative. Why? Because the point of the speech is personal responsibility. Obama makes it clear that we all have circumstances that make achievement difficult. We have absentee fathers (Obama talks about his own), poverty, prejudice, and a whole battery of other challenges that make success in life difficult. But they are all excuses. Here’s something Obama said in the speech:
But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life - what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home - that's no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying.
Isn’t this sort of what conservatives are always saying? That it’s all about moving beyond handouts and pity and taking ownership over one’s destiny? Here’s another excerpt from the speech:
We can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world - and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.
To me, the speech is about as American and far from socialism as you can get. It’s a speech about believing in yourself, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, overcoming adversity, etc. What was Fox News thinking in their overanxious denouncement of it?
Meanwhile, other conservatives—like Laura Bush and Newt Gingrich—have responded to the speech by praising it. Here’s what Gingrich said about it on the Today Show:
"If he could give a speech tomorrow night in the tone of his speech today to the students, this country would be much better off ... It's a good speech, I recommend it to everybody if you have any doubts."
So, lesson for conservatives: Don’t be too quick to throw out something of value just because Obama’s name is attached to it. Maybe try listening to what he is actually saying and evaluating it on its own terms.