Now that the Barack Obama speech to the nation’s schoolchildren has come and gone, the post-mortems will now attempt to tell us the great meaning of the controversy. Barely had the last electron shifted position after the speech, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne blogged that Republicans had jumped to conclusions without any evidence of wrongdoing. He mostly focuses his ire on Jim Greer, chair of the Florida Republican Party, but clearly intends this as a wider scolding of Obama’s critics as a whole:
We have just gone through one of the most shameful episodes of the young Obama presidency — shameful because of the behavior of the right wing, shameful because the media played into an extremist agenda, shameful because we proved that our political system has become so dysfunctional that a president gets punished for doing the right thing.
Upon Barack Obama’s election, even my most conservative friends who supported John McCain said Obama could do a world of good for poor children in the country by stressing the importance of education, hard work, staying in school and taking responsibility. Yes, those are often thought of as conservative values.
But when Obama proposed to do just that on the first day of school, the far right — without asking any questions or seeking any information — decided to pounce, on the theory that everything Obama did should be attacked relentlessly as part of some secret and dangerous ideological agenda.
That’s simply not true, and it undermines the entirety of Dionne’s argument. The basis for the eruption of criticism came from the study guide provided to school districts a week ago, which contained a curious instruction to teachers:
“Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the President. These would get collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals.”
First, there’s a question of incompetence in this study guide. Who produces a study guide for a document or lesson that has yet to be created? Had the White House included the speech with the study guide, a lot of the criticism could have been avoided right from the beginning. It took six days for the White House to produce the speech after releasing the study guide and creating the firestorm of criticism. Help the President do what, exactly? Without the speech, who knew?
That set the stage for the speculation that ran wild, especially regarding how teachers would hold their children accountable for “help[ing] the President.” In the US, students do not help individual politicians, nor do they pledge allegiance to them. Had the study guide suggested ways to help the school, or the community, as Obama’s speech to them did, it would have been completely uncontroversial. Instead, the White House left the definite impression that they wanted teachers enforcing service to Obama himself, which understandably gave parents the creeps — as it should everyone.
Far from pouncing without information or evidence and going off half-cocked, as Dionne accuses, it was the White House that went off half-cocked and created its own problems. In the absence of the speech and the appearance of the study guide advisory to enforce service to Obama, it’s difficult to see how else parents would have reacted. Parents should question whether schools are indoctrinating children with political messages rather than educating them, and when a proposed syllabus advises teachers to make a homework assignment of working for a particular politician, no one should be surprised at the controversy that will inevitably erupt.