The President Is Not a Guidance Counselor

The case against Barack Obama's speech to schoolchildren


Q: Why on earth would anyone object to the president's speech to schoolkids today? Do they think he's going to beam subliminal socialist messages into the children's heads?

A: It's a bit more than that. Most of the opposition has centered around the original lesson plan produced by the Department of Education to be used with the speech, with its suggestions that students discuss such questions as "What do you think the President wants us to do?" and "Are we able to do what President Obama is asking of us?" At one point it asked kids to "Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president." You can see how language like that would get people alarmed.

Q: But that's all been shelved now. They've stripped that language out of the lesson plan. It's just a banal little talk about the value of working hard in school. It's the same things past presidents have said to kids, the same things other authority figures tell children all the time. It sounds like the protesters are objecting to the messenger, not the message.

A: The medium is the message. The speech will be a pile of platitudes, not an overtly ideological address. But the exercise itself has ideological undertones, with an implicit lesson that reinforces the bipartisan cult of the presidency. The man in the Oval Office is not supposed to be the nation's chief guidance counselor or its father-in-chief, and it sends a creepy message to act as though he is.

Q: Come on. Barack Obama isn't the first president to speak to America's schoolchildren. Did you object when any of the others did it?

A: Oh, I've made my share of jokes about George W. Bush's goat book. And when my 17-year-old self was one of several thousand North Carolina kids herded onto a field to hear Ronald Reagan remind us to say no to drugs, I took the opportunity to sit on top of a fence holding a sign saying "U.S. Out of Central America" or something to that effect.

Q: Well, maybe you're an exception. But you have to admit, a lot of the people complaining about Obama's address would have no objections at all if the man telling kids to study hard and stay in school was a Republican.

A: Yes—and vice versa, too. When George H.W. Bush spoke to schoolkids in 1991, the Democratic majority leader denounced it as "paid political advertising for the president." On the Republican side, meanwhile, Newt Gingrich asked, "Why is it political for the president of the United States to discuss education?"

So there's plenty of opportunism at work here. But the protests are still a healthy thing.

Q: Come on. Do you really think the speech is going to do any damage?

A: The speech will do little harm in itself. Schools shovel nonsense down boys' and girls' throats every day; today's menu will offer just a slight change of flavor. But that's why the protests are healthy. It's a rare day when parents across the country explicitly tell their kids to take their lessons with a grain of salt.

Children shouldn't be taught that the president—any president—is a beloved paternal figure with a grand plan for everyone. (From the original lesson plan: "Students might think about: What specific job is he asking me to do? Is he asking anything of anyone else? Teachers? Principals? Parents? The American people?") Children should be taught the truth: that presidents are polarizing figures who are constantly dogged by controversy. That Americans don't always agree about proper public policy, and sometimes they disagree enough to do something as drastic as keeping their kids home from school. That politics is about conflict, not listening in unison while a friendly face on a TV screen dispenses instructions.

If the president's address took place with no protest, it would be—at best—a waste of classroom time. The protests, by contrast, are a lesson in the passions of American politics. And if your real parents are at odds with the faux father in the White House, they can offer something yet more valuable: the chance to hear an authority figure remind you that it isn't always best to submit unthinkingly to authority.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.