The I’s Have It: Obama Is Wrong on What Ails Schools

Published September 9, 2009

President Obama’s lunchtime back-to-school speech Tuesday used the first person pronoun “I” more than 50 times.

Perhaps talking about his 4:30 a.m. tutorials from his mother, as he did often during the campaign, was a way to hold students’ attention to his message of personal responsibility. IN any case, any kids in an online audience ranging from kindergartners to high school seniors who were still awake for his last paragraph received a full blast of the “I” treatment:

Declared Obama:

“Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need. . . .I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment, and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part, too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down—don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.”

Obama placed himself—the big “O,” the Big “I”—right there with parents and teachers as the central influences in a child’s education. That is creepy. No politician belongs there.

Providing classrooms and textbooks has always been a local responsibility, but Obama characterized himself as the great provider thanks to the $787 billion federal stimulus boondoggle his youthful audience will be repaying, along with their kids-to-be, for decades. (He somehow neglected to mention that little detail.)

Obama urged children not to let themselves down by doing less than their best. Good. But he also warned them not to let their country down. That is statist overkill. Education is an individual pursuit, not an obligation to big government.

Overall, the address was a pep talk filled with personal anecdotes, appropriate for the Age of Oprah. Hence it received rave reviews in the mainstream media. However, it had no lines that are likely to be memorable.

That’s particularly unfortunate because the official lesson plan distributed to the nation’s public schools by the Education Department urged teachers to post quotes from Obama’s speeches about education in large print around the classroom and have students dissect what makes them so inspirational.

Students were also supposed to rank the three most important words in this speech. “I, I, and I” would have been a reasonable choice.

After the public outcry that ensued after advance posting of the lesson plan last week, the Ed Department and the White House did damage control by striking a section that called on students to write essays about how they could help the President achieve his objectives.

However, similar goodies remained on the Web site, including a Department of Education invitation to kids to upload two-minute YouTube videos responding “to the President’s challenge.” In October, a panel including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will select three winners, each of whom is to receive a $1,000 cash prize.

The President’s talk aired from a well-regarded public school in affluent Arlington County, Virginia, in the Washington, DC suburbs. Duncan moved his family to Arlington from Chicago, because by his own admission he preferred not to put them in DC public schools “and jeopardize my own children’s education.” The Obamas are sending their daughters to a posh private school in DC.

Obama said he is doing everything he can to make sure students have everything they need to succeed. He couldn’t have said that with a straight face in a DC school, given that he and Duncan are conniving to kill off a publicly financed voucher program that is enabling 1,700 of D.C.’s neediest children to attend safe, productive schools for the first time in their lives.

Responsibility is about making good choices. Obama said nothing about ensuring that students and parents have the power to exercise those choices among schools, as his family and the Duncans can do.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute in Chicago.