Not a Brick in Any Wall

by Don Boudreaux on September 9, 2009

in Current Affairs, Education, Man of System, Politics

Even many non-left-wingers miss the perfectly understandable — indeed, healthy — sentiments from which spring the opposition to a presidential address aimed at schoolchildren.  Here are two letters that I recently wrote on this matter.  The first was sent to the Los Angeles Times; the second was sent to the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Tim Rutten misses the point of the widespread opposition to President Obama’s planned speech to schoolchildren (“Calls to boycott Obama’s speech to kids offer a disturbing lesson in paranoia,” September 5).  While it’s true that many conservative pundits, such as Michelle Malkin, have overreacted to this upcoming speech, the legitimate reason for opposing it is that ours is not a country dependent upon any Great Leader.  Suggesting – as was initially the plan – that students be asked to ponder how they “can help President Obama” tells students that ‘leaders’ deserve help simply because they are ‘leaders.’  Even worse, it evokes the catastrophic collectivist notion that society’s progress depends upon the successful carrying out of a ‘leader’s’ program.

Like almost all parents, my wife and I are perfectly capable of imparting to our child an understanding of the importance of education.  We are offended that a political celebrity pretends that he possesses some unique wisdom or special authority on this front.  Our son is none of Mr. Obama’s business – and this fact would be no less true were Mr. Obama a member of some other political party.

Donald J. Boudreaux


Several – maybe most – of the objections to President Obama’s upcoming speech to schoolchildren are poorly expressed (“Some fear address will be lesson carrying a political message,” Sept. 4).  But perhaps they reflect the same sound instinct against top-down-engineered conformity that resonates throughout Pink Floyd’s 1979 mega-hit song.

Although some Americans are stirred by the (always gauzily vague) prospect of ‘uniting together’ for this or that ‘national’ achievement, many of us are mightily put off by anything that smacks of treating each of us individuals as being just “another brick in the wall” of an edifice erected to promote our collective ‘advance’ or salvation.

Donald J. Boudreaux

As for Kathleen Parker’s point that similar objections weren’t raised to similiar speeches delivered earlier by GOP pols, I think that she answers her own question: the recent explosion in social networking and in communications technology make news of such events more widespread.  (I confess that I, for example, didn’t know that Reagan made such speeches, although I’m not surprised that he did.)

For the record, I oppose all such “Great Leader” poses, regardless of the party affiliation of the Great Leader du jour.  The idea that we should be ‘inspired’ by winners of political elections — the notion that successful politicians have some special wisdom to impart — the stupid consensus that high political office renders its holders unusually trustworthy when delivering clusters of cliches — is intolerable to men and women who value freedom and individuality.

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Anonymous September 9, 2009 at 2:19 pm

I salute your stance, Don. You can share my trench if it becomes necessary.

Nate September 9, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Thank you for elucidating my concerns.

Anonymous September 9, 2009 at 2:34 pm

The above being said, radical freedom lover that I am, I have no problem with anyone talking to my children, as long as I know the talk focuses on the children and promotes traditional standards and morals, without emphasizing or even addressing a particular political belief.

Of course we know that was not what was intended in Obama’s original idea and his pre-published and disseminated plan. That was highly charge with political orientation, so no I don’t think Malkin over-reacted at all.

After spending 7 Mondays last spring teaching all day to Jr. High and HS students at a local HS, anything that would honestly inspire them enmasse would be a good thing. Encouraging children to dig into education without indoctrinating them in the conclusions they should draw from that education could only be a good thing.

I am with you all the way on keeping at bay anyone that would mess with my kids standards and morals.

Why do I stress standards and morals so much? Because without them you can be a liberal/socialist/democrat/communist/progressive (LSDCP) and a public sugar-tit sucker; with them you can be honest and individually productive.

Jurors find it hard to tell right from wrong, says study Mark Henderson, Science Editor.

Though this is an article about the U.K. and done by a U.K. University, it applies to the USA just as much.

The LSDCP have been successful at their main goal; which was the destruction in the free world of standards and morals. And, it is not recent either, it was pretty much done by the end of the 1960s. (IMHO)

liberal September 9, 2009 at 2:43 pm

The thing is that if some great achiever like an entrepreneur or a scientist (or any achiever not connected to government) was speaking to the students, you would not have opposed him/her. I salute your confidence that you can impart all the knowledge necessary to your kids, but they could stand to listen to the oratory skills of a man who is currently the President. That is no mediocre achievement. In fact, a careful analysis of the speech reveals no great substance, but he manages to hold people’s attention all the same. That’s something kids can learn from. All the same, I am sure you would agree that American high schoolers lag far behind the children in other countries (Refer John Stossel’s studies conducted in this regard). One of the reasons for that is the encouragement that in the USA, any dream is okay. The reality however, is that most dreams today are fantasies, and the importance of hard work, perseverance and determination needs to be stressed. Such a lesson sounds believable from a child of mixed race who went to Columbia and Harvard, and became president. No matter what our politics, we cannot disagree that any president is a high-achiever.

Anonymous September 9, 2009 at 3:39 pm

I agree that an analysis of (almost any) Obama speech reveals no great substance. He is highly skilled at reading speeches that can mean whatever the listener wants them to mean. I expect no one would dispute he is a high achiever, but that alone is not necessarily a good thing – many despots throughout history were also high achievers.

I disagree that “One of the reasons for that is the encouragement that in the USA, any dream is okay.” But I suspect schools often do a poor job communicating that “hard work, perseverance and determination” are what it takes to achieve those dreams (and also that you might fail). I think the lowering of standards is more to blame for the poor state of education here. But what can parents do if they cannot afford private schools?

solidus September 9, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Not only did Reagan give such a speech, but so did the first Bush. Democrats loudly opposed Bush’s speech in ’91, but I can’t dig up any articles concerning the reaction to Reagan’s in ’88.

This is politics as usual with some going overboard, which seems to be the fad these days. Our children aren’t going to be indoctrinated by this speech. They aren’t going to turn into little socialists and keynesians. I think what this address does do is spur a little interest in our political system. Maybe you are doing what you can to teach your children the importance of education and taking interest in our government, but I’ll wager that the majority of parents are not. So regardless of what you think of the man’s political beliefs, I think this sort of general address to children shouldn’t be feared.

dullgeek September 9, 2009 at 2:51 pm

I agree with the sentiments above, but I was not opposed to the President’s speech. In fact, I was in favor of it. I have worked very hard to teach my children to look at the world critically. They do a pretty good job of it when it comes to advertisements. This was an opportunity to teach them to exercise that same skill when it comes to politicians. I would hate for them to get to college and never had the chance to think critically about the speech of a politician.

BoscoH September 9, 2009 at 3:03 pm

From the AP story making the rounds…

In the prepared remarks, Obama tells young people that all the work of parents, educators and others won’t matter “unless you show up for those schools, pay attention to those teachers.”

In other words, if you don’t read every last page of Jane Eyre, you kiddo are responsible for the next 9/11. Sleep on that, punk.

RedSt8r September 9, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Don: according to a recent Fox News broadcast (and, yes I know that immediately makes it suspect) Democrats demanded (and got) a Congressional investigation of a Bush-41 speech to students.

My concern was less with the speech but the lesson plan promoted by the Dept. of Education. The President telling kids to stay in school and work hard is one thing, asking them to write letters explaining how they will help the Dear Leader accomplish HIS goals is something else altogether.

And, what was the content of the speech prior to the Dept. of Education retracting their lesson plan? Why wasn’t that content released?

Anonymous September 9, 2009 at 3:56 pm

I am sure there are several occasions where school kids get to hear speeches given by several “noteworthy” individuals (politicians or others). As a kid growing in India, I was exposed to barrage of speeches/lectures from “Chief Guests” at several school functions.
While your opposition to Obama (or Bush or any other politician) is completely justified, I wanted to see if your opposition expends to any guest speaker that a school might invite to talk to kids. Would you have the same objection if Bill Gates was doing the talking?

Secondly, while parents should (and in most cases do) impart appropriate knowledge to their kids, part of that knowledge should also include how to process information received from 3rd parties. Shielding kids from all other sources of knowledge/information only makes them your thinking clones, right?

A politician’s speech would be a good test for parents to make sure kids process the information the way parents want them to. So, maybe it’s not all bad.

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