Obama’s speech to students refocuses conservatives

President Barack Obama's speech today to America's school children has been the latest complaint among conservatives, the latest controversy among critics. But as with many issues, the concern proved to be magnified.

The President brought a clear and succinct address to K-12 students, imploring them to make the most of their education so they can make the most of their lives for the sake of their country. Nina Easton, FOX News political analyst, said following the event, “It was a conservative values speech.” Yet while conservatives preach respect for institutions and for the presidency, such values were lost in the mayhem. “Traditional conservative values got lost in this debate.”

Conservatives lose ground when they lose their focus. What began as a concern for the content of Obama's message ironically turned to unbridled boycott of the leader of our nation. President Obama told students, “You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to train for it, and work for it, and learn for it.” Who could argue with such a message? Yet I know some will do their best to find fault with it, if for no other reason than it was Obama who did the talking.

The president said, “If you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country.” Some conservative Christians may want to argue that a better statement would be that to quit on yourself and your potential is to quit on God. I would agree. But that doesn't mean President Obama's statement is wrong. His statement doesn't negate our relationship to God; it addresses a separate point. His comment is not any different than saying when you quit, you're quitting on your football team, or your colleagues at work, or your family.

A second point President Obama made is that there is no excuse for low achievement. “Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you, because here in America you write your own destiny. You make your own future.” Nit pickers may want to argue that God's sovereignty overrules our “making our own destinies.” And while it is true that the Almighty God retains all power to direct the course of our lives, He simultaneously affords humans with creative, decision-making power that has the potential to impact life either positively or negatively.

Erwin McManus, pastor of the Mosaic Church in Los Angeles addresses this issue in his book, “Wide Awake: The Future Is Waiting Within You”. He writes, “If you still don't believe you're part of the creative process, then just sit at the table tonight and wait until God brings you dinner.”

Conservatives, both political conservatives and Christian conservatives, need to take a breather and regain rational thought. There's no reason for paranoia in this particular instance. The president appropriately used his own story to inspire, without calling undue attention to himself as a superhero. He aptly charged students with the responsibility to own their futures. He adequately illustrated examples of others, including J. K. Rowling and Michael Jordan, who became successful only after many failures. “You can't let your failures define you; you have to let your failures teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently the next time.” And the White House seems to be doing just that.

Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard said afterward on Fox News, “The speech was fine. The lesson plan was not fine.” The White House pulled back on the lesson plans it originally set forth, realizing their mistake in trying to direct the curricular activities of local schools. The White House had provided lesson plans to teachers that required students to respond in a favorable manner to the president's comments, an effort perceived by many as borderline indoctrination, or at the least, a pro-Obama school campaign.

The White House also decided appropriately to release the text of the speech for public review prior to delivery. Most school districts have a policy that requires educators to review all curricular materials in advance of their use. Movies, books and special assemblies should be well-studied for suitability before their messages are allowed to grace the ears of the learners. Every guest speaker should be held to this standard, even the president of the United States.

Now that the event has occurred, conservatives seem to be shifting focus away from Obama's speech, finding little in it to debate, and toward the response of the classroom teacher. Following the speech, FOX News interviewed Wayne Knutson, a history teacher at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif. He stated, “We are talking about evidence, and how you know what you know.” He planned to lead students in analyzing what facts President Obama offered and what support he gave to his viewpoints. Knutson illustrates exactly what a thoughtful and responsible teacher should do: relate the current event to the curricular objective, and address it from a non-partisan, student-centered standpoint.

As a former public school principal and parent in a conservative Texas suburb, I fully understand the concern leading up to today's event, and I must applaud the White House for its efforts to address the concerns of citizens by retracting the proposed lesson plans and releasing the text for advance review. Our children are the future of our country. I pray that today's attention on what is said in schools will continue. We must remember that our students are a captive audience, vulnerable to the influence of all adults who have access to them.

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  1. Karyn, thank you for putting the President’s speech in perspective. Like most Americans, there are things I really like about Obama and some important unanswered questions. Having the President encourage children to listen to the instruction their professionally trained and often very dedicated teachers provide them is a good message. The message here to parents, particularly those who were reactionary enough to even consider keeping their kids home today because of the speech, is that you as Mom or Dad are your child’s first and most important teacher. Respecting authority figures, even ones we may legitimately disagree with, is a valuable lesson for us all.

    September 9, 2009
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  2. DeltaFour said:

    You’ve done a nice job of showing that the whole thing was fine. Yet, your focus is too narrow. Like cooking a soft-boiled egg, you can’t tell when its ready by looking at the eggs bobbing around in your saucepan. What you really need is experience, your own forays in the kitchen or from other cooks, who have determined it will be ready in 3 minutes. This is a very difficult concept to weigh. The heat isn’t the only factor. There is this other consistent attribute of time, that is unstoppable. So, in my opinion what Obama did was not just fine because our focus is misplaced on the eggs, water, saucepan and stovetop. It was exploitive because of the captive audience of soft and immature minds. Look, the reason Tom Cruise’s opinions get aired on TV and News is because he is a celebrity. You and I may be smarter, wiser, have better understanding and communicate with more clarity, but our opinions don’t add up compared with the swaying power of celebrity. This is the reason for the speech. Obama wants to gain acceptance from soft hearts, through his celebrity. But the charter of our schools is to be encouraging strong minds. Remember, as members of the church, we are to be ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’ (Rom 12:1-2), and we are to ‘get our minds ready for action’ (I Pet 1:13). Every parent knows that loving a child requires much more discipline for the mind than it requires in the exercise of heartfelt emotions. Again, I think this is a ‘warm-hearted’ stunt to boost ratings through mindless celebrity. Even if the saucepan was the right size and the boiling water was the prescribed temperature.

    September 9, 2009
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