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.