08 September 2009

We interrupt this lesson to bring you Platitudes from the President

I know I'm a day late on this Obama student speech thing, but so be it. It struck me as a big kerfuffle over a pretty blatant waste of a fairly insignificant amount of time. Ken lays out a very reasonable seven-point explanation at Popehat of why he thinks it is a waste of time. I'll refer you there since he says what I'm thinking well.

The fact that it's a waste of time needs to be balanced against this being a waste of 20 minutes which presidents seem to engage in once a decade or so. That's a drop in the bucket compared to the multitude of DARE programs, and MADD pep talks, and actual pep rallies, and chorus recitals, and secular winter holiday festivals, and Black History Month celebrations, and Peruvian tribal drumming expositions, and post-Columbine inclusiveness and friendship seminars that I had to sit through. Of all the unnecessary drek we subject students to, and of all the self-aggrandizing theater our presidents perform, this is a minor act.

It's really not that bad that kids have the president tell them to work hard and stay in school, but I think few people over 30 seem to remember how little that message is actually going to do to change kids' behavior. If a kid needs to be told to work hard or stay in school, the battle is already lost. Those are messages you don't give a kid directly. No one works hard because they once heard a famous person tell them to work hard. Those messages have to permeate their existence, not be delivered from a podium on the occasional of an official Work-Hard-and-Stay-in-School Event. Ditto the don't do drugs message, and the don't be racist message, and the don't pick on the weird loner message and all the rest. I'm not saying we stop telling kids these things, just that we need to stop overestimating the effectiveness of gathering them all up in one place and creating an official event to try and get the message across. Those things do more to give the powers that be a chance to show how serious they are than they do to change student's behavior.

Everyone should also read this Washington Examiner article about Bush 41's speech to students in 1991, and reflect on the fact that it was Democrats freaking out about him indoctrinating kids and using them as props, and Republicans going on about of course it's apolitical, how dare you suggest otherwise. Hacks. All of them. Then and now.

Finally — and this will probably surprise few people who know me — I'm blase about politicians' speeches generally. With few exceptions politicians are experts only at geting and holding power, and I don't think that's a very valuable lesson to impart to students. This is the same reason I think having politicians speak at commencements is a boring choice. The median speaker at TED would have more worthwhile things to say than POTUS.* Even three or four above-average Ignite talks would be more rewarding for the nation's students than anything you could get out of congressmen.


* Okay, I know TED talks aren't exactly accessible to a K-12 audience. That's not the point. (And any talk is almost bound to be either inaccessible or stultifying to one end of that range.) I'm just saying that there are interesting people out there who could impart interesting information to students, and they aren't politicians. (Or athletes or actors.) When I have my bajillions of dollars, I'll set up a TED-like event for the purposes of recording short talks accessible to high school students. There. Done. Unless some bajillionaire wants to go ahead and do that right now. Any takers?

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