Acton Institute Powerblog

Speaking Truth to School Children

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On the weekend I read the text of the talk Barack Obama gave on Tuesday to a public school in Virginia and through the medium of technology to students throughout the nation who wished to see and hear him on their school televisions. I think of Ray Bradbury’s story “Fahrenheit 451” and plasma walls at times like these.

I’ve written over the years as have others on the errors of having a Federal Department of Education and the Obama speech and it’s reach into the classrooms of America’s kids is an example of why so many have tried to rid our country of that intrusive and unnecessary bureaucracy. Despite Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of the speech as essentially “conservative” — I beg to differ.

The speech was undeniably an intrusion by the federal government directly into the neighborhood school with its end run around the district and state school boards — the remaining link parents have with the public school. School board members are traditionally elected. This, no matter its content, rules the talk anti-conservative.

Many will cleaverly dissect the speech because it is full of so much to ridicule as it pertains to Obama’s actual life and it’s containment of obvious errors, for example pointing out to children that they may be the next inventor of an iphone as an enticement to stay in school when it is well known that both Apple’s and Microsoft’s creators were college dropouts; but that’s not the point of this essay. My point is to illustrate how much the material world and the “me” culture has become a part of the American culture; and to possibly redirect some to consider an alternative.

“The story of America,” Obama says toward his conclusion, “isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best. It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation.”

That’s just isn’t true. Only a relatively small percentage of the Colonists pressed for Independence in 1776 and a central government thirteen years later. And no one’s kids were forced to go to school by the state as they are now. It’s an important piece because it illustrates how much in balance freedom is with the truth, and how important it is to lead others to the truth if they are to remain free. Is this what’s happening in our public schools these days?

About one-third into the talk Obama says, “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.”

That’s a heavy load to put on K-12 kids considering the fact that over 40 percent of those “graduating” from public high school lack grade profficiency in math and composition and many who get into college must take remedial writing and math classes just to stay in school. On the basis of those results, kids have been granted diplomas who quite possibly cannot work out in their mind — and certainly not on paper — what their or the nation’s greatest challenges might or should be. Might it be contended that they don’t know how to think? to reason?

“I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve,” Mr. Obama says. “But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.”

“And that’s what I want to focus on today,” he continues, “the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.”

In an article on the kerfuffle “the speech” was causing The Wall Street Journal reported that “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that some of the materials provided to local school officials were poorly worded and may have lead to some confusion about the speech’s goals.” Not the kind of admission you want to make as the director of a federal bureaucracy already at least partially responsible for launching a generation of functional illiterates into remedial programs.

In numerous articles and books, Fr. James V. Schall has written on the life of the mind. Those of the Judeo-Christian tradition are guided by rules. “Do not lie” requires knowledge of The Truth and for one seriously considering piety begins a life long inquiry of The Truth.

Contrast Mr. Obama’s responsiblity you have to yourself with Fr. Schall’s response to a question in an August 2005 interview “…by reading or teaching, we are at best brought to the banks of the river of intellect as it flows on. When we jump in, we sink or swim by ourselves. But we already have a mind that, as mind, is ours, not of our own making. This mind is not given to us to think whatever we wish, but to think whatever is true. If what we wish is not true, it is no virtue to stick to our wishes. Tests of truth exist. We should know them.”

Obama says, “But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher.”

And so we return to that “me” culture, the essence of which is what is good for me, what is it that I want. And this is so totally different from what parents who kept their children away on Tuesday want and in the pursuit of which we should hope that God will grant His blessings.

Ken Larson Ken Larson is a businessman and writer who with his wife recently moved from their native state California to a semi-rural part of Virginia, near the Chesapeake Bay. A graduate of California State University with a major in English, his eclectic career includes editing the first "reloading manual" for Sierra Bullets [something that earns him major league credibility when picking crabs with new friends on Sunday afternoons] and authoring a novel about a family's school choice decisions titled ReEnchantment, A Schoolboy's Adventure. His web site is For ten years, Ken was the only Protestant on The Consultative School Board for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange near Los Angeles and chaired their inaugural Catholic Conference on Business and Ethics in support of needy parish schools in the diocese. He continues to be active in his new community and mindful of America's civic education malaise.


  • Steve Boyles

    Maybe I’m being dense, but to me Obama’s comments that students “won’t love every subject” they study or “won’t click with every teacher” actually take a stand against the “me” culture. The context of those remarks is a call for students to persevere with education even when it doesn’t mesh with their personal likes and dislikes, and follows an admonishment not to pursue the “quick and easy” paths to success often advertised in the media (careers in sports and entertainment). He doesn’t tell students to give up, or get their parents to change the teachers they have, but instead that education requires discipline and a willingness to look beyond one’s immediate likes and dislikes.

    To me, the notion that educational development often requires us to persevere through difficulty, and set aside personal quibbles with school subjects or teachers, is perfectly compatible with the notion that Christian development also requires us to persevere, be disciplined, and set aside personal quibbles with those we are called to love and serve, in pursuit of God’s kingdom.

  • Steve: The principle guiding my thoughts is based on my understanding and desire to be the primary educator in the lives of my children. And I have projected that desire — because it is one informed by Scripture — on others. These pages are not for those unguided by religious principles; virtue and a search for truth. And there is an implied meaning of what an education is in my references to Fr. Schall. You might give him a closer look.

    I was willing to concede your initial point with regards to a lack of clarity on what I had written until your last paragraph where you ask us to believe that “Christian development also requires us to persevere, be disciplined, and set aside personal quibbles with those we are called to love and serve, in pursuit of God’s kingdom.” And unless I’m the dense one, that sentence is telling me that for you teacher and President trumps parent.

    Not in a democratic republic with clearly defined Constitutional limits. Not on your life.

  • Steve Boyles

    Thanks for your clarification. After reading your comment, I don’t think either one of us is being dense, but I think we’re arguing different points and misinterpreting each other as a result. It seems that you are viewing Obama’s speech as an example of conflict between educators and parents (or conflict of educational philosophies), while I am viewing it as speaking to conflict between educators and unmotivated students.

    The wishes of educators and politicians should in no way trump the wishes of parents. All I meant by my statement is that the discipline needed to succeed academically is also highly applicable for spiritual growth, by teaching children to set aside immediate pleasure for longer-term goals. Educational success may also require perseverance with teachers or subjects a child finds difficult or unpleasant (as distinct from morally objectionable, an entirely different matter) which I again find spiritual parallels with in Christ’s call to be patient in love, even with our enemies, and to honor the Kingdom of God above personal disputes.

    I am certainly not claiming that either teacher or President has moral authority over children, simply identifying parallels between the skills needed to succeed in the academic sphere and the virtues needed to grow in faith. In this light I have no objection to Obama’s speech. Whether the values taught in the academic sphere are compatible with Christian faith is a different matter, and I’m now realizing that this is the point you are primarily concerned with. I apologize for any confusion.

  • MaryAnn

    Any president of the United States, regardless of party, has no business addressing our school children. I did not like it when Reagan did it, or when Bush the elder did it. The difference between Reagan, Bush and Obama is that Reagan and Bush did not see themselves as “parent in chief”, or “Teacher/principal in chief”. It is as plain as day that Obama sees himself as the head of the village that will raise our children, and thus “fundamentally transform America”. The ultimate “community organizer” attempting to organize our young school kids just as he is attempting to organize our older school kids by offering paid tuition for 10 years of government service. People who cannot or will not see who this man is, are no different than those Germans who could not or would not see who Hitler was. I am not suggesting that Obama is Hitler, or that he would do what Hitler ultimately did. It doesn’t even have to be Hitler; any dictator from our past or present will do. Obama is about power and control. Parents need to prioritize; money is not the ultimate goal. Raising intelligent,moral and civic minded people is the goal. That they can do without Obama’s help.