Monday, November 24, 2014
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Obama's Speech Offers Inspiration, Not Indoctrination

Bizarre headline of the year: "Obama's Plan for School Talk Ignites a Revolt." President Obama will speak today to public students across the country, urging them to work hard and to stay in school -- and somehow this has become a front-page controversy. Some things make you fear for this country's future.

America has a real education crisis. As a high-wage country, we have a massive investment in developing the best-educated workers in the world. As a democracy, we depend on educated citizens making informed choices. As a nation of immigrants, we have a clear stake in a public school system that teaches the common language, history and learning that help to unite us and make our diversity a strength.

Yet many of our schools aren't working well. Our dropout rates, particularly those among low-income students, exceed those of other industrial countries. Too many students graduate without the skills they need to be productive. Too many come out of high school without the resources to get higher education or training.

In many of our urban schools, what Jonathan Kozol called "savage inequalities" still sap the spirit. Many poor children go to schools that are overcrowded, in need of repair, with too few textbooks and dated equipment. Often these schools get the worst teachers. The kids can't miss the message that society doesn't have much hope for their potential.

That's why Barack Obama's own story is so important. He personifies possibility, the notion that you can overcome great obstacles if you dedicate yourself. His election showed African Americans and other minorities that there need be no ceiling on their dreams.

So for him to speak to students, to tell them to stay in school, to apply themselves, to work hard, to dream big is important. It is exactly what we would want a president to do, particularly this president. One speech won't change the world. But it may spark some hope.

So why is this controversial? The uproar has been particularly severe in Texas, where several school districts have decided to let children opt out of listening to the speech. Why? Because some parents are worried the president will indoctrinate their children with "socialist ideas." The speech, they argue, should be screened for political content. The Republican Party chair in Florida announced he was "appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology."

This is ugly stuff. They are talking about the democratically elected president of the United States. They are suggesting that the president, chosen by a majority of voters to lead this country, is so un-American that one speech might lead their children astray -- and we have Republican Party officials echoing this slander.

I only wish President Obama's speech had the power they attribute to it, for it might then lead millions of children to stay in school and work harder. But it isn't the silly exaggeration of the president's influence that is so shocking, it is the notion that kids have to be locked away when the president speaks.

We've now witnessed the Republican governor of Texas fanning talk about seceding from the union. We've seen GOP leaders repeating the contemptible lie about "death panels." We've seen zealots packing guns outside of presidential town meetings.

This is taking partisan or ideological disagreement to an ugly and dangerous extreme. It is the equivalent of when the John Birch Society charged that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist. And just as Eisenhower and sensible people in both parties finally stepped up to discredit Joe McCarthy, it is time for sensible people to stand against this nonsense.

Whether you agree with his policies or not, President Obama is the democratically elected president of this nation. His own life story makes his message about staying in school compelling. His speech today should be celebrated, not castigated.

Category: Jesse Jackson


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