America’s illogical education uproar

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

For anyone paying attention to the ongoing health reform debate in the United States, it is obvious that the political landscape in that country is deeply fractured. But health reform is neither the greatest nor the most insipid evidence currently on offer.

This past week controversy arose over the speech President Barack Obama was to give at a high school in Arlington, Virginia, which was to be broadcast around the U.S. Ridiculously, many commentators pre-emptively railed against the address, attacking it as being grossly inappropriate for the president to deliver. More damningly still, many parents threatened to keep their children home from school that day. The pressure was so great that some schools decided not to show the address at all. Responding to such furor, which arose before the speech was ever given, the White House posted the president’s message on its website Monday.

After all the anger, it turned out that Obama’s speech was simply a challenge for young people to put in the requisite effort for them as individuals and for the country as a whole to succeed. So, had pundits actually waited to see what the president had to say, they would have realized it was a positive message, urging students to succeed at a very high level. There was some suggestion that his invocation may have been too forceful for a young group, but for the most part this is non-controversial stuff, which throws the inanity of the earlier attacks into sharp relief.

It is alarming that partisan politics have become so vicious and unsophisticated in the U.S. that a yet-to-be-delivered speech with no obviously insidious political message is a significant issue. The commentators attacking the “dark motives” behind the speech have shown that they are operating on thoughtless autopilot. There is clearly no substance to a critique of a speech when its content is unknown. The uproar is merely due to the individual delivering it and their political persuasion; a knee-jerk reaction, which should undermine any further commentary from those who levy it.

The parents who threatened to hold their kids back from school due to Obama’s speech and the schools that made the similar decision not to show the address to their pupils must be unaware of the lesson that this teaches those students, who they are apparently so concerned to protect. It instructs them that the best way to deal with those who have anything to say contrary to one’s own strict beliefs is to refuse to engage with them. Especially in a democratic nation, where the expectation is that children will eventually become voters, acting like a turtle is not a valuable skill to have ingrained. Students should be taught to engage with others, hopefully in a way allowing both parties to reach a workable compromise. Lacking this essential ability, democracy is doomed to oscillating dictatorships.

It seems intuitive that students may find encouragement to succeed from arguably the most powerful man in the world. That Obama drew such heavy criticism, before anything was even said, demonstrates the incredible divide in current U.S. politics and the worthlessness of much of that country’s political commentary. But when one recognizes that many U.S. parents and educators teach students to stop their ears instead of hold a dialogue, this is not so surprising.

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