A Good Thing Obama Could Actually Do
There is one speech by Obama that the French Cowboy liked almost — almost! — without reservation. It was his back to school speech he gave to students in 2009 (emphasis mine):
[A]t 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.
My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.
So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.
But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.
Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.
But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.
Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future. [If the French Cowboy ever had to choose an Obama quote for the Oval Office rug, he’d take this one.]
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.
That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
What I don’t like about the speech is the equivalence Obama repeatedly makes between studying for your own good and studying for the country. That your country needs you to have good grades as a rationale for working hard at school is a bit of a stretch, and an unnecessary one at that. If you’re not convinced that studying is good for yourself, then the idea that it’ll be good for your country is not likely to work as a motivation. But still, this was probably Obama’s best speech.
The reason I bring this up is that, in the debate about the need for reform in the educational system, we tend to neglect an important factor. It’s parents. Every passerby on the street would probably agree that if parents don’t do their job to reasonably educate their children, there’s little teachers can do. There is a tendency in a public school system to outsource child education from the family to the teachers.
To be sure, in many cases parents are just as overwhelmed as are some teachers, so this is not an attempt to distribute blame. But what happens when parents don’t do their work and teachers don’t have any positive influence on kids, is that the children get educated by the next most impressionable cultural environment they’re exposed to. In many cases that’s simply their equally neglected peers and stupid television programmes. It’s also no secret that, when left to themselves, most kids gravitate towards harmful things: there’s simply no positive influence in their lives to push away the wave of immorality promoted by popular culture.
The French Cowboy rejects the notion that government should meddle with the way parents choose to educate their kids unless the children are obviously harmed. But I think that the Obamas have (or at least had) an enormous potential to have a positive, informal inlfuence on how troubled families look at their responsibilities. It’s true that President Obama has come a long, long way from a single-mother hippie household to the Oval Office. Putting aside his (awful) policies, Obama’s story should be immensely inspiring to children and parents with disadvantageous backgrounds, especially black ones.
I wish that, instead of telling parents to feed their kids with veggies, First Lady Obama had set her goal higher and tried to inspire parents and children to improve not only their diets but their entire lifestyle. Specifically, she could speak about the responsibility of parents — especially fathers — to educate their children (if not the First Lady, then the President could do that more often) and about children’s responsibility to try and aspire for higher things than being the biggest trouble maker in class.
Honestly, with any other president in the White House, the French Cowboy wouldn’t even get near the idea of such moralising from the Oval Office. But there are two reasons why I think this is not a bad thing with President Obama.
1) His policies suck. Since he’s destroying the economy and promotes a pretty warped view on international affairs, he can at least have a constructive role when it comes to American family life. As a Democrat and someone who likes to get into the details of people’s lives (inflate tires, don’t use the a/c), he’s destined for it. (Also, it’s likely that his wrecking the economy is putting an additional strain on families’ situations and the focus is entirely on finances, not on the things that are problematic irrespective of money.)
2) Obama is probably the first president who can stand up and tell people — politely — that they should recommit to a healthy family life, without it sounding like racist finger-wagging. Last time I checked, about 50% of black kids were growing up with a single parent. 50%! Liberals like to blame it all on poverty, and surely there’s a connection. But more than money children need their parents. A President Obama could say that and actually reach people. This kind of cost-free inspiration might go a longer way in fixing public education than all the dollars Obama wants to throw at it.
Obama’s opportunity to inspire people in this fashion is almost passed. The magic surrounding his persona has long waned and when Sarah Palin is president in 2012 she’ll sure do a lot of good but, as an effective role model for severed black families in troubled neighbourhoods, Obama proabably has the advantage. This is the one good thing Obama can do even if his policies don’t improve.