pagestarAfter decades of criticizing public schools as places where hardly anybody learns anything, suddenly conservatives are upset that a 15- to 20-minute webcast in schools might teach too much.

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Clarence Page: Hope, fears of an ‘Obama effect’

Published 10:33am Wednesday, September 9, 2009

That’s because the webcast is by President Barack Obama. His critics fear he might teach something that they’d rather not have our schoolchildren hear. Seldom has so much power been imagined for a short video presentation that does not carry an X-rating.

The quarrel began after Education Secretary Arne Duncan e-mailed principals that the president would speak on Tuesday over the Internet, on C-SPAN and via satellite “directly to the nation’s schoolchildren about persisting and succeeding in school.”

Somehow that useful message, coming amid the heat of an unrelated health care debate, was immediately interpreted by Obama’s conservative critics as a sneaky way to enlist children into promoting his political agenda.

Or, as Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, put it, “As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.”

Mercy. It takes a different planet from the one on which I live to find “persisting and succeeding in school” to be socialist ideology. But conservative pundits were just getting warmed up to the biggest political panic since former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin accused the House health care bill of mandating “death panels.”

Blogger Michelle Malkin, accusing schools and teachers unions as using students as “little lobbyists.” David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, blogged that the Obama administration is “trying to push its president-worship onto 50 million captive schoolchildren.” American Values President Gary Bauer declared, “Tuesday may be a good day to sit in on your child’s classes.”The Education Department didn’t help matters with the darkly suggestive wording that someone, dare I say, stupidly included in a set of classroom activities posted on the department’s Web site to accompany the speech.

It suggested that students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.” A White House spokesman acknowledged that the original was “inartfully worded.” Translation from government-ese: Somebody messed up.

Out went the old wording. The updated version asks students to “write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.” Good. Ask not what you can do for the president, children. Ask what you can do to help your own futures.

Despite the rewrite, the panic took on a life of its own, fanned like a California forest fire in the hot winds of bloggers and talk show commentators. Some schools pulled the plug on the speech. They cited parents’ complaints about what the speech might say. Some parents said they would pull their kids out of school, as if the speech were a swine flu virus.

Yet, as much as some observers suspect bias in this backlash against the nation’s first black president, I don’t think race has much to do with it. Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1988 and George H.W. Bush in 1991 gave similar televised addresses, amid some criticism from Democrats about propagandizing on the taxpayers’ dime. That’s politics.Besides, values do matter. If conservatives heard that Bill Cosby, for example, were delivering the address, I think the right would be delighted.

I cannot guarantee that all of his political views would please conservative stalwarts. But his five-year-old crusade for self-help and personal responsibility has given voice to values on which the Obama left and the Malkin right can find rare agreement: the importance of good parenting.

Here I speak from hard-learned experience. Politics may come and go, but the day-to-day job of raising kids brings out the conservatism in us all.

That’s why a lot of parents welcome Obama’s messages to kids. Many hope for what some educators have called an “Obama effect,” the role modeling that might help our offspring to expand their definition of “cool” to include academic excellence, family obligations, parental responsibilities and, heaven help us, pulling their pants up to full mast.

And for African American children, in particular, there’s another important message in Obama’s famous unflappability: Don’t let racism or suspicions of racism dim your determination to succeed.

Obama received a huge political boost last year when he espoused such Cosby-esque values that Americans tend to share across racial and party lines. Maybe that’s what his conservative rivals are really worried about.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.

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  • mikea0815

    As an individual who read and has copies of the so called lesson plans that initially were released by the White House and the Department of Education, this writer must disagree with Mr. Page. The original plan was very much to indoctrinate students, by asking them what specifcally they could do to help BARACK OBAMA. They were also asked in what ways BARACK OBAMA inspired them, along with other direct references to BARACK OBAMA and his plans and policies. This writer suspects that the given speech was directed more toward African American students than to others, but that being said, there is absolutely no issue with that. There is a tremendous amount of talent and intelligence wasted in this country from what seems to be an institutional form of racism, fomented by an educational system that at all levels has failed students of minority origin, but that is an issue for another time. In the end, the President did the correct thing by challenging ALL Americans. Not just the students, but those who support them as well.

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