Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

September 9, 2009


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - It tells something about the dreary times in which we live in that two of the biggest stories coming out of the White House are presidential speeches.

My concern with Obama's talk to school kids was not the speech itself, but the lesson plan that was to accompanied it, which the White House tacitly admitted by revising the objectionable sections. As for the speech, my feeling was what's one more dull, cliche ridden talk going to do to harm our kids? Sure it takes up time they might be using to help their principal get a higher score on Arne Duncan's tests for cash, but kids are used to adults saying preachy and redundant things so it shouldn't bother them too much.

Liberal and conservative media and groups felt otherwise. With nothing much else going on, they launched into a debate about a talk they hadn't heard, the former seeing it as a great gift to childhood and the latter as some sort of communist manifesto.

Now the returns are in and two clips - from Time and the multi-ethnic New America Media - tell the story pretty well.

Michael Scherer, Time - 'Rather than any lefty, neo-socialist, communitarian brainwashing, President Obama's speech to your kids reads like a paean to individual striving and free market capitalism, the sort of thing that Ayn Rand and Barry Goldwater might have signed onto. At root, Obama's message is one of individual responsibility, a disquisition on the freedom of American youth to fail or succeed on their own tenacity and merits. . .

Each child has an individual responsibility to succeed, to accomplish something, even to make lots of money, by working hard at school. Not quite Vladamir Lenin. More like Glenn Beck, from this 2008 interview with then Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin:
BECK: It's time for some personal responsibility. It is time for people to take on the responsibility that they have for themselves. Why don't we talk about personal responsibility anymore? Why don't we reach out to the American people and say, "Hey, government is not the answer. Nine out of ten times government's the problem."

GOVERNOR PALIN: I know. Let us preach, reaching people when they know there is a candidate willing to talk about this.us
New America Media - When Pres. Barack Obama addressed the nation's school children on the importance of education, students at several San Jose public schools were listening. Silicon Valley De-Bug, Generation Engaged and Unity Care facilitated workshops at Andrew Hill High School and Fischer Middle School right after Obama's speech to rate his message, and the majority of those who responded were skeptical of his message.

Immediately following the speech, [a] mix of predominantly Latino and Asian students gave reactions to the president's message. By a show hands, the president did not poll well. Out of all students, only 10 said that the speech was useful. Some felt it made the same points they've heard from their parents, and others questioned the hopeful tone of the talk while budgets cuts continued to strip away educational opportunities.

At Andrew Hill, students still haven't yet received their books for the school year. Kristin, who twirled her pencil despondently while listening to the address, was Obama's most vocal critic. "Obama is the same as other presidents," she said, "sounds like everyone else trying to tell us to do well in school, but where's the money? He's saying 'do better', but then don't take away the money, and show us what you can do."

Yet, amidst the more critical viewpoints, several students did say they were inspired by the hopeful message Obama delivered: that they can still achieve, despite the limitations they are facing. Anthony, dressed in full ROTC attire, defended the president's message of striving for success. In response to Kristin, he told the class, "It's really up to us, you know. He can put all the money in, but ultimately, it's up to the person to do it."

A common response, however, was that the president fell short because he did not connect with their experience. Vee explained it through the social ladder of school. "Trying is not enough. It's like being pretty. Some people don't understand what it is like for others, but they have to try walking in those people's shoes to know what they go through."


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