Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Presidents, Politics, Education

Commentary by Roger Sween (c) Copyright 2009.

Today a view prevails that education is too important to leave to educators. Today, partisanship runs roughshod over most issues so that taking a civil approach to our challenges is a challenge itself. Recently, President Obama’s efforts to address schools collided with partisanship even before the public knew what he would say.

Education is the process by which we learn to learn and thereby make informed choices. Politics is the process by which we make choices in our association with one another. Therefore, education and politics have their foundational link.

At our national birth, the Continental Congress provided for the addition of new states from public lands, and dedicated the 16th section in each township for the support of schools. Subsequent federal interest towards education grew slowly as it did in other social areas.

Our federal government presently has responsibility to ensure equal educational opportunity for all and to improve the quality of that education through support, research and information. Presidents since Eisenhower have kept close to education and our public schools. Presidents have often gone into schools to speak to students. Our 40th and 41st presidents were the first to use television broadcasts beamed directly to schools across the country; their remarks distinctly differ. Transcripts appear in Internet copies.

Ronald Reagan talked before a junior high school audience, gathered in the State Dining Room, November 14, 1988, shortly before leaving office. He talked about the peaceful transfer of power in the recent presidential election, the U.S. as the world’s oldest self-governing democracy, our leadership in the world, and the onset of technological change. He urged students “that the most important thing you can do is to ground yourself in the ideas and values of the American Revolution.” He invoked God as the helper in our foundation, described the Founders as the descendants of the Pilgrims, and extolled the values of faith and family.

Except to refer to American Education Week, the words education and learning do not appear in Reagan’s remarks. He took ten questions on such topics as the war on drugs, his accomplishments, the federal deficit and taxes, minority educational opportunities, and gun control. These exchanges took twice as long as his remarks. Judge for yourself whether his answers are partisan.

George Herbert Walker Bush talked from a junior high school classroom in DC, October 10, 1991, near the end of his third year in office. He refers to the simultaneous release of the National Goals Report, a report card on current levels of student achievement. He challenged, “Education matters, and what you do today, and what you don’t do can change your future. ... Work harder, learn more, revolutionize American education. ... No excuses.” He referred to their teacher as an exemplar of study and success and pointed out successful students in their school.

In these prior occurrences, administrators and teachers likely made choices whether to invite the presidents into their schools. Such is the nature of educational decisions. We do not know whether non-educational influences affected those decisions. In the present case, we do know. Today as compared to eighteen years ago, it is easy via the Internet to whip up opposition when some partisan does not want someone else heard.

Unfortunately, some school administrators now play it safe, trying to avoid a “political football.” What have they to fear but being hassled? Do they not realize that the First Amendment is on their side? Do they not understand the Constitutional guarantees whereby students have access to free speech. Instead, they cautiously screen whether the potentially offending speech needs to be accepted, redacted, or ignored. Hooray for those who seize the teachable moment and stand behind it!

What do students learn about this approach to information? We must fear information, especially when disagreeable. We are not to make up our own minds based upon criteria that tests information. Authority is a better route to knowledge than thinking and learning for oneself after hearing, reflecting, discussing and deciding.

Let us be glad when parents are so concerned about what their children might receive outside the home that they want to know what that message is. Here is a vast improvement over parents who surrender their children to television or some other techno distraction. Certainly, parents have this right to have their concerns met. Minnesota Statutes protect the right by specifically allowing parents to opt their children out of curriculum components for some other agreeable substitute.

More commendable are those parents who realize that at some nearby point their children go into the world of give and take. Such parents have led their children in self-reliant thinking, the desire to know, and the ability to stand up for their ideas and beliefs.

By this means, the public enjoyment of freedom of speech does not dwindle before the wishes of some who are bothered by the same opportunity and need to deny it to others.

This commentary, slightly revised from the original, first appeared in the Red Wing Republican Eagle, 10 September 2009, page 4.

Roger Sween is a past president of the Minnesota Association for Continuing Adult Education and of the Minnesota Coalition for Intellectual Freedom. He writes about ideas on CeptsForm and other companion blogs.

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