The controversy surrounding today’s speech to school children by President Obama really did become ridiculous. In the end, I hope that the text of the message, and its non-political content, will put to rest at least some of the more reality-based opposition to it (of course, a good deal of the opposition was completely insane , and no amount of cool-headed introspection after the fact will change it). Even complaints based on the worry that he would somehow be “indoctrinating” kids or use the speech for political purproses were a bit ridiculous, though: as if Obama would fill the speech with exhortations to vote Democratic or else he will personally kill every child’s puppy, or something like that. Despite what certain Republicans would lead you to believe, the Obama administration is not so off the deep end that they would consider this to be an acceptable event.
I’ve thought less about the content of the speech and the objections thereof, though, and more about something that, to my knowledge, has not been touched upon very much by the media. There is an important reason why Obama should talk to school kids in this manner, but a lot of people completely missed this message (and as you’ll see in a moment, the fact that they missed this message is terribly telling).
I’m a white guy. All throughout my life, when parents and teachers told me I could do anything, I had no reason to doubt them. After all, whenever I turned on the TV or read history books or opened a newspaper, I saw plenty of white guys leading the way. Presidents, CEOs, news anchors, sports greats, politicians…they were all pretty much like me in a superficial, first impression kind of way, despite the fact that white guys make up a minority of the U.S. population (and an even tinier minority of the world population).
For a lot of students who aren’t white guys, though, statements like “You can do anything with your life if you stay in school, maybe even become president!” could ring a bit hollow; given the much more obvious lack of real-world evidence that this was true. It’s not that hard to see how some people, seeing the gaping chasm between platitude and reality, would grow a bit cynical. Toss in a bit of history (it’s only been a couple of generations since the firehoses, women have been able to vote for less than a century) and it’s clear that you can’t just talk the talk, you’ve got to have some evidence that you can walk the walk.
And this is exactly why Obama’s speech was not only appropriate, but a fantastically important event. Not just because of who he is, but because he is one of the largest examples of how barriers are breaking down everywhere: let’s not forget that a woman had a very credible shot of becoming the Democratic nominee and then president, and a woman was a vice presidential candidate for only the second time on a major ticket. When Obama says that staying in school, setting goals, and working hard can lead you to great things, a lot more kids will be able to identify with him, and hence with that message.
It’s sad that so many people overlooked this important take on the issue. However, the people that control our discourse are the same people who never would have doubted that they could do anything they wanted when they were kids; in their minds, how could any child think differently? While they may not see the importance of this message, fortunately plenty of others do.