Should Obama Address School-Aged Children?

Neal Conan talks to listeners about President Obama's back-to-school speech scheduled for Tuesday. Some parents have expressed fear that his speech masks a liberal political agenda.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Now, the Opinion Page. Tomorrow, President Obama delivers his back-to-school message to students.

We just got our hands on a text of his remarks. The suggested lesson plan will not include a line about what students can do to help the president. That was dropped. Still, some schools refused to show the message. They've heard from angry parents and politicians who argue that politics has no place in the classroom. The White House calls that silly and says the message is to work hard and stay in school.

The opinions on this could fill a textbook. Instead of choosing just one, we're going to read from several recent op-eds over the next several minutes, and we want to hear from you. What should the president say? Should he say anything at all? 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

As we mentioned, the White House released the text of the president's address tomorrow. And here's a couple of excerpts.

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.

And this excerpt: You'll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you've learned in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You'll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You'll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

And at least on our reading of the speech, that was about as close as an agenda as the president gets. The revised lesson plan for teachers now includes the line: write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals, instead of write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.

All right. We want to hear from you on this. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And we've got a couple of emails in already. Annie in Arizona wrote us: If parents allow him to make his first speech to children in the USA, there will be many more speeches following, loaded with misleading information. Obama is a professional in changing the norm. He is nothing but a robot performing for the special interest groups. Americans must be attentive to every word that comes out of his mouth. What he says is definitely not what he means. As a grandmother, I've asked the schools in Arizona not to broadcast his speech to our children.

This is from Linda in Pinehurst, North Carolina. That sneaky pres guy of ours has released the text of his speech, and it shows he wants our kids to study hard and stay in school. He wants all kids to think there is something good and special in each and every one of them. And he wants them all to work hard toward their lifetime goals. I'm shocked - shocked, I tell you - that anyone would allow our children to hear this socialist speech.

Oh, well, anyway. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And let's go to - is this William? Gillian.

LILLIAN (Caller): This is Lillian.

CONAN: Lillian. Excuse me. I can't read my screen here. Lillian is with us from Mishawaka in…

LILLIAN: Yeah, Mishawaka.

CONAN: …in Indiana. Go ahead, please.

LILLIAN: I definitely think that the president's comments have a place in the classroom. I mean, I think that the students need to realize that the president is reaching out to them. We study politics in school, so I think that the comment that politics don't belong is school is completely bogus. And I think for a lot of these students, this might be the only reinforcement that they get to stay in school.

CONAN: And would you feel the same way if it was President George W. Bush making a speech?

LILLIAN: You know, I think I would, because the president is the president. And I might not have agreed with what President Bush did or what he said, but he was our president and I respected him nonetheless.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Lillian.

LILLIAN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: This is an excerpt from an op-ed by Trey Garrison, a parent, that was published in the Dallas Morning News. There is no doubt the presidential address directed to the captive audience of the nation's school children Tuesday will be non-partisan and positive, chockfull of study hard and stay in school. The problem: It's not his place to deliver it. That's why my first grader won't have any part in this.

The study materials dictated by the White House to accompany the address make the hairs on my neck stand up. Why is it important that we listen to the president and other elected officials, like the mayor, senators, members of congress and the governor? Why is what they say important?

They're not even trying to hide it. What elected officials say is important, and they are different - more important - than you. We should do what they ask. It's our role. Listen. Serve. Obey. This is anathema to everything good in the American spirit. Government is supposed to serve us, not the other way around.

And again, that was from a parent, Trey Garrison, and published in "The Dallas Morning News." Let's go next to Brandon(ph), Brandon with us from Cincinnati.

BRANDON (Caller): Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

BRANDON: Yeah. My big issue with this is, in the '40s or '50s, I feel if the president had done this; teachers and parents - everyone would have been thrilled. And it's just the media and how the media grown in the past 20, 30 years, and - that we see the president every day. We see his face, you know, on the Internet. We see his face - we bring up Yahoo or Google and there is the president's face, and it's like people don't want to see the president.

And then partisan politics aside, this is the president taking time out for individual children. And a lot of them don't have - a lot of those children don't have parents at home who were encouraging them. And so, maybe this is the chance for the president to speak directly to a child who doesn't have a parent encouraging them.

CONAN: Well, I guess, the same technology that changed the media also made it possible for the President to speak to, you know, in terms of seeing him to more than one school at a time.

BRANDON: Sure.

CONAN: And - are you - do you have kids in school?

BRANDON: No. I'm a school teacher, actually.

CONAN: And are you going to be showing the speech tomorrow?

BRANDON: I'm going to show excerpts of it later. I'm not going to be showing it in my classroom. But I do know - I'm an English teacher, a high school English teacher. I do know government teachers who will be showing it.

CONAN: And is - what about the lesson plan?

BRANDON: Our district sent out an email last week. And in this email, it was very much just make sure you tow the line. You don't go one side of the other. We haven't had any - that I know of - any parents come out and had a problem with this. And I think our district was very proactive instead of being reactive.

CONAN: All right. Brandon, thanks very much.

BRANDON: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's another op-ed. This is by Deborah Mitchell, a teacher that was also published in "The Dallas Morning News." Reaching out to inspire our youth is what presidents and leaders are supposed to do. According to a letter from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, teachers have been urged to ask their students thought-provoking questions that will generate discussion and introspection. What new ideas and actions is the president challenging me to think about? Does the president - does the speech make you want to do anything? What would you tell students? What are your goals?

After the speech, students will share their thoughts and responses. This activity alone teaches them to be active listeners and logical thinkers. It teaches them to be goal-oriented. At the beginning of a semester, I ask students in a community college class I teach to listen attentively in class, suspend judgment, and examine all sides of an issue. This is how students grow their minds - whether they agree or not, understanding what we disagree with is just as powerful as understanding what we believe.

And again, that was from Deborah Mitchell, a teacher and published in "The Dallas Morning News." Let's get another caller on the line. And we'll go to Carlos(ph), Carlos with us from Miami.

CARLOS (Caller): Yes. I basically support the president, speaking tomorrow at the schools. I think we need to get over with this whole thing that a president represents one party. He may be representing one party during the election, but once he's elected, he's our president.

CONAN: Well, he certainly has his political agenda.

CARLOS: Everybody has got an agenda, but hopefully somebody will have the American people's agenda in front.

CONAN: And do you have children in school?

CARLOS: Not at this time. I do have grandchildren in school at this point.

CONAN: And do you expect them to see the speech tomorrow?

CARLOS: Well, my grandchildren are stationed in Japan with his parents and maybe they'll put it in the schools there.

CONAN: It might be a little bit late getting there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Okay, thanks very much, Carlos.

CARLOS: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's go next to Jacob(ph), Jacob with us from Flint, Michigan.

JACOB (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

JACOB: To me, it sounds a bit socialistic. It reminds me of starting the kids young and doing it for the country, kind of, like the dear leader in North Korea.

CONAN: Other presidents have done this, you know?

JACOB: Yeah, I agree. But it just sounds like he's starting the kids young to have the mentality of everything you do should be for the country and should be for the president as opposed to work for yourselves and get this country rolling with an independent sort of view and democracy. It just sounds a lot of a socialistic view of working everything that you have for the country itself.

CONAN: So you're worried about - I don't mean to put words in your mouth, but a cult of personality

JACOB: Exactly. It just sounds like you're starting them young with a mentality of everything you do needs to be for the country and not for your self.

CONAN: And do you have children in school?

JACOB: No, I don't.

CONAN: Okay, Jacob. And do you know what the school district there in Flint is doing?

JACOB: Pardon?

CONAN: Do you know what the teachers there in Flint will be doing tomorrow?

JACOB: Oh, no idea. I'm sure school is starting and everything like that, but I don't know whether they're (unintelligible) or not.

CONAN: All right, thanks very for the phone call.

JACOB: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here is Conor Friedersdorf, a writer on "The Daily Beast." Overwrought as many of the objections to it are - recent presidents have given school addresses without similar freak-outs - putting the commander in chief onscreen in the classroom inevitably confers the message, this is a role model whose advice about life ought to influence you.

I assume President Obama will offer sound advice to kids, and I regard him as a perfectly good role model, but I object to the automatic elevation of presidents, generally, to the role of trusted moral leader, so I wish President Obama and all his successors would eschew that role, rather than entrenching its precedent more deeply.

America requires constitutional officers and moral leaders. We'd save ourselves a lot of unnecessary trouble if we established a bright line between those roles, rather than blurring them in accordance with our ideological affection for the person who happens to be in power.

And again, that was Conor Friedersdorf, a writer on "The Daily Beast." And let's go, next, to - this is Bob, Bob with us from Hagerstown in Maryland.

BOB (Caller): Hello. How are you today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

BOB: You know, I just - it takes my breath away how much people obstruct what this man is trying to do in office. It just seems like the contrarian views since he's been in office, by so many people, just - you know, anything - I mean, he could have come out with a completely Republican platform and the very same people would be crying that he is, you know, not doing a just service to the country. I just - it really troubles me that more people don't question the things they hear. And if anything, we need more of the kind of measures that he's going to give the kids tomorrow, which is think for yourself, among other things.

CONAN: And do you have children in school?

BOB: I do not.

CONAN: Okay. Do you know what they're doing in Hagerstown?

BOB: No, I do not.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call, Bob.

BOB: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: We're gathering opinions from op-ed pages around the country and from callers about President Obama speech to school children tomorrow.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an opinion from Joe Scarborough, former Republican member from Congress in Florida, now host of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC. Last week he said, why don't we what the president of the United of States, any president of the United States, delivering the message to kids, work hard, stay in school, succeed? Certain people who are going to try to whip up ratings by talking, comparing him to Chairman Mao. It's just asinine.

He followed up on Twitter: GOP leaders in my home state or accusing the POTUS -that's the president of the United States - of trying to indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda. Seriously? Indoctrination of socialism? The President as a racist? Death panels? Where are the national GOP leaders speaking out against this kind of hysteria?

And let's see if we can go next to Henry. Henry with us from Southfield, in Michigan.

HENRY (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

HENRY: Happy holiday.

CONAN: And to you too.

HENRY: Yeah. Thank you.

Yeah. I want - I have a 12-year-old son and I want my child to sit on quietly and listen to the president, because he's a role model to me. He's extremely smart and that's how I want my child to be. I don't want my child to be caught, yet - to get caught with the things are going on, the negative stuff. I want him to listen to the president and become productive to the society. I've been in this country for 15 years, working hard, I want my child to follow that example.

CONAN: And - I'm sorry. How old is your son now?

HENRY: Twelve.

CONAN: Twelve years old.

HENRY: Yes.

CONAN: And do you know if his school is going to be broadcasting the president's remarks?

HENRY: Yeah. I think they are going to. Yes.

CONAN: And will you be asking your son about them when he gets home tomorrow night?

HENRY: Yeah, definitely. Definitely, because I want him to, you know, to really listen and follow a good example as the president. He's very smart. I saw a lot of people on TV that criticizing him, that don't have his level of education. I'm really trying (unintelligible), with that type of...

CONAN: All right. Henry, Thanks very much.

HENRY: I appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go next to Liz. And Liz with us from Ellicottville in New York.

LIZ (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Liz.

LIZ: I just wanted to say that I think it's, you know, I think it's kind of important for kids to don't really have a lot going for them in their whole life to be able to listen to something that's probably a lot more positive than what they get at home.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LIZ: And I think that perhaps - especially where we live, there's a lot of poverty and I think some of these kids really need to hear that they can really change and get themselves a better existence.

CONAN: As we mentioned, we've had a glance of the text of the message. One thing the president does talk about was his experience, again, growing up in a household that - where his father was not present, he didn't have all the advantages either.

LIZ: Right.

CONAN: All right. Liz, thanks very much.

LIZ: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

LIZ: Bye.

CONAN: Here's an - another op-ed opinion. This is from Kevin Drum in Mother Jones. What the hell was Obama's brain trust thinking? The whole idea of the speech may have been misguided in the first place, given the realities of modern hyperpartisan politics - be honest: you wouldn't have been thrilled if George Bush had done something like this. But including a bullet point, asking kids what they can do to help the president? A five-year-old could have figured out that that might cause a little bit of red-state heartburn. Obviously, the President shouldn't spend all his time worrying about what the lunatic fringe thinks. Still, the world is what it is. Why give them obvious ammunition?

Let's go next to Ken. Ken with us from Long Island in New York.

KEN (Caller): Yes. How'd you doing? I don't - I just see it being terribly hypocritical and I don't know if I would want him speaking with my son. After all the other presidents and after all the things that they have done in their lives, going back to JFK and Clinton, even George W. Bush. There's been a lot of bad things that they have done and they've - haven't been the best of role models. And read Obama's book and read what kind of child he was, and look at the type of politics that he's pursuing, and he's basically shutting out a whole party. We need a third party, people. We need a third party.

CONAN: Well, that's your agenda, not the presidents'.

KEN: My child's (unintelligible).

CONAN: All right. Ken, thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

KEN: Well, I'm sorry. Didn't hear what you said.

CONAN: I'm sorry Ken. I was thanking you for the phone call.

KEN: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's just see if we can go to - this is in Spanish Springs, Nevada. Mike(ph) is with us.

MIKE (Caller): Yeah. How'd you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead, Mike.

MIKE: A real quick, I just want to say that Obama, he's one smart guy, you know? All he has to do is decide that he's going to say something anywhere and people talk about it. And that's the most important thing this country's got to do, is we all going to talk at every angle on every issue and this guy knows how to do it.

CONAN: All right. Well, you pointed it out.

We are talking about his speech tomorrow at the - to the school children. We're going to be talking about his remarks later, that he already gave today at the AFL-CIO picnic in Cincinnati and - well, that I think there's an address to a joint session of Congress, Wednesday night?

MIKE: Well, sure he has people stirred up. I love it.

CONAN: All right. Mike, thanks very much for the phone call.

And thanks to everybody who called and emailed us the opinions spoken today on the speech that President Obama delivers tomorrow to America's school children.

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