Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Obama’s Speech to Students

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 9, 2009

I was recently forced to skip out of my wonderful American Literature class in order to watch Obama’s speech, which was supposedly directed at “me”.

Obama’s speech began with some essentially pointless introductory material. It might be your first day of school, seniors are excited about graduating, la la la.

Then there’s this:

When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.
Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

No matter how (not) touching, anecdotal evidence is not statistically significant.

I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.

“Expected”? Why do I have to conform to the president’s “expectations”? Why can’t I just fulfill my own personal expectations and reach my own goals? Why must the president impose these restrictions on me? And most importantly, what gives him the authority to tell me what’s expected of me?

[A]t the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

I agree completely. Still, like much of this speech, this message is redundant.

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

This is sort of the same deal as above. While agreeable, it is just not that profound, and I certainly didn’t need the president to tell me that for me to know it.

Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

You really have to hear this part spoken, since it sounds very good, even though it’s just a series of examples, But isn’t it kind of sad that the debate team is good preparation for becoming a senator? The people who become senators should be the ones with the strongest moral foundations, the ones most committed to serving their country, and the ones with the most creative and innovative ideas. Not the ones who are good at debating. Which, unfortunately, is how it is today. That’s virtually inevitable, considering that senators are elected and therefore must look good.

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it.

I want to flip burgers and Wendy’s. (It’s waaaaay worse than fast food. It’s Wendy’s!) So I should get a doctorate in applied physics so that I’ll be really good at flipping burgers just the way I want? (Uh oh — we’re crossing over into Burger King territory!)

You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

Oh, you need an education to work for the military? In that case, I’m dropping out!

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

I feel important. But only because Obama is overgeneralizing here. My own personal education will in fact have very little impact upon the world.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and 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.

Out of those four classes (technically three, since history is a type of social studies), the one that supports critical thinking the most is science. But since our nation is illiterate when it comes to science, you wouldn’t realize that, would you? Science is founded on critical thinking and skepticism. Stop insulting the good name of science.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

Oh no, the Patriotism card! Run awaaaay!

Now I know it’s not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.

Yeah, like being forced to leave class to watch a mediocre and unoriginal speech.

Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.
I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall.
And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.

Anecdotal evidence is not statistically significant.

That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published.

I think most authors get rejected dozens of times. A mere twelve is nothing special.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

This makes children and adolescents look bad. Why can’t you ask your friend for help? Or your sibling? But no, you can’t do that, because kids are barely able to keep up with their own goals, much less support others.

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

Patriotism is the tool of the oppressive to con people into doing stupid and harmful things.

[The story of America is] the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation.

Most of the people who were really responsible for founding America were in their thirties or older.

Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon.

Minors cannot legally join the army. They can’t work either, so it’s much harder for them to “stimulate the economy”. The people who put a man on the moon were rocket scientists and government officials. And by the way, millions of “students” in Germany, Japan, etc. actually lost a world war. What about them? Oh wait, America is the only country that matters. Never mind.

Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

While not technically true, this is close enough. The guys who did those things were still fairly young. Wait a minute… are you switching from past tense to present tense? As in, they used to be students, but now they found social networking sites and win world wars? That’s a pretty terrible and confusing tense change.

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Not bad. But that country thing still irks me.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

Yeah. Because that whole “separation of church and state” thing was really just a joke. The president doesn’t have to actually follow it.

Response and Reaction

I have heard people say that this speech is condescending. I disagree (except for that one part that I pointed out), but I can see how one might get that idea. Instead of talking to his audience as though we are adults, he talks to us as though we are students. Additionally, he talks as though he is the teacher. His speech is chock full of imperative commands: stay in school, don’t do drugs, you get the idea. I do not think that this stance is justified. He’s not my teacher, he’s the president. It’s not his job to tell me what I should and should not do. I would like him to spend less time telling me what to do and more time fixing the environment. Or the economy. Or healthcare. Or something presidential like that.

I have also heard it said that Obama is trying to alleviate himself of all responsibility of the education system. This stance is also not justified, but I can understand it as well. Obama is rightfully saying that students should take charge of their own education. But I do agree in part: Obama has better things to do than to make redundant speeches.

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One Response to “Obama’s Speech to Students”

  1. bilfo said

    Hmmm. I can’t really say I’ve read the president’s speech but I took some issue with your opening line:

    I was recently forced to skip out of my wonderful American Literature class in order to watch Obama’s speech, which was supposedly directed at “me”.

    I don’t think the speech was directed at “you.” It was directed at the enormous numbers of young people in this country who view life as hopeless and have no goals worth speaking of. These students are overwhelmingly from underprivileged families and neighborhoods. They don’t have anywhere near the advantages that you have with parents that care enough to stay deeply involved in your upbringing and send you to one of the finest schools available.

    Certainly you are highly self motivated and don’t need the President’s encouragement. I don’t know if his speech will make any difference with the other kids but at least he’s trying something.

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