I’ve read most of Obama’s speech to schoolkids to all you Americans today (I’m up here in Canada), and on the whole I think it’s pretty innocuous. He tells kids to work hard, and not give in to the celebrity culture or the shallow thinking that dominates our society. Good for him.
I’ve read some criticisms saying that he should have addressed the real problems many schools face, like drugs or teenage sex, but the speech is being given to kindergarten kids, too. If he talked about sex to my kindergarten kid, I’d be livid. So I’m going to give him a pass on that one.
But one criticism, I think, is valid.
Obama has this habit of holding himself up as someone to be emulated. It gets old fast, and it’s not particularly effective. It is effective to say something like, “I understand how you’re feeling because I’ve been there,” and then to explain how you can empathize with them. That’s important.
But when it comes to inspiration, it’s usually good form to hold SOMEONE ELSE up as the model, even if you yourself are a good model. It’s just more effective, because you can get more excited about someone else’s achievements than you can about your own (and if you did get that excited about your own, you’d look arrogant).
The presidency is timeless, and to a certain extent should be partisan free. Obviously his issues will always have a partisan bent, but the presidency itself is an office that endures and stays the same, regardless of who is in it. Because of this, Obama represents America in a way that no one else does. So he has a responsibility, in turn, to represent America back to others. And the way to do this is to talk up America’s strengths.
If you want to excite schoolchildren, for instance, talk about Thomas Edison. Talk about Abraham Lincoln, who worked hard and taught himself because he didn’t have the “privilege” of school. Talk about the slaves who taught themselves to read. Talk about the achievements of someone like Ben Carson, who came from a poor, single parent family, but whose mother made him work so hard at school so that he could go on to become the world’s leading pediatric neurosurgeon.
Inspire by talking about what has made America great, and how education has played a role in that. Inspire by saying that America’s military is the best in the world, and the most innovative, because America has created a society where people can work hard and come up with new ideas. We are creative. We are visionary. And school gives us the tools to keep on going.
In other words, talk about what there is to be proud of in our heritage, whatever party you belong to. Talk up America, don’t talk up yourself. And I’m saying this as a Canadian.
Obama’s speech was good, but it could have been better if it had focused not on himself, but on America as a whole. So why is it that his speechwriters didn’t think of this?
We could be partisan and just say that it’s because they’re not proud of America, and they think the only good thing about America is Obama. That’s certainly what a lot of blogs are saying today. But I think there’s actually a bigger reason.
Obama comes from the left, and most of his advisors do, too. And what has happened intellectually on the left over the last thirty years is that this idea of “truth” and “history” has been erased. Everything is relative. There is no truth; only what works for you. There’s no such thing as real history, it’s only whatever bias you have, and the bias of those who wrote history. We can’t “know” anything at all.
And because we can’t “know” anything, the only thing that counts is our own experience. So instead of telling you about history, I’ll tell you what I think. My own experience and story counts as much as the accumulated knowledge of the country.
I think that’s ridiculous, obviously, but that is what is happening in our schools and our universities. It’s why university is being dumbed down. It’s why we’re not studying the classics anymore. Everything is biased, nothing is true, and nothing is real.
But God is real, and because God exists, and He is unchanging, there is a standard for truth. That’s why Christians like and analyze history, because we think it can be studied and understood because it was real. God was there. And that’s why experience doesn’t matter to us as much as truth, or what texts say. Just because something works for you doesn’t make it true; we have to measure it by what God says.
Obama hit the right notes, but it could have been so much MORE. He could have truly inspired and given kids a glimpse of what makes their nation special. Instead he chose to talk about himself again. And I think he’d do a much better job if he remembered that the country is more than him, and that history does matter.