The White House has announced that on September 8, President Obama is going to address the nation's schoolchildren on the importance of education. As explained in an open letter by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, "The president will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning."
Presumably, the president is going to advocate for self-discipline and reject excuses, a message that Mr. Obama, as the nation's first black president, can deliver powerfully and well—especially to black youths—as he has demonstrated repeatedly in the past few years.
So far, so good. Things get a bit dicier if we contemplate the president addressing what will be a captive audience in many schools and classrooms, as it is unclear how meticulously his speechwriters will steer clear of partisan or political subjects. After all, the secretary of Education's letter announcing the speech lauded the president for "repeatedly focus[ing] on education, even as the country faces two wars, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and major challenges on issues like energy and healthcare." It's not clear how narrowly the president will choose to focus, or what opportunities for expression or debate might be available to faculty or students who disagree with the president on particular questions.
Things get downright disconcerting when one eyeballs the federally approved lesson plans that the Department of Education has cooked up to support the president's speech. The preK–6 lesson plans, which were developed with federal funds, devised on taxpayer time, and made available on the Department of Education's website, exhort teachers to extend the impact of the president's speech by having students "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president." This clumsy bit of cheerleading shows no awareness that "help[ing] the president" might be construed as an invitation to engage in advocacy rather than instruction or that it might worry those who are not Obama partisans. What's truly remarkable, however, given recent concerns about intrusive federal government this past month, is the lesson plan's directive that "these [letters] would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals."
It all sounds a touch Orwellian, no? "Redistributed" to whom? "Accountable" to whom? Accountable for which "goals" exactly—the ones that involve "helping the president"? I'm sure the intentions behind all of this were decent enough, and that this whole effort was intended as a pep talk dressed up with innocuous materials. The lesson plans were likely drawn up by a couple of low-level staffers and slapped up on the department website without a careful look. But this all points to some of the perils posed by the growing presidential inclination to serve as superintendent-in-chief, and it highlights the kind of hubris that has fueled concerns about the implications of the federal government's growing reach.