Kids should have heard Obama

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered a speech to America's schoolchildren where he urged them to take responsibility for their education by paying attention to their teachers, by working hard and by setting goals for themselves. He told students to stay in school and make the most of their education. In order to have its maximum effect, the speech was broadcast live to schools throughout the country.

With such widespread concern for the state of education in America and for the future of the nation's school children, Obama's speech was the right message to the right audience at the right time.

What could be more appropriate than having the president of the United States stress the value of education to children while they're in school?

What could be more fitting than having schoolchildren hear from someone who made the most of himself because he made the most of his education?

What could be more inspiring to schoolchildren than hearing about the value of education from someone who embodies the American dream?

Unfortunately, schools throughout the country, including my 7-year-old son's, refused to let their students watch the speech. And indignant parents, like my wife and me, were left to ask: "Why can't my son watch a presidential speech about the value of education in a building that values education?"

In too many cases, the banning of Obama's speech came where his words were most needed--in school districts with underachieving schools, where dropout rates are high and where schoolchildren have all but given up on the American dream.

Too often, these schools and students have been abandoned by politicians and by politics. Too often, school boards and principals are bullied by cynical demagogues and delusional conspiracy theorists who are suspicious of education because their arguments are driven by fear and ignorance -- and education exposes those arguments as nothing more than sound and fury.

Jim Greer, the chair of the Republican Party of Florida, said that schoolchildren should not have to listen to the Democratic president's speech because it would "indoctrinate" school children with "socialist ideology," forcing them "to watch the president justify his plans for government-run health care, banks, and automobile companies, increasing taxes on those who create jobs." The nonpartisan fact check Website, Politifact.com called this claim patently dishonest.

Obama, of course, said none of these things in his speech. In fact, he repeated the same themes spoken by President Ronald Reagan in his speech on education in 1986 and by President George H.W. Bush in his speech on education in 1991.

Does this make Reagan a socialist? Could there have been a copy of the Communist Manifesto in Reagan's pocket when he took the inauguration oath or a Karl Marx decoder ring on his right hand when he swore to uphold the Constitution? And how do we know for certain that that was indeed the Bible on which he placed his left hand?

Democrats criticized George H.W. Bush's speech about education to schoolchildren in 1991. Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich, who was then a House whip, defended the president's speech. "Why is it political for the president of the United States to discuss education? It was done at a nonpolitical site and was beamed to a nonpolitical audience," Gingrich said. "They wanted to reach the maximum audience with the maximum effect to improve education."

Some conservatives charge Democrats with being hypocritical because they supported Obama's speech to schoolchildren but opposed Bush's speech to schoolchildren. Democrats, however, may have criticized Bush but they did not call for the banning of his speech.

The difference is not subtle. Criticism is American. Censorship is not. What is the lesson we want to teach our children?

Chris Lamb is a professor of journalism at the College of Charleston.