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Education & Schooling

BACK-TO–SCHOOL SPEECH/ Obama after Reagan and Bush Sr.

The back-to-school speech that President Obama issued to students in American schools was new in several ways. It is interesting to compare it with the ones given by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush respectively in 1988 and in 1991.  


On September 8, 2009, President Obama issued a back-to-school speech to students in American schools. This speech was novel in several ways. It was the first presidential speech to be delivered live to students of all levels across the nation. It was the first national presidential speech to students in 18 years. It was the first speech to come with a curricula prepared by the Department of Education for students from pre-Kindergarten through high school. It was the first time that a president spoke directly to students in his first year in office. President Obama's African-American heritage is another first, one that has raised the question of racism with the negative reaction of many before the speech was delivered.

In addition to the novel elements of the speech, there have been a range of cultural shifts since Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush spoke to students in schools (1988, 1991). The No Child Left Behind program of George W. Bush has put national pressure on schools to conform to national standards and improvement in scores on standardized tests in exchange for national funds. In the United States, public schools have historically been run at the state level, so the No Child Left Behind program has weakened provincial control in favor of a more centralized approach.

During this time, private schools have won access to more state funding, and have likewise moved toward the same national standards as public schools. And while institutional schooling has become more nationalized, increasing numbers of parents with diverse political ideologies have opted out of institutions and chosen instead to homeschool their children. Both teachers and parents have resisted the emphasis on standardized testing in the schools.

Another cultural shift has been increased ideological polarization and the lack of a decisive majority in recent presidential elections. A president who wins 53% of the popular vote must win over a sizable minority following the election.

Liberal commentators have said that the negative reaction to the president's plan to address students demonstrates an underlying racism on the part of conservative critics. No doubt, the United States has a long history of negative attitudes toward African Americans, and these attitudes are found in all demographics: rich and poor, conservative and liberal, northern and southern. President Obama has downplayed the impact of these racial attitudes and instead consistently makes appeals to positive ideals. As the first Black man to be President of the United States, President Obama will challenge our prejudices and those feelings which are deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Political dissenters (on the left and the right) will also need to strive for a higher level of civility and courtesy and be attentive to these subconscious attitudes.

Because of the increased diffusion of technology in classrooms, more students likely heard this speech than heard the national speeches of Reagan and the senior Bush. When I read President Obama's speech, I felt that it really echoed the optimistic sentiments of Ronald Reagan. Bypassing the experts to speak directly to people, President Obama spoke of opportunity and the importance of individual effort. He appealed to students to really put themselves into their own education and to take responsibility for their education and the future of America.

Looking back at Reagan's 1988 speech, I see that Obama sounds more like Reagan than Reagan did there. In his speech, Reagan was more interested in solidifying his legacy in the context of the American founding and urging students to remember that in the United States, the people give power to the government. Delivered in November, following the election of his successor, Reagan's speech looks ahead to a future in which faith and morality will continue to regulate human behavior, no matter what technological changes come.

Instead, Obama's speech is more similar to Bush's 1991 speech, a year before he lost to President Clinton. Both tell stories of specific students who overcame circumstances to succeed, and both stress personal responsibility for education. In a very savvy way, President Obama also makes references to pop culture, not merely to pander to students' interests but more so to challenge them to be innovators and not merely consumers of technology.

Many of the older students who heard President Obama this year will vote for him or for someone else in 2012 (when they're 18 or older). For the rest, who knows what effect this presidential encounter will have on their own education and on their adult life as American citizens?


Barack Obama Prepared Remarks

Of President Barack Obama (Wakefield High School). Back to School Event, Arlington, Virginia September 8, 2009

Department of Education

Page with links to Lesson Plans: Pre K-6, and 7-12 

Ronald Reagan Remarks

And a Question-and-Answer Session With Area Junior High School Students November 14, 1988. http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1988/111488c.htm

George H.W. Bush Remarks

To Students and Faculty at Alice Deal Junior High School October 1, 1991 http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/research/public_papers.php?id=3450&year=1991&month=10

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