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Obama’s Message to Schoolchildren

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When President Obama announced last August that he would address American schoolchildren in a nationwide televised speech, the Right went bananas. August, of course, was the height of the health-care controversy, and conservative leaders and media commentators imagined that Obama was going to make an overt pitch for his quest for government control over medicine and medical insurance, as well as other areas of the economy. The Florida Republican Party, whose chairman led the protest, stated that the children “will be forced to watch the president justify his plans for government-run health care, banks, and automobile companies, increasing taxes on those who create jobs, and racking up more debt than any other president.” Chairman Jim Greer added, “As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.”

Obama’s supporters accused the Republicans and conservatives of alarmism and partisanship, pointing out that President George H.W. Bush had spoken to children by means of a nationwide television broadcast during the school day in 1991. What they didn’t say is that back then Democratic leaders accused Bush of engaging in political advertising. To which, a member of the GOP House leadership, Newt Gingrich, said, “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…. They wanted to reach the maximum audience with the maximum effect to improve education.”

Once again, we see that in politics truth is relative to party. When the top man in my party gives such a speech, it’s a move to advance education. When the top man in your party does the same thing, it’s indoctrination.

What’s interesting in Obama’s case is that partisanship did not determine the outcome. When Greer finally read an advance copy of Obama’s speech, he sounded a different note: “It’s a good speech. It encourages kids to stay in school and the importance of education and I think that’s what a president should do when they’re gonna talk to students across the country.”

There’s just one problem. The speech wasn’t a good speech. Moreover, there are sound reasons to object to the president’s making any speech to assembled schoolchildren. That this leading conservative and Republican gave it high marks shows how much alike conservatives and so-called Progressives really are in their collectivism.

I won’t dwell on the fact that both sides support government-run education, the so-called public schools. It goes without saying that in a free society state schools are objectionable on moral and practical grounds. The propaganda function of state education is obvious. It is hard to envision government’s paying for schools that undermined the legitimacy of the welfare-warfare state that we labor under today. The schools fit logically into the theory that the state is the ultimate parent, indeed, the overseer of the entire population’s welfare. When one rejects that premise, any case for public schooling collapses. My criticism of Obama’s speech, however, goes beyond the critique of “public schooling.”

First, we’ll look at the speech. Although Obama urged the children to develop their talents and succeed for their own sake, he did not leave it at that. Here are the relevant excerpts:

[Education] 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. The future of America depends on you. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future…. We need every single one of you to develop your talents and your skills and your intellect so you can help us old folks 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….

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.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best….

So today, I want to ask all of you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?

Now, 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 and the equipment and the computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part, too. So I expect all of 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 down or your country down. Most of all, don’t let yourself down. Make us all proud….

The Führer Principle

The theme of these excerpts, which were scattered throughout the 2,600-word speech, is that the children don’t just owe it to themselves to succeed in life. They owe it to the country. But in a free society, which the people of the United States think they live in, no one owes anything to the country. What would that even mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that you owe it to others not to commit injustices — such as murder, assault, and robbery — against them. One need not invoke “country” to teach children that. In fact, when government leaders talk about owing things to one’s country, they mean far more than the duty to abstain from violating other people’s freedom. They have in mind positive obligations, such as supporting “the country” uncritically, no matter what it does, even if that includes invading other countries. Of course, here “the country” really means “the government” or the ruling political class.

Invoking children’s duty to country, as Obama did, leaves the subtle message that they are at least partly the property of the government. Why else would they have an obligation to the country to succeed? Why would they be nagged about not letting the country down? Why would they be urged not to give up on themselves because that would mean giving up on their country? What is the point of saddling kids with those burdens? I doubt they will be better at what they do if they imagine themselves as members of Team USA competing, Olympic-style, against other countries in the globalized economy — a bad way to look at the world marketplace.

Ultimately, Obama’s message was collectivist. But — and here’s the irony — it was collectivist in a way that conservatives approve. They scream bloody murder if they think Obama will tell kids to support his health-care “reform.” But if he tells them they should stay in school in order to help the country, they have no problem with that.

To take this a step further, I would like to suggest that any presidential address to schoolchildren is objectionable, regardless of the message. The very appearance of a president before schoolchildren carries the implicit and objectionable lesson that he is their leader. The presidency has come to symbolize “the nation.” Today the occupant of that office is not merely the “chief executive” who enforces the law. He is seen as far more than that. He is seen as the embodiment of the people. Anytime anything big happens — even if it’s the death of a pop star — the president is expected to express the people’s feelings. It’s as if our own private reactions to events are incomplete until he appears in public and speaks.

This, I submit, has no place in a free society. It is, in fact, a mild, democratized version of the Führer (leader) Principle. I am not saying that Obama aspires to be another Hitler (neither did George W. Bush before him). What I am saying is that the common attitude toward any White House occupant is to regard him as the pinnacle of a national hierarchy. He is The Leader. His family is even called “the first family.”

That is the Führer Principle. You can see it in those who think the president is their commander in chief. Republicans said it about Bush, and I’ve heard at least one Democrat say it about Obama. After he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama described himself as commander in chief of the country. Never mind that under the Constitution the president is the commander in chief not of the American people but only of the armed forces, which is considerably different.

In his speech Obama played on the Führer Principle when he said, “I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books and the equipment and the computers you need to learn.” He’s not doing that personally, of course, but as Louis XIV of France said, “L’etat c’est moi” — I am the state.

No parent who cherishes freedom would bring his children up to believe that a president — any president — is their leader. Conservatives had no objection to that message. Once again, they show their true collectivist (nationalist) colors.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.