Wednesday, September 2, 2009

President Obama and Intellectual Bingo

President Obama's upcoming address to the nation's students has evoked an array of anticipatory responses ranging from unbridled enthusiasm to unchecked angst. The speech, to be delivered at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, on September 8, at 12:00 noon, EST, will be broadcast via C-SPAN, and made available for viewing at the White House website.

Much of the skeptics' hand wringing is driven by speculation that the immensely charismatic and (still) popular (especially among the young) President plans to inject partisan politics into the classroom, thereby (inappropriately) influencing impressionable young minds.

According to a recent letter to principals written by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: "The President will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning. He will also call for a shared responsibility and commitment on the part of students, parents and educators to ensure that every child in every school receives the best education possible so they can compete in the global economy for good jobs and live rewarding and productive lives as American citizens."

On its face, that doesn't sound like much of a partisan message. In fact, such desiderata reflect elements of culture largely taken for granted in private schools. Moreover, if the late Senator Edward Kennedy and former President George W. Bush could reach agreement on the key elements of the No Child Left Behind Act, surely, all of us can concur that parents, teachers, and students ought to be partners in learning.

Yet, because the President is, inescapably, a political figure, and because the current political landscape is so highly charged and deeply polarized, anything appearing on Mr. Obama's teleprompter will invariable be characterized by some as, " unconscionable intrusion of politics into education."

To the extent that President Obama's address is perceived as an insidious means of political indoctrination and recruitment, wary parents might consider the option afforded by a local private school. All public school parents might do better, however, to pay less heed to the subtleties of a once-in-a-blue-moon presidential exhortation, than to the ubiquitous array of extra-curricular political messages to which their children are exposed on any given day of the school year. To take liberty with Forrest Gump's memorable quip, when it comes to values, sending a child to a public school is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.

Speaking at a 2005 Colloquium on Private School Accountability, UC Berkeley Emeritus Professor of Law John E. Coons hit the nail squarely on the head when he wondered aloud whether, "...all public teachers spread the same message regarding guns, pre-marital sex, assisted suicide, stem cell research, the treatment of animals, vegetarianism, cutting redwoods, capital punishment, just war, competition, drugs, money, the authority of parents, gay marriage, school taxes, gender roles, redistribution of wealth, and television. How much do we actually know about the consistency of public teaching on these kinds of issues?" Concluding that "public school is intellectual bingo," Professor Coons suggested that a chief advantage of a private education is that the values, beliefs, and ideals a given private school seeks to transmit are likely to be transparent and consistent.

Of course, not all private schools seek to inculcate a particular set of values and beliefs, and many a fine school follows a philosophy that accords primacy to the means by which values and beliefs are clarified and appropriated, rather than any preferred set of conclusions. But instruction in such schools is no less systematic, and students are rarely confused by authority figures who present conflicting value positions absent a thorough consideration of evidence and/or philosophical underpinnings.

If I were a public school parent, I'd be less concerned about what the President actually says next Tuesday, than about what my child's teachers say he meant.

(Posted by Ron Reynolds, Executive Director, California Association of Private School Organizations)