A Unitarian Univeralist Minister Speaks Out Re: Obama’s Speech to Students

September 5, 2009

An Account of My Conversation with the Danville School Superintendent

by Andy Burnette, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Community Church , Danville, IN 

I was pleased to hear early this week that the president would be addressing the nation’s school-aged children. Via a live national broadcast, President Obama would be talking about staying in school and setting goals for education. The address, the first one since George H.W. Bush did the same thing in 1991, would be a real-time civics lesson for the youth of our communities, and it couldn’t come at a more important time.

It didn’t take long for the huffiness to begin. Obama is trying to brainwash our children, he’s campaigning to first graders, and on and on and on. As often happens, the misinformed wheel began getting the grease as school system after school system said they wouldn’t show the address live, refusing to allow our students to watch the broadcast for fear of students receiving some venomous political message for which their parents and teachers had no antidote. After hearing this speech, children would wander our small-town streets smoking skinny French cigarettes, berets tilted on their little socialist heads, granting each other health care and killing one another’s grandmothers.

When I heard that my son’s school system in Danville wasn’t showing the broadcast, I called the superintendent, Dr. Dennis Ward, for an explanation. I left a message with his secretary and, on a busy Friday before a holiday weekend, Dr. Ward returned my call about an hour later.

Dr. Ward explained with grace that his office had been inundated with calls which were split about 50/50. Half the callers said they would keep their children home if the school system showed the speech. The other half demanded the speech be shown. I asked to be counted in the latter half, but Dr. Ward said he had already handled the issue. He had allowed his principals to make the decision for each building.

At the high school, teachers will be free to show or not show the speech, depending on whether it fit with the lesson for the day. The elementary school principals decided not to show it since it didn’t fit with the lessons for the day. And, Dr. Ward said, any outside resource that wasn’t a part of the school system’s curriculum was evaluated on whether it fit the subject currently being taught and whether it met state teaching standards. Since superintendents won’t be able to view and evaluate the speech until Monday, a day before the Tuesday broadcast, the schools would tape the speech and be free to use it in the classroom on appropriate days.

There are many jobs I would take before I would become a school superintendent in a week like this one. Alligator wrestler and parachute tester come to mind. Dr. Ward is a kind man who loves our children. I’d imagine many school superintendents are, like him, good people stuck in a very difficult situation.

But don’t we lose something when the broadcast is taped rather than shown live to children across the country then discussed in class? Why not offer excused absences and show the speech for the 50 percent of people who want our children to see it? Can we take a break from teaching to state standards when big things happen in our world? And why is it that these people got the speech kicked out of schools with a few phone calls, but it took lawsuits to get prayer out of schools, and there are still ‘In God We Trust’ signs all over Danville classrooms? Doesn’t that demonstrate a bias toward conservatives? If a few of us call, will those signs go down?

And I have more, bigger, questions. What kind of country are we when we refuse to allow our students to listen to the president talk about staying in school, but we send them off to risk their lives in a contrived, piecemeal war in Iraq? I’ve even heard some people suggest we should keep politics and political figures out of schools! I’d imagine our government and social studies teachers would have something to say about that. Do we really want another generation of Americans who have little or no understanding of our political system? Worse, do we want another generation of Americans who are so disenfranchised and cynical about our system that they just turn it over to the ruling class again?

We live in a nation so divided that we no longer seem to have any trust in our highest elected office. Someone, at some point, some public figure, will need to stand up and say something like, ‘This is a presidential address, and regardless how much fear and mistrust and misinformation there is, our kids are going to hear it.’ Someone is going to have to show our kids that our political system is important, that the president of the United States of America is worth paying attention to.