Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Barack Obama and William Perry: Two Theories of Education

Before I get to my thoughts on Barack Obama's speech to school children (which you asked for), let me briefly note that as of today I am the creator and subject of a new website designed to aid me in my quest for full time employment as a college professor. Your feedback is welcome (particularly if you are a departmental administrator looking for an early Americanist).

Now--as to President Obama's speech. I think there are two important points that should be made up front:

1. This was not a new idea. The first President Bush and President Reagan both delivered addresses to school children.
2. This was not a politicized speech. There were no partisan statements in there; in fact, the most political sentence was his suggestion that "maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team." Hardly a call to elect activist judges and socially liberal government officials.

Obama's speech was full of run-of-the-mill inspirational stories and phrases; his "theory of education" was anything but exceptional, promising that success would follow hard work. Notwithstanding the rather blasé nature of his address, conservative commentators across the country were up in arms over Obama's alleged attempt to introduce socialism into our schools. Given the precedents of Republican presidents Bush and Reagan (about which these conservative commentators surely would not have complained, any more than they would have complained if it was President McCain addressing the kiddies instead of President Obama), I can only assume that these shining stars opposed Obama's speech because of his political party. This is to say that those who condemned Obama's speech in advance view the political spectrum as a dualistic system: There is a party of truth (Republicans in this case) and a party of error (the Democrats).

This dualistic reaction to President Obama's speech on education got me thinking about another educational theorist (okay, Obama's not an educational theorist; work with me, people) named William Perry. Perry studied male college students at Harvard and concluded that between adolescence and adulthood, we pass through four (nine actually, but this is a simplified model) intellectual phases:

1. Dualism. Adolescents see the world in black and white. There is no gray; everything is either right or wrong.
2. Multiplicity. There are lots of different viewpoints, but they are all equally valid. You have your opinion, I have mine, and it takes all kinds of nuts and dips to make a party.
3. Relativism. The merits and drawbacks of different opinions are recognized, but this recognition does not lead the investigator to alter his or her original position.
4. Commitment. Having analyzed the pros and cons of each alternative carefully, the individual makes an informed decision as to their relative merits and makes a commitment to the most sensible alternative

Now, it seems to me that President Obama's speech--and the cries of socialism that it prompted--are pretty good evidence that the two party system has promoted appallingly adolescent political thinking: "Obama is giving a speech to school children. Obama is a Democrat/socialist. Therefore, giving a speech to school children must be wrong." If commentators dislike Obama's healthcare plan or his approach to affairs of state, they should say so; but who, having rationally considered the precedents, pros, and cons, can oppose a presidential speech to school children in the way that Obama's address was opposed? Where has reason gone?

My interest in an issues-based politics (an approach which recognizes that the Democratic and Republican parties both may and do take positions that I support/oppose) as oppposed to the partisan politics that now predominates has led me to cheer like mad for the Blue-Dog Democrats. I cheer not because I think that Blue-Dog Democrats stand for TRUTH any more than regular Democrats and Republicans (I don't)--but because I believe that the emergence of a third, substantial bloc of Congressional power will lead voters (and maybe even commentators!) away from the adolescent and dualistic approach that now prevails. Hopefully Democrats will think "Blue Dogs stand for social liberty...they can't be all bad. Let me weigh the pros and cons of their position on X issue," and Republicans will think "Blue Dogs stand for fiscal restraint...they can't be all bad. Let me with the pros and cons of their position on X issue."

Maybe then American politics will grow out of its ugly adolescence into an admirable and mature adulthood. Hey, it happened to me. Anything's possible.


Aaron H. said...

Love the website.

Jo Jo said...

We were upset because of the study questions that were dispersed to educators to discuss with children regarding the speech. After the outcry about those, the questions weren't as relevant as his speech changed, for the better. The people spoke and he had to listen. Talking to children isn't wrong. Educating them, like Hitler did to the youth, is very wrong. Not once in his speech did he refer to the family or parents or going to them for help.

Jo Jo said...

Great website! Love the pictures! I do think a few of the sections that have words overlaying pictures need to be revamped so the words all begin under the picture, not along the side of it. Also, I think the text is too large, and I don't like that font. Last, there needs to be a link on all your pages to get you back to the main page again. Did I miss that? Eventually you want a link to your CV in full for access to publications, presentations, associations, etc. in full.

Jenny said...

What service! Thank you for your thoughts.
You have truly grown into an admirable and mature adulthood. May American Politics do the same.
Cheers, Zach.

Becky said...

Due to lack of TV...I didn't get to watch it. Our school did not show it to the kids - they will at a later date. I appreciate your insights. Incidentally...I'm proud of the man you have grown into. I love you Zach! :)

Jo Jo said...

Hey, found your CV etc. Sorry about that. Jarrod saw BYU had a full time English position open, did you? It's a great website, especially with you looking for a job at BYU. Also, if you want a motto, found one from Benjamin Franklin: "If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing."

Anonymous said...

I loved your post. I totally agree with you and your insight. People have to create partisan angst for nothing. We should all say to children: work hard, stay in school, ect. Of course, then there is agency.
I love you mom

Anonymous said...

I just came across your site...who is William Perry? I live in the East and have no clue. Like your site.

The Mormon Monk said...

Anonymous, you can learn more about William Perry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_G._Perry.

Hope you enjoy!