The problem with Obama's speech to kids: It's bland

Students won't learn anything from another bromide about hard work. Why not teach them how to be more engaged citizens, starting with the war in Afghanistan?

Here's a quick quiz in preparation for President Obama's speech to America's students today. To succeed in school and in life, you should:

a. work hard

b. set goals for yourself

c. take responsibility for your own actions

d. all of the above

The correct answer is "d," of course. But every American kid knows that already.

And that's the real problem with the president's message, which will be broadcast live on the White House website and on C-SPAN: It's bland, neutral, and mind-numbingly obvious. You can't even imagine a cogent objection to it.

Of course, that hasn't stopped GOP firebrands from trying. In the blogosphere, especially, Republicans have charged that Mr. Obama's speech will indoctrinate students with his supposedly "socialist" views. Across the country, parents have demanded that schools obtain their permission before showing Obama's speech to their children; others have announced that they will simply keep their kids home today.

But there's nothing socialist – or even partisan – about Obama's speech. If you think otherwise, go online and read the text of the speech or the White House's suggested classroom activities to accompany it. One exercise asks children to make a poster of their goals; another instructs each student to "brainstorm" about what qualities promote personal success. Not a word about Obama's positions on healthcare, taxes, or anything else.

And that's precisely the problem here. To really learn, our kids need to confront the real dilemmas that grip our country. No one will learn anything new from yet another bromide about hard work and personal responsibility; instead, they'll tune out.

So how about using this week to teach our children something they don't know?

Consider our ongoing war in Afghanistan, which appears to be losing its support at home. Fewer than half of Americans now say they approve of Obama's handling of Afghanistan, where he has pledged to increase troop levels. Indeed, 41 percent say they want the troops to start coming home, up from 33 percent in April and 24 percent in February.

Are they right? I don't know, myself. But here's what I do know: Our kids need to be reading, talking, and thinking about the answer. Some of them will become soldiers one day, of course, but all of them will become citizens. And they will have to sort these things out for themselves.

What better time than this week? Just three days after Obama's school speech, after all, the nation will commemorate the eighth anniversary of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The 9/11 attacks remain at the heart of America's rationale for fighting in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda planned and financed them.

That's why Obama referred to 9/11 no fewer than five times in his address last March justifying increased troop commitments to Afghanistan. Unless we root out terrorists and rebuild Afghanistan, the argument goes, we will always remain in peril.

I'm not sure I buy that. But I'd like to hear the president make the case for it directly to our young people. And, most of all, I'd like to hear them respond.

That would bring even more of Obama's enemies out of the woodwork, of course, braying about propaganda and indoctrination. But any teacher worth her salt would expose students to arguments against the president's position, insisting that the kids formulate their own.

And to do that, of course, they would have to learn something about the history of the conflict. How many American children know that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, for example, or that the United States supported the anti-Soviet mujahadeen? How many kids could even find Afghanistan on a map?

As soon as the president has finished his dull speech about hard work and personal responsibility, let's get down to the truly hard work of teaching our children how to be citizens. We need to give them the information and skills to debate and decide the most pressing issues of our time, including the war in Afghanistan. That's our biggest responsibility, as adults, and we all need to remember it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."

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