Obama is coming to indoctrinate your children

Some on the right claim that the president's scheduled address to public schoolers will be political

Published September 3, 2009 12:01AM (EDT)

Next week, President Obama will address the nation's public school children. They may or may not end up happy about it -- a lecture on why education's really important doesn't always go over so well -- but on the right, there's already a lot of unhappiness, and some accusations that the speech is really about politics and indoctrination.

"I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology," Jim Greer, the chair of Florida's Republican Party, said in a press release. "The idea that school children across our nation will be forced to watch the President justify his plans for government-run health care, banks, and automobile companies ... is not only infuriating, but goes against beliefs of the majority of Americans, while bypassing American parents through an invasive abuse of power .... President Obama has turned to American’s children to spread his liberal lies, indoctrinating American’s youngest children before they have a chance to decide for themselves."

Greer isn't alone in feeling this way. Blogger and columnist Michelle Malkin claimed Obama's trying to create "junior lobbyists," and wrote that "parents have every right to worry about their children being used as Political Guinea Pigs for Change." She also took the opportunity to remind her readers of Obama's connection to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, suggesting that it's really his plan to radicalize school children that's being put in effect. And Gary Bauer, a leader of the religious right, told supporters, "the Obama Administration is using its power in unprecedented ways, this time injecting itself into the nation’s classrooms. Tuesday may be a good day to sit in on your child’s classes." There have also been suggestions in some quarters that parents should simply hold their children back from school that day.

This isn't the first time a president has addressed U.S. public school students, and it's not the first time there've been accusations of politicization, either. President George H.W. Bush gave a similar talk in 1991, PolitiFact notes. At the time, then House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt said, "The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students." (As PolitiFact also notes, Newt Gingrich defended Bush's speech.)

So clearly there's room to question the need and the utility for a speech like this, and to wonder whether it really will inspire students to work harder. But the indoctrination accusation simply doesn't hold up -- it's clear from the material the Department of Education has released thus far that Obama won't be talking politics. In a letter to principals, Education Secretary Arne Duncan explained, "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."

But the Department of Education has already started giving in to the pressure, changing some of the language that critics had focused on. In material for teachers about possible lesson plans to follow up on the president's address, there was originally a suggestion that students could, "Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president."

In context, it's clear that was an attempt to get kids to think of working hard in school as something they were doing not just for themselves, but for the president -- and not politically, either. But that's not how Obama's opponents saw it. So now the sentence has now been revised to "Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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