On Tuesday, President Obama will speak to American students, following upon the precedents set by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Reagan when they too spoke to American students. At St. Gregory, we have made no plans to air these remarks, not because we are opposed to doing so, but because we just have many other things going on and because we don’t see a great educational value in his intended topics.
But I can easily imagine we might have decided to show it, and had we done so, we would have gone ahead proudly, knowing that we were doing this for President Obama in exactly the way we would have done for a President McCain. Although I was not here last winter, St. Gregory students did gather in the theater to view the inauguration ceremony for several hours last January.
Below is a letter sent to his constituents by a Florida Head of School, Mark Heller. His comments have been passed along to member schools of the National Association of Independent Schools, with the implicit endorsement of our association President, Pat Bassett. I think they speak very well to the issue at hand, and I think they represent very effectively what I believe to be the views of many educational leaders, independent school educators, and many of us in the academic leadership at St. Gregory.
Dear Academy Families:
A small number of our families this week inquired about whether we intend to show our students President Obama’s upcoming speech to our nation’s school children. Some families have requested that their children be removed from such a presentation; others have requested that we show the speech. We do not intend to show a live broadcast of the speech. Our reason is that we don’t think it’s really intended for students like ours, as it is designed to be a message about staying in school, about taking responsibility to do your homework and encouraging all students to accept the value system of school and the idea that being a good student will lead to improvement in your life. Almost all of our students have internalized this message long ago. Still, I feel a need to comment about the idea of viewing a presidential speech and requests for children to opt out of viewing a speech.
We very much want to engage our students about the world around them and about taking part in our democratic system. We feel that they ought to learn about our national issues and hear perspectives on those issues regardless of which party’s philosophy they might endorse. As an administration, we see a big problem in our country today – that, as a nation, we are not very good right now at engaging in civil discussion and disagreement about the policies and political philosophies that are being “debated” in the public square.
We very much want our school to be a place where our students learn to listen to all sides of a debate and engage in questioning, answering, and exploring, but always in a polite and civil tone. We do not want our students to become liberals. We do not want our students to become conservatives. We want them to learn how to listen respectfully, how to question respectfully, and how to come to their own opinions and votes while respecting those who may come to different conclusions. We want them to learn how to be citizens. In order to do that, they have to be exposed to different points of view. We would like them to study those points of view.
If we were to show the President’s speech, we would hope that those families who disagree with the President’s comments would engage their children in discussion about what the President says, and that they will in turn provide (and teach) their own countervailing views. When you do so, please also reinforce rules of respect and polite civil discourse. (“We disagree with the President because . . .” )
We want our students to learn that patriots can disagree about policy choices in a democracy while still loving their country and wanting the best for all of her people. Opting out of hearing a speech by the President or a member of the clergy from a different religion or any opinionated speaker does not serve the goal of learning about others and, eventually, yourself. We believe that our students’ education is well-served by exploration and engagement about issues, not by refusing to even hear opposing views.
As a school, we are absolutely fine with our students disagreeing with whomever is President and voicing that disagreement, even publicly, as long as every student shows respect to every speaker and every event that they attend. We want all of our students to know that they have the right to disagree with the President or their Congressman or the Governor, and that they have many appropriate avenues in which to voice that disagreement, including their vote.
Our democracy needs its young people. But before they turn 18 they ought to learn how to be better citizens and better participants than the models they see in their daily swim through our culture’s waters. The Academy at the Lakes educational experience will help them learn how to participate with respect for others, respect for ideas, and respect for our country, the greatest nation on Earth.