By Mark Anthony Neal, NewBlackMan
President Obama's planned address to the nation's school children on Tuesday has generated criticism as some of his political opponents argue that he is using the opportunity to, at best, infect America's classrooms with partisan politics and, at worst, indoctrinate them with a radical and "socialist" agenda. Never before has such an address been subject to the kind of scrutiny that the president's rather innocuous call for good grades and a stay in school mentality has. There is little doubt that the uproar over the president's address is just further evidence of efforts by some to try to delegitimize the presidency of Barack Obama -- like those in the birthers movement -- and a desire by political opponents to deny Obama any political goodwill in the midst of a heated debate over health care.
I'd like to suggest that some of the apprehensions surrounding the president's speech are also the product of a general feeling among America's parents that they have lost control of the message when it comes to instilling their children with homegrown values.
The idea of a sitting president addressing school children should be openly embraced by all citizens as an opportunity for the ultimate civics lesson. Yet some parents are planning to boycott schools the day of the president's speech and some school districts are offering parents the chance to opt-out of the nationwide event. As one parent recently told "The Michael Berry Show," a conservative talk radio show in Houston, TX, "my rights as a parent are being circumvented so this president can speak to my children. My children will not be going to school." Rights as a parent being circumvented? Is the president discussing religion or some other issue that is clearly out of bounds in the nation's public schools? What gives? Why is the president given a power that Oklahoma State Senator Steve Russell describes as a "cult of personality... something you'd expect to see in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein's Iraq?" What explains such irrational responses?
I disagreed strongly with many of President Bush's domestic and foreign policy initiatives, especially his version of educational reform, "No Child Left Behind." Even as I waged battles with various school officials over "NCLB" and its impact on my children, I can't imagine that, at any point, I would have been fearful of my children hearing a speech by the president behind such a policy. Like most parents, I send my children to school every day with the expectation that I have instilled them with an understanding of our family's values and respect for others. Of course it's an everyday battle, but whether it's at the dinner table, while doing homework or while riding in the minivan after school, I, like many parents, use such opportunities to debrief, hopefully developing children who have the regular ability to accept information that is valuable to them while rejecting and respectfully disagreeing with that which is not. It's an act of faith that is a regular part of good parenting; we simply can't control all of the information that targets our children.
President Obama is an easy target for the fears many of us have about our children being bombarded daily by media images and subliminal advertising that we feel powerless to protect them from. Politics and irrational behavior aside, for those parents who are concerned and disturbed about the president's address, the Disney Channel and X-Box are far more likely to indoctrinate their children.
Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African American Studies at Duke University and the parent of two daughters, ages 11 and 6.