precedents for presidential speeches to schoolchildren

There is a huge controversy about whether President Obama should make a speech to students (and whether schools should show it). I don’t dismiss the criticisms as merely partisan or paranoid; I can understand that direct speech by the nation’s most powerful man would provoke concerns, especially for people who trust and admire this president much less than I do. Still, I favor the speech. If you assume it will have some political significance because an elected official will speak, you might consider the evidence that statements by authority figures do not persuade kids to agree, but rather provoke them to have critical conversations.* Too often, we keep civic and political issues out of schools because they offend some parents, and then we create zones free of civic discourse.

At the same time, Obama’s speech is likely to have minimal political content. It will mostly be an exhortation by the head of state to study hard. Barack Obama has some potential to motivate students academically, which seems beneficial if it works.

Whatever you think about this particular case, you should know that there is absolutely nothing new about such an address. Before TV, presidents often issued proclamations to American school children that were intended to be read in all schools. For instance, Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed in 1907:

    To the School Children of the United States … If you neglect to prepare yourselves not for the duties and responsibilities which will fall upon you later, if you do not learn the things which you will need to know when your school days are over, you will, suffer the consequences. So any nation which in its youth lives only for the day, reaps without sowing, and consumes without husbanding, must expect the penalty of the prodigal, whose labor could with difficulty find him the bare means of life.

Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation to be read to American schoolchildren at the beginning of the school year, Sept. 15, 1917. He said, “every pupil in the United States can find a chance to serve our country. The school is the natural centre of your life. Through it you can best work in the great cause of freedom to which we have all pledged ourselves.”

I assume many more such speeches could be found–I located these two in 15 minutes of web searching.

More recently, in the age of modern communications, Ronald Reagan made a speech that was nationally broadcast on TV and radio and intended for students in American classrooms. The first president Bush made a speech intended to be watched in schools that also boosted his administration’s education policy. And the second president Bush provided “parents and teachers’ guides” that encouraged students to read his biography and that of Dick Cheney.

We seem to have survived all this–not just the power of the presidency reaching into our humble schoolhouses, but also the use of instructional time for anodyne messages from our heads of state. If this particular controversy creates a precedent, it will not be the idea that presidents can address the nation’s children. (They have done that for at least a century.) It will rather be the principle that irate citizens can block elected officials whom they don’t like from being seen or heard in schools–and that would be another blow to civic education.

*E.g., Yates and Youniss find that a powerful dose of Catholic social doctrine does not convert predominantly Protestant African American students, but provokes them to reflect on their own values. McDevitt and colleagues (in a series of papers including this one) find that political debates in school stimulate critical discussions in the home. Colby et al. find that interactive political courses at the college level, although taught by liberal professors, do not move the students in a liberal direction but deepen their understanding of diverse perspectives.