It was refreshing to hear our president, often accused of being a socialist, speak to students earlier in the week about the truly American virtue of individual responsibility. Although I am not an Obama supporter, I was impressed with the sincere empathy he showed to kids who come from difficult family settings. President Obama knows firsthand what it's like to rise above an unfortunate home life. And he really got my attention when he said, "What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future."
The president went on to define those challenges as finding cures for diseases, developing new energy and environmental technologies, addressing societal issues like homelessness and discrimination, making our nation "more fair and free," and building new companies.
I thought Obama did a good job of inspiring his listeners, and they seemed to receive the youthful leader with enthusiasm. It was good stuff, but I felt uneasy.
In his closing remarks, President Obama reminded his young audience that their parents and teachers are working hard to support them. He added, "I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment, and computers you need to learn." Yes, that bothers me because such action does not fall within the constitutional guidelines for a president of the United States, and in this case, he did not present himself as a good role model.
Why is it that our president and federal representatives on both sides of the aisle seem to pay little attention to the constitutional limits of their offices? I think it's a failure of the modern education system that was strongly influenced by early progressives like John Dewey (1859-1952). A prolific writer, Dewey had, and has, an outsized influence on education and education departments at colleges and universities where our nation's teachers are trained to teach.
Dewey was preoccupied with social change. In his book, John Dewey and the Decline of American Education, Henry T. Edmondson notes that Dewey thought "to pursue change through politics can be frustratingly slow; using education to change the world is far more efficient. The ultimate result of such change is political and social transformation."
In order to bring about change, Dewey advocated for jettisoning educational methods and curricula proven effective throughout the ages. He also found religion, objective truth, and documents like the Constitution to be too constraining. Rather than teaching timeless truths, values, and knowledge to children, Dewey thought that teachers and children should be free to pursue all kinds of educational experimentation to find truth for themselves---a never-ending pursuit of social change through the lens of a socialist worldview. Such an education program would seem to lead a nation toward a condition of civic illiteracy. And when a nation no longer understands its national values, well, the Constitution is nothing more than a restraint that stands in the way of social change.
This is the condition of the United States today. We Americans are woefully lacking in knowledge about the heritage of our country---most of us cannot pass a basic civic literacy test, and our politicians seem to find our Constitution much too restraining for their liking.
We need to ask ourselves, "What is the content of the education we are offering our children and how will they confront the greatest challenges of the future with the education we are giving them?" I am thankful that on Tuesday President Obama was truly inspiring in speaking about individual responsibility and was empathetic to those who have a tough life. I would be even more grateful if he would be as enthusiastic about education reform as he is about healthcare reform. Because education will decide the future of this country.