My junior high school daughter brought home a letter from her principal last Friday. In it he laid out the school's response to the Obama education speech today. Some teachers would show the speech in their classes. Students whose parents didn't want them to see it could opt out. Students who wanted to see it but whose teachers didn't show the speech could watch it during flex time.
At the end of the letter he added a bit of boilerplate about the importance of schools in training citizens in a democracy. Pleasant Grove JHS takes its responsibility to teach about democracy seriously, he wrote. because it does so he encouraged parents to teach their students about the importance of civic engagement. Or, seen in light of the school's waffling on the speech, "teach your kids about citizenship because you've made us so afraid that we won't do it."
Politicians have a long history of using schools to spoon out pablum about the value of education. In the 80's Reagan Administration officials visited schools on Martin Luther King Day (once it passed against their wishes) as if that somehow marked his legacy meaningfully. The recent President Bush was in a classroom in Florida when airplanes hit the twin towers. First ladies have spent countless hours reading in elementary schools. Candidates hold stump speeches in high school auditoriums all the time.
What do all of these instances suggest about the power of politicians talking to students? That they have almost no influence because their message (always some variant of "work hard in school--you are our future") is so weak that everyone suspects it to be a front for some secret nefarious hidden goal--to gut public education through NCLB, or to undermine the radical power of the civil rights movement, or, today, to establish socialism.
In other words, I'm suggesting that the educational pandering of politicians and the fear of educational conspiracies are tied together in an endless feedback loop. More pandering leads to more fear which leads, of course, to more pandering (at least on those occasions when a political leader manages to end up in a school).
How do we break the cycle? Probably not through more teaching about democracy, which is only a step removed from hypocrisy at the outset. And not by avoiding the subject by keeping controversy at arm's length. (This is Utah's speciality, where we value "nice" above nearly any other virtue.) Instead, I would suggest renewed attention to educational hospitality.
By hospitality I mean "welcome of guests." But I mean it in a deeper sense than merely opening school doors. I mean that schools (K-12 and HE) need to develop a commitment to welcoming outsiders (be they politicians, immigrants, community members or other outsiders), listening to them, and breaking bread with them. This commitment must be part of a school's DNA--built into their recruitment of students, their sporting events, their educational programs, their learning goals.
For as start down this path I would recommend Elizabeth Newman's essay, "Hotel or Home? Hospitality in Higher Education," in Budde and Wright, eds. Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society. Newman's title suggests her argument--that schools are like hotels, keeping students, their parents, and matters of import at a pleasant arm's length. Instead they need the grittier engagement with other people who are at once strangers and fellow-citizens in the community of school.