Grace and American Education: An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

It’s time for you, Mr. President, to remind Americans of the paramount significance of education; how schools concretely—and sublimely—affect our lives, the health of the nation and the greater good of a broader world. As your actions over the past month have shown, sometimes a leader needs to intervene, ignore the point/counterpoint analysis and inspire the efforts of opposing sides toward broader approaches and bolder solutions.

Dear Mr. President,  

Predicated on dissatisfaction for a job half-done, Joseph Thrasher recently took measure of your “Ten Days” in The GuardianHis criticism that recent victories for your administration barely met his expectations for hope and change was, however, penned in a half-hearted “doth protest” tone betrayed by his exhilaration for the pride that Americans could now feel in a president speaking truth to power–the power of both his political opponents and the voting public–on race, health care and marriage equality. This, Thrasher claimed, was the American pride we had been waiting for. 

But please consider that, on the other hand, we are in the tall grass on education—and for many of your political colleagues, that’s right where they want to be. Eight years after NCLB expired in 2007, it takes a coalition of the top education organizations to flush legislators out into debating NCLB/ESEA before leaving on summer recessIn regard to educating our children, we still waiting for that American pride to arrive. 

In the past week, congressional truancy has been compounded by finger-pointing as first Linda Layton tried to shine a positive light on the tenure of Arne Duncan in a profile written for the Washington Post, only to be roundly rebuked by Diane Ravitch in the Huffington Post with Jeff Bryant delivering a not-so-merciful coup de grâce in Salon a few days later. 

In a democracy, one of the most important roles of the fourth estate is to provide an arena for airing our differences, but summary judgments of person have become more than a part of the education debate, they misdirect meaningful deliberation so often that even the most serious of education authorities struggle to resist playing the man and not the ball.

It’s time for you, Mr. President, to remind Americans of the paramount significance of education; how schools concretely—and sublimely—affect our lives, the health of the nation and the greater good of a broader world. As your actions over the past month have shown, sometimes a leader needs to intervene, ignore the point/counterpoint analysis and inspire the efforts of opposing sides toward broader approaches and bolder solutions.

Mr. President, you recently cut through the politics of marriage equality, race and health care by embracing who you are: a progressive African-American president. Now, I ask you to restore dignity to the education debate by embracing other facets of your person, those that define the man before informing the politician. Barack Obama the man is a community organizer, a scholar and a parent. These characteristics amount to a leader who understands and cherishes education. And while one man’s mandate cannot resolve all the problems of education in America, as President, you can deploy your gravitas, never weightier than at this moment, to bring grace back to the debate.

You cannot accomplish this through politics, only by rising above it. Counsel your legislators and your nation by declaring, as John Dewey once did, your pedagogic creed. Add to your legacy a proclamation on education that can unite rather than divide. Chart a course for an education system all of your constituents can follow with pride.

I have drafted some notes for you that I think you will like. Feel free to have your speechwriters crib at will: 

 

President Barack Obama’s Pedagogic Creed, 2015 

  • I believe education must adhere to standards, but as a parent and as scholar, I also believe that every student is an individual, and each deserves the full devotion of resources aimed at evaluating her success as an individual. No other metric matters. We must commit ourselves to providing such attention for every child in America.  
  • I believe that success is not determined by standardized exams: it is determined by choice and fulfillment in college and career, by lifelong civic engagement and by each learner‘s ability to pursue, and then secure, happiness. We must therefore recognize the value of what Dewey dubbed “collateral learning” and give educators the resources and time to build and sustain environments conducive to developing the whole child, the whole human.  
  • I believe that a cadre of teachers who can model and apply these standards is essential to the health of the nation. Teachers must therefore be rigorously trained through selective programs and assessed through individualized performance evaluations. The cost of their training must be absorbed by the state, as also must be the cost of a generous compensation reflective of the work they do for our nation.  
  • I believe America is an experiment in harnessing the power of both public and private endeavors. In education this requires we break the gridlock between these sectors and their supporters and put both to work–in collaboration–at what they excel. Our private sector must be harnessed to explore and innovate, to conduct test studies and research, to analyze results and hone our competitive edge. Our public sector must provide oversight, maintaining financial and social welfare for all educators; it must develop and administrate standards that provide and sustain lifelong learning and security for all those educated within our schools 
  • I believe our schools must bequeath to American students their national and international heritage through history, through the arts, and through music as well as through mathematics, science and technology. Schools are not for making workers; schools are for students, and elevating our citizenry. I believe as a nation of immigrants and the proud descendants of immigrants, our population is international, dynamic and possesses the richest culture known in the history of humankind; ours to relish, protect, and share among ourselves and the other nations of the world 
  • I believe we must recognize that the most effective schools are community schoolsschools that harness the full powers and potential of the public they serve, and in return serve their communities as enduring centers of learning and civic engagement.   
  • I believe we are all accountable for all our schools and for all our students. Borrowing once more the words of John Dewey, I believe “… that the community’s duty to education is […] its paramount moral duty. By law and punishment, by social agitation and discussion, society can regulate and form itself in a more or less haphazard and chance way. But through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move. I believe that when society once recognizes the possibilities in this direction, and the obligations which these possibilities impose, it is impossible to conceive of the resources of time, attention, and money which will be put at the disposal of the educator.”

If I am correct in my belief that you also believe all these things, Mr. President, recite them out loud to our legislators, and to our education reformers and to our advocates. Remind them of the compelling purpose of their services to our children. Lend your grace now, to this other pressing American endeavor. 

Hope and change can come by way of grace. 

 

 


Connect with Bill @wjtolley.

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