Presidents and Pupils Don't Mix

Yes, the right's complaints about Obama's schoolhouse chat are cynical and paranoid. But there is a reasoned case for keeping him—and any president—out of the classroom.

09.06.09 10:29 PM ET

Once during my years at Our Lady Queen of Angels Elementary School, a teacher showed my class a Mass that Pope John Paul II gave especially for Catholic children like us. We were young enough to believe that God chose this man to lead our faith, that he could condemn any of us to Hell through excommunication, and that unlike any other man on earth, the words he uttered were infallible—which didn’t prevent our rushing from the classroom when the lunch bell rang midway through the Betamax cassette.

Asked that afternoon to name the subject of the pope’s homily, 30-some forgetful kids faced the teacher with downcast eyes. I’ll wager my childhood rosary that President Barack Obama fares no better Tuesday upon addressing America’s schoolchildren. I can’t remember what the man said last time I heard him speak. Is there any chance that a future high-school dropout is going to be influenced by his anodyne remarks about staying in school?

I object to the automatic elevation of presidents generally to the role of “trusted moral leader.” So I wish President Obama and all his successors would eschew that role, rather than entrenching its precedent more deeply.

You’d think that after Just Say No and abstinence-only education, Americans would be skeptical that children’s behavior can be influenced by a single presidential address. But the mainstream position turns out to be that this isn’t a tremendous waste of time—a conclusion that is sensible only compared to fringe conservative fears that come Tuesday, the impressionable kids playing cops and robbers might switch to playing the smear the capitalist.

What vexes me most about the cynical, paranoid reactions among some conservatives is how difficult their rhetoric makes it to ponder open-mindedly whether presidents should ever address schoolchildren.

Upon reflection, I’d prefer that they didn’t.

Mark McKinnon: Flunk the Far RightIt isn’t merely that public-school students and commanders in chief both face impossibly tight schedules wherein some important subjects go unaddressed, or that the time it takes would be better spent learning mathematics or gathering up loose nukes.

My larger objection is that directly addressing schoolchildren on most matters is a role for which every president is ill-suited. We’re all agreed, after all, that President Obama’s speech isn’t going to be about his constitutional duties: “It’s designed to encourage kids to stay in school,” a Department of Education flack said. Put another way, he’ll be speaking as a role model and life adviser.

Why is that a problem?

For one thing, it reinforces misguided notions about the kinds of presidents we ought to choose. Imagine an incorruptible, über-competent governor with great leadership skills who curses and cheats shamelessly on his wife, pitted in a general election against a less-competent man whose personal morals are unimpeachable. The country is arguably better off sending the former man to execute its laws, command its army, and appoint its judges. But lots of voters are going to opt, defensibly enough, for the latter man if the presidency is presumed to confer status as a moral role model, including chats with kids meant to influence their life choices.

A president might eschew the role of Father Figure in Chief, instead addressing schoolchildren about his constitutional duties. I’d go as far as to say that an “inside the Oval Office” civics lecture wouldn’t be a total waste of time.

But it would be creepy if the president wound up using kids as props, or tried to influence the political opinions of children too young to adequately weigh all relevant information. Since the presidency is such an inherently politicized office, I find it impossible to imagine successive presidents regularly addressing schoolchildren without these ills creeping into some interactions.

Is that anything to freak out about?

I’d still send my kids to school that day if I had any. But I see no great benefit to presidents talking narrowly to kids in the classroom, so I regard even small costs as not worth bearing.

What about President Obama’s non-civics lecture speech?

Overwrought as many of the objections to it are—recent presidents have given school addresses without similar freakouts—putting the commander in chief onscreen in the classroom inevitably confers the message, “This is a role model whose advice about life ought to influence you.”

I assume President Obama will offer sound advice to the kids, and I regard him as a perfectly good role model.

But I object to the automatic elevation of presidents generally to the role of “trusted moral leader,” so I wish President Obama and all his successors would eschew that role, rather than entrenching its precedent more deeply.

America requires constitutional officers and moral leaders. We’d save ourselves a lot of unnecessary trouble if we established a bright line between those roles, rather than blurring them in accordance with our ideological affection for the person who happens to be in power.

Conor Friedersdorf writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.