“Pedagogy of a Presidential Address”
Amidst all of the rhetorical rancour that has of late been strewn across the political landscape, the anxiety leading up to the Presidential discourse with the nation’s school students has been just that–anxiety-laden chatter. Now, after a review of the transcript that was judiciously provided to the citizenry, as a means, presumably, to quell the conservative consortium ribaldry, what now could be the objectives proffered by the host of parents who have threatened that the Presidential telecast was at least going to be subliminal indoctrination, or at worst, subversively socialistic? Since when has it been criminal to inspire school children to take responsibility for their own academic endeavors and future; establish goals for their short-term and long-term education and vocational enterprises; and, “get serious this year… [and] put your best effort into everything that you do?” Those are poignant words that have been articulated by the majority of parents and guardians to their children, and already resonate respecting the expectations that the majority of educators extend to students; however, something is conspicuously absent within the hoopla and scare-tactics that have been recently employed by the conservative right–and that thing is the truth.
The four-square contract for academic success that the President alluded to in his speech is comprised of the diligent and reciprocal mutuality entered into by parents, students, teachers, and the larger societal entity–that of the government. And, prima facie, that makes perfect sense. However, two things must be acknowledged here before we truly comprehend the gist of what may have frightened the dickens out of the host of conservatives objecting to that positive message, and those are: that the current President is black; and, that the words used within the course of such a dialogue register and resound with a student citizenry that isn’t just blithely accepted as white, “do-good” students, with the rest falling somewhere into place. This is no mere attempt to reduce aspects of the larger argument to binarisms, nor to establish and foster essentialisms that become banal references of “us and them,” “black and white,” “red and blue,” or “suburbanite and slum-dwelling inner-city no respected child.” That had already been established at the inception of the country, when freedom and rights were predominantly accorded to one set of individuals at the expense of the other; however, the implications of such of such are still being experienced today.
You see, as the President acceded, responsibility must be assumed by all constituents of that four-cornered contract. Parents must ensure that students get to school with homework completed (that is, if they can get there–depending on their logistics–safely). Students must ensure that their level best is put forth in attempting to comprehend and complete a cornucopia of topics that, although seeming somewhat disparate and incongruous, comprise the bulk of what represents a well-rounded student (irrespective of the sometimes dismal and aesthetically decrepit environments that a majority of black and brown bodies are forced to attend). Now, the remaining two are the ones that are the focus of the remainder of this piece, for the government, nor some teachers accord the equivalency of respect and honor for all students; especially if those students happen to be of the oppressed (Freire, 1993; Kozol, 1992; Rosenfeld, 1971). And statistically speaking, since the majority of teachers across the nation are young, white females, socialized and nurtured in societal contexts demographically devoid of first-rate contact with minority children that they later may go on to teach, certain misconceptions and mistruths that pervade and permeate their habit of thinking about the “other” are manifested in egregious lower expectations of the students’ academic aptitudes and cultural worth (Rosenfeld, 1971). Moreover, it is these obstacles that are encountered and not easily surmounted by the black and brown students–the very ones constituting the academic achievement chasm that is ever burgeoning between them and their white counterparts–who are to be chiefly inspired by a message emanating from a President whose phenotype parallels theirs. However, in order to truly apprehend and implement the gist of that initiated discourse, they must first, as James Loewen (1995) eloquently and starkly reminds us, deal with too many of those damn “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”
Too many of those lies intersect with the “myths” that Paulo Freire (1993) explicates as being anti-dialogic in nature, thus sapping the spirit out of students forced to imbibe and endure them. For as Loewen reveals, and this may assist educators in comprehending why some minority students completely find irrelevant some of their academic studies–especially the history and social studies lessons that President reminds us require particular critical thinking skill–, “African American, Native American, and Latino students view history with a special dislike” (1995, p. 12). Why is that the reader may query? Because too many “[t]extbooks are often muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and to indoctrinate blind patriotism,” that ineluctably relegates the viewpoints of the minority student to the margins (1995, p. 14). For example, while many of the white conservatives who object to President Obama delivering an inherently inspiring message have vilified him as being ideologically equated with Hitler, or Stalin, or being a socialist (one can’t miss the ubiquitous placards of Obama caricaturing him as such, or depicting him as a donning a not-to-be-mistaken little moustache–or worst, those that delineate him as a monkey), the utmost respect is to be expectantly extended to all previous white presidents, though their actions and policies were extremely hostile toward non-white Americans. As Loewen reminds us, Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president, “was an outspoken white supremacist–his wife was even worse–and told ‘darky’ stories in cabinet meetings… [hence] no black person could ever consider Woodrow Wilson as a hero. Textbooks that present him as a hero [and the white teachers who promulgate such notions] are written from a white perspective” (pp. 27-28).
Whereas such perspectives, when juxtaposed against the muted purviews of those deemed “oppressed” by Freire are oppressive in nature because they are supported by dialogic stratagems that mythesize reality, certain myths are fabricated that promote the status quo. What are such myths that operate like excreta thus germinating the “we are right” fungi as exhibited in the town hall debates against universal medicare and those other general rallies against Obama? Freire postulates that they are:
“[t]he myth that the oppressive order is a ‘free society’; the myth that all persons are free to work where they wish… the myth of the universal right of education… the myth of the equality of all individuals, when the question: ‘Do you know who you’re talking to?’ is still current among us; the myth of the heroism of the oppressor classes as defenders of ‘Western Christian civilization’ against materialist barbarism; the myth of private property as fundamental to personal human development; the myth of the industriousness of the oppressors and the laziness and dishonesty of the oppressed, as well as the myth of the natural inferiority of the latter and the superiority of the former” (1993, pp. 139-140).
As such, the mytholization of the aforesaid principles sustain the distortions of who is equipped to talk, who is qualified to be listened to, and who, sadly speaking, is qualified to be president.
Again, what is wrong with a presidential message inducing all students to aspire to greatness? Perhaps it could be that greatness, in the conceptual reality of some parents, countermands the spoken and unspoken directives that are still too commonly espoused at home; especially those messages that are still colored in black and white.
Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum
Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishers
Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: Harper Perennial.
Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: Touchstone
Rosenfeld, G. (1971). “Shut those thick lips!”: A study of slum school failure. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.