September 15th, 2009

Got School?

Last Tuesday, President Obama delivered a speech directed at American schoolchildren (read John Merrow’s blog post about the speech here). The content of the speech, as one commenter on YouTube suggested, fell in line with what most of us remember our principals and teachers drumming into our heads.  For instance, the last lines of the speech: “I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down — don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.” The president came off as paternal, affectionate, and sternly encouraging.

Despite the speech’s basically uncontroversial message, the days leading up to its delivery witnessed a rash of appearances by Republican congressman Jim Greer, who objected to the speech and the lesson plan that the Department of Education created to go along with it. Greer and others worried that the speech would be propagandistic; the accompanying lesson plan, they noted, included a space for students to list how they could help the Obama administration. Concern from politicians quickly bled into concern from parents, like this mom, interviewed by FOX news:

What may turn out to be more controversial than President Obama’s speech is a short documentary that aired the same night and happens to feature him prominently. “Get Schooled” is a 30-minute film that traces three young adults with “cool jobs” to their educational origins. The documentary is the first effort in a 5-year collaboration between Viacom and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and was aired on all of Viacom’s networks, including MTV, BET, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon.

Clearly targeted at children and adolescents, “Get Schooled” profiles Latesha, Jason and Sarah, who work for Lebron James, Kelly Clarkson and President Obama, respectively. Though intentions here may all be good, it’s hard not to feel as if some familiar American stereotypes about class and race get in the way of the film’s gung-ho message. Why, for instance, did only one of the three characters make it through college? Are writing a speech for the President, arranging a pop song and organizing an event for a celebrity really equivalent tasks?

We encourage you to watch the full documentary on the “Get Schooled” website, and to tell us what you think.

“Get Schooled” [aired 9/8/09]
Obama urges students to work hard, stay in school [CNN.com, 9/8/09]

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