I found myself struggling to stay focused last night during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Lots of words, some tepid applause, and not a lot of inspiration. He said some things about jobs and spending and education, but I felt as if I had heard it all before, and some of it he did not fulfill the first time he promised to change things.
Clearly, President Obama feels corporate, big business, and banking industry pain. He is also sympathetic to Wall Street. He did address middle class suffering, and vaguely alluded to the poor. Jobs came up a number of times. But the line that hit me in the first part of the speech was this one: “Corporate profits are up.” Yes, they are, even as they laid off employees, slashed benefits, and shipped jobs overseas. In theory, a corporation does not elect a president. I know that a corporation does donate a lot of money to a candidate’s coffers. Still, I would like to hear that the average middle class American’s profits are up. I would like to hear that fewer people are living below the poverty line.
I am also continually upset with President Obama, and nearly every talking head in education today, trumpeting a “greater emphasis on math and science.” The president went on to say that “The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree,” and that America is “the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on earth.” Simply pushing math and science will not cut it. We need an emphasis on intellectualism across the board. We need more work in math, science, history, English, the social sciences, languages, literature, reading, music, art, and theatre, and all of it taught by teachers and administrators who model ethical, moral, and values-based behavior. We do have the best universities in the world, yet many of our own American students cannot get into them because they lack the foundation in core subjects necessary to compete at the college level. The president mentioned his work to make college affordable, but for struggling middle class and the poor, saving for college is an extreme hardship, and students go into significant debt to secure a degree. He is not trying hard enough. College should be free to all those Americans who qualify.
I felt his words about teachers were condescending, and this from a man who used to be a law professor. “Here in America,” he said, “it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.” That is a nice sentiment, but he is the president who wants to base teacher performance on standardized test scores, and who advocates sending money to schools based on those scores. He has rubber stamped much of former President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, which even its own architects say was a failure. Those scores are not the only picture of a successful education, and it is a bald, pathetic attempt to quantify education like bottles of beer on a brewery line. We need to know if we are filling our children’s minds up to the proper level. Who cares if they are simply being taught to the test! The education of a human mind cannot be measured concretely. Ingenuity, innovation, experience, wisdom—you will not find these on any standardized test, but you will find them in classrooms led by fiery teachers on a mission to educate and empower young people.
The most condescending line about teaching was this one: “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life a child—become a teacher. Your country needs you.” Just not enough to pay you a decent wage or give you job security. America does not respect its teachers. We live with the attitude that “those who can’t, teach.” If President Obama is serious about encouraging the best and the brightest to go into education, then make college educations free for those who qualify and pay teachers a decent wage. Furthermore, raise them to place of esteem in our culture. And by the way, being a teacher is not for everyone. It is not a job, but a calling, a vocation. People who become teachers must be able to fire young minds to think and create, and if you believe just anybody can do this, you are mistaken. No license or credential can make you a teacher. Great teachers are born that way, and although degrees and credentials might help improve a teacher’s craft, the ability and passion must be there from the start.
President Obama is not a man known for his jokes. However, like many presidents before him, he is the master of the unintentional joke. Here’s one: “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying…” Really, Mr. President. This is what you have to offer us in new technology and innovation in the years to come? Twenty-five years to come, to be specific?
Japan launched the first high speed rail line in 1964. President Obama has promised us the astounding feat of bringing 46 year old technology to our city very soon, or a quarter century from now depending on where you live. And it will take us places in half the time of automobile travel. Wow. Does it come with a jet pack and a secret decoder ring? This is our “Sputnik moment?!” We went to the moon! We bettered Sputnik and the Russians. That was our “Apollo moment,” and there will be more of them if we can find leaders with passion and vision to take us there.
Driving in heavy traffic today on the west side of Los Angeles, I could not help laughing. Some day, I’ll be able to take a very fast train to work for low pay and no respect as a teacher sunk in student loan debt while corporate America counts its profits and two branches of our government are gridlocked over how to cut taxes for people who make as much as small countries every year without manufacturing a thing and simply manipulating the stock market. That is the state of this union.