About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


Google Groups
Email Me Blog Updates
Visit this group

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Where Is Barack Obama the Teacher?

This post was published this morning (8/9/11) in Valerie Strauss's Washington Post column, The Answer Sheet.

I’ve been a teacher for 40 years, so I tend to look at the world with teaching in mind. I’m interested in the way so many activities – from parenting to police work to physical therapy – involve teaching. There is an instructional dimension to them. I look at politics through this lens. Though it may be hard to imagine right now, politics can provide the occasion to teach, to inform, to frame an issue, to present an argument, to provide illustration, to move to action.

In an entry on this blog right after the 2008 election, I expressed the wish that President Obama would bring back and technologically update the FDR Fireside Chat – a seemingly obvious suggestion given his oratorical skill and his campaign’s use of new media. Here are a few passages to give you a sense of my appeal:

Between 1933 and 1944, during another period of economic crisis and war, FDR gave a series of thirty memorable radio speeches to the American people. The speeches covered topics of pressing importance: from the banking crisis, unemployment, and federal works programs to national security, the progress of the war, and plans for peace. The speeches were both political and educational; they inspired and instructed during difficult times.

We already have, of course, the weekly presidential radio address, but the revived Fireside Chats would be of a different order. In this regard, it is enlightening to read the originals. They are rich in information that is carefully presented and explained, and they blend reassurance with hard truths. The first one on the banking crisis, delivered one week after FDR’s inauguration, is uncannily relevant today.

During the campaign, Obama was mocked for being a professor, and the media tag “professorial” was deadly – implying aloofness and abstraction, a man out of touch. But there’s a flip side to this professorial business: someone who knows a lot, is thoughtful, sees value in teaching.

The best political speech is both inspirational and pedagogical. It moves us and informs us. … As a nation, we have a lot of learning to do, a lot of self-examining and reorienting of our economic and civic lives. Presidential addresses of the gravity of FDR’s Fireside Chats would help guide us. Barack Obama could become the education president in a unique and powerful sense of the word.

I read this post now with disappointment and sadness. There is deep dissatisfaction among many of us in education with the direction taken by the Department of Education under President Obama. Some of the Department's policies reveal a narrow understanding of learning and threaten to undermine teaching itself – so the appellation “Education President” grates. But what really sinks my heart is the lost opportunity for Barack Obama to be the education president in the way I meant it in the earlier post: the Political Teacher-in-Chief.

We rarely see or hear the man who delivered the captivating keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention or the powerful speech on race in 2008. He can still rise to the occasion, as he did earlier this year at the service for those slain in Arizona during the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But he has yet to deliver a speech of this power and magnitude on the pressing issues of the day: the hardship of working America, job creation, health care, fair taxation and the deficit. To be sure, he has important things to say, but they come piecemeal, parts of speeches around the country, or during press conferences, where his trademark eloquence abandons him.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So does politics. In the rhetorical and pedagogical void, the Right has strategically rushed in to define the issues and frame the debates. And the conservative noise machine has produced sound bites that seem to go pretty much unchallenged: “job-killing taxes,” “class warfare,” “socialism,” the demonizing of economic stimulus, etc.

The frustrating thing is that on many of the big economic issues, the President has the facts and expert opinion on his side. A wide range of economists agree that significant short-term spending combined with long-term reductions are necessary. A similar range of economists advocate tax increases. No less a conservative figure than David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, pointed out in a recent interview that President Reagan along with budget cuts raised taxes three times to counter recession. “We are raising 14% of GDP in taxes, the lowest since 1948. The Republican position that taxes aren’t part of this solution is nonsensical and can’t be defended.” Despite all the talk about job-killing tax increases, the Bush era tax cuts did not produce more jobs. Wages for most Americans have been stagnant for at least a decade, while the wealthiest among us have seen their incomes rise dramatically – the top 1% now hold between 35 to 40% of the nation's wealth. The income gap is widening – to levels not seen since the 1890s according to The Economist – and America’s cherished economic and social mobility has flattened. “There's class warfare,” quipped Warren Buffett, “but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning.”

One aspect of good teaching is presenting material in a clear and engaging way. Another is asking thought-provoking questions. And a third is to weave material and questions into a compelling story. There is a remarkable story to be told from the facts about America’s current economic and social structure, and what puzzles me is why one of the gifted political speakers of our time hasn’t told it with force and consistency.

I suppose the answer lies in his much-discussed desire to stake out the center, to be seen as the pragmatist, the negotiator and compromiser – and somehow that positioning works against the kind of forceful political pedagogy I’m advocating. If this is the case, it is proving to be a terrible political miscalculation. For a moderating centrism (a la The Audacity of Hope) to work, you can’t have a massive and uncompromising force pulling from one side of the table. Your imagined center moves inexorably in that direction; you lose your bearings. Journalist Robert Draper, currently writing a book on the House of Representatives, reports that the GOP sees Obama’s compromising posture as a sign of weakness.

Undoubtedly there's heavy analyzing and strategizing going on now in the White House. Whatever he and his advisors decide, we know that Barack Obama does not have the temperament to respond to GOP strategy with bone-crushing tactics or with red-meat rhetoric. But he is by temperament a teacher. He's done the work.

He needs to reclaim that part of his past as the next debate on economic policy looms…particularly on the Bush era tax cuts, not lying back as he's done, but speaking directly to the nation with facts, with stories of working America, with judgments like Mr. Stockman's, with common sense appeals to fairness. He needs to present and present again the numbers that show we are becoming an increasingly unjust and stratified society – and it is not waging class warfare to say so.


  1. Yes Mike, this President the one so many of us voted for appears to be missing in action. The president I voted for, the president I campaigned for, the president I gave money to, the president I put bumper stickers our cars for, and signs on our lawn for has to start fighting less for compromise, and more for the people.
    The people need him, and he is losing more and more of us every day. It wasn't FDR's Fireside Chats that were effective it was the actions that matched his words the very thing missing from President Obama's White House.
    Love your work, and so glad I found your blog.
    Thank you,

    Jesse Turner
    Children Are More Than Test Scores

  2. I agree Professor Rose, that President Obama promise of being engaging and inclusive has been overshadowed by many conflicting issues, both internal and external. He is battling a constructed identity, and he is always deflecting piercing objections from a faction of "No's!" I too welcomed his intellect and idealogic pedagogy, and I hope he finds his mojo soon.

  3. I can't say I entirely agree with you. He takes the long view, and the Republicans have taken advantage of his restraint only to reveal themselves as a gang of thugs. I think we'll probably see more eloquence on Obama's part leading up to the election. It's true that Democrats could be better at repeating messages over and over again as do the Republicans.

    I think people expected Obama to be some sort of liberal firebrand when he has always been a pragmatist.

  4. Mike and others:
    If we’re lucky, the process of being a teacher gives us a hard-won education of the heart. We are given a felt sense of human contact, caring, and love. With this education, a sense of ordinary responsibility arises. When we look at our political leaders, we see a glaring lack of this education “in being a human being.” There is a great lack of actual caring and action about important things. I appreciate the reminder Mike, of the simplicity of caring. I’m not sure Obama has in him what you think he does. Sad and mysterious isn’t it?

  5. You might find this interesting. For 20 months I've put out a newsletter and blog about the NYC public schools and reading. I'm obsessed with the fact that, sociological and economic difficulties notwithstanding, 12 years ought to be more than enough time to teach kids to read well:


  6. I have to agree Mr. Rose. I would love to hear the President give speeches like FDR did in his time. I think that it would clear the air about alot of things that people are attacking him for. I have to be honest, I did not vote for him, but I do support him as our President. I think that there have been a few "low blows" about him being mysteriously quite during this pressing time but one thing is for sure, he needs to be seen and add his voice to these issues. He needs to be able to tell us what is actually going on and tell us what he is going to do about it. Thanks so much,
    Sarah Lomax (MHC)