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.


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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

President Obama: Bring Back the Fireside Chats

This will be the last of my entries on the election, though not the last on the general topic of politics and education. I’m going to pick that up again in a few weeks.

I wrote this call on President-elect Obama to bring back FDR-style Fireside Chats a few days before the election, finally coming to believe (cautiously) the national polls. The piece is quickly becoming dated, however, as FDR comparisons abound and as the Obama team itself is announcing plans to use media in FDR-fashion. Still, there’s a few points in the piece below that might be of interest to the readers of this blog. As always, I welcome any comments.


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 need the same today. And President Obama is poised to provide it. He combines considerable intelligence and thoughtfulness with rhetorical skill. He could talk to the nation about the economy, about terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about climate change and energy.

He could talk further about the social issues that divide us. And he could continue the national conversation we are finally having about race – the conversation his candidacy sparked.

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.

The media-savvy Obama team could use the tools it mastered during the campaign; television and radio but podcasts too and the multi-media internet.

The new Fireside Chats would be a concrete way to use Barack Obama’s message of hope to immediate and important ends: to calm nerves and markets but as well to shape a longer-term response to uncertain and rapidly changing times.

We are in the midst of a wrenching redefinition of our economy. Comfortable American ideas about the market, about government intervention, even about the dreaded “European-style socialism” are being turned inside out. Or consider the awful damage done in political battle through the demonizing of Arabs and Muslims and the inflaming of racial bias. And then there are the wars on two fronts.

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. Bill Clinton was the master president-as-teacher. Obama has the ability to be the same.

The best political speech is both inspirational and pedagogical. It moves us and informs us. Especially at this time in our history, we could benefit immensely from thinking about politics as teaching. The Bush Administration has diminished the value of knowledge. It substituted loyalty for expertise, feeling for rationality, the cherry-picking rather than analysis of evidence.

For the much of the last eight years fear has been the primary mechanism of political persuasion. We are left with a desperate need for a richer sense of purpose, an opening up rather than narrowing of our national imagination.

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.


  1. I find myself really wanting to hear from Obama and would welcome anything his administration does to help us hear more than just a sound bite. Even simply the scale at which we have to consider economic questions, health care policy, environmental changes require a lot of explaining for me to fully fathom what is going on globally. I know this is silly but having a president who can answer, "what are you reading right now?" is amazingly refreshing.

  2. I suspect President Obama will directly communicate, but he may give "terminal-side" chats posted on You Tube with pictures of him next to his computer.

  3. I think his weekly youtube addresses are proving important in establishing him as a presence as opposed to the guy who's missing in action.

    Maybe people are shifting from being angry at Arabs to be angry at Hank Paulson. Possbily withmore justification.

  4. Unfortunately, because of their ideology, some people aren't even willing to hear him speak. The fireside chats are a great idea, but he must use them in a way that is inclusive. Otherwise, it'll only be preaching to the choir.

  5. I suppose we have put a lot on this new president, expecting him to end the wars, fix the economy, close the racial divide, heal the political rift, loosen the legislative logjam and communicate clearly and sensibly to the people of America and the world. But I wouldn't mind if he was able to do one more thing--ease the deeply held American prejudice against intellectuals.

    The characterization of intellectuals as mentally muscle-bound, effete, out-of-touch, unfeeling and ineffective has always astounded me. Don't we want our doctor to have the most knowledge possible? Don't we want our lawyer to be a subtle thinker? Don't we want our chef to be head of the class in flavor, health and cleanliness? Why do so many sneer at the idea of a president who can understand subtle situations and express them articulately? The McCain campaign's association of eloquence with emptiness, is as fallacious as the idea that downhome common sense is all we need to solve the world's problems--downhome common sense is quite often the cause of those problems.
    Whatever medium Obsama uses, I hope he will stand up as an example of how leaders who are capable of subtle understanding can help us move towards a better life and a better world.

  6. Your blog is very nice.

  7. As well as giving intellectuals a bad name, I feel that many people in our country do not take the time to reflect about...anything! We have become such a grab and go society that does not take the time to consider the big picture. People are in too big a hurry to get something they want or take someone else down who is in their way. I like how Obama's speeches give people pause and help them take the time to reflect on what is REALLY important.