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Obama’s Tragic Flaw?

January 30, 2013

Obama-educationI still admire President Barack Obama, but his long-standing focus on the practical aspects of education (e.g. STEM curricula, job training) is perhaps his worst fault. He seems to view education, especially the education establishment, as the means to either an individual’s vocational/professional end, or a society’s economic health. Both are faulty not just because they result policy and political lacunae, but because they are indicative of a deeper philosophical failing. The lack of depth in the president’s philosophy of public education is a tragic flaw. If it goes uncorrected over the next four years, it will mar subsequent assessments of his two terms in office as much as his failings in relation to drone use, Guantanamo, and Tea Party radicalism.

I think President Obama personally admires continued self-education and lifelong learning (evidenced by his, and his family’s, very public admiration for books), but he doesn’t seem to see how a well-grounded political philosophy of public education gets one to that point. It’s as if he arrived his lifelong learning ethic accidentally, as a byproduct of his credentials. His flawed, or shallow, acquisition of that ethic has resulted in a metrics-oriented view of education that devalues the overall goals of teachers and teaching, orienting public education to mere economic growth. Economic expansion and personal professional achievement for all citizens, however, are the happy asides of a well-rounded education fostered by a public education establishment. Learning for its own sake has a value the reaches beyond economic measurement. That kind of education is the goal of a well-organized and focused education establishment that cares for teachers in all disciplines and at all levels (K through graduate studies).

This makes the President’s opposition to, or lack of public support for, teachers’ unions perplexing at best, and tragic at worst. Rather than oppose or undermine teachers’ unions, he needs to use his considerable powers of persuasion, his office, and his belief in dialogue to engage unions. The organization and discipline inherent in unions could be a real boon in relation to his larger goals for the United States. Indeed, his lack of engagement with teachers’ unions is confusing in relation to his clear beliefs about community and solidarity.

The President’s time in office is by no means over, and assessments of his legacy are premature. He can bend the arc of history toward more justice in education by using the education establishment as it exists. He also needs to listen to dissent in order to develop a deeper, more inclusive view of education as an end itself—an end that includes subjects (i.e. philosophy, history, literature, the fine arts) without direct utility. The President and the First Lady know the power of the liberal arts. It’s time to integrate that knowledge with active public policy by engaging the public education establishment, and then promoting it in all of its diversity. – TL

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