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UPDATED: Obama’s Back-to-School Speech Big on Inspiration, Perspiration

By Sean Cavanagh — September 14, 2010 4 min read
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President Obama brought a simple message to students in his back-to-school speech today: Work hard, because your future success will depend on it.

Obama spoke at the Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia this afternoon. Last year, the president’s back-to-school speech was dogged by controversy, when conservatives accused him of attempting to use the event to promote his political agenda (though the speech itself, upon its delivery, was well-received).

The president’s prepared remarks, released by the White House today in advance of his appearance in Philadelphia, would seem to offer little fodder for critics. Obama reminds students at the school, which serves grades 5-12, that they will need a broad array of academic skills to get ahead in the workplace, and to compete for jobs internationally.

“I’m sure there will be times in the months ahead when you’re staying up late cramming for a test, or dragging yourselves out of bed on a rainy morning, and wondering if it’s all worth it,” the transcript says. “Let me tell you, there is no question about it. Nothing will have as great an impact on your success in life as your education.

“More and more, the kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school. In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life. And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever; your success in school will also help determine America’s success in the 21st century.”

Obama also admits he wasn’t always the most motivated student in school, and he recounts a conversation in which his mother suggested he was far too “casual” in thinking about his future.

“You can’t just sit around,’ she said, ‘waiting for luck to see you through,’ ” the president recalls his mother telling him, as he was preparing to apply for college. “She said I could get into any school in the country if I just put in a little effort. Then she gave me a hard look and added, ‘Remember what that’s like? Effort?’ ”

Events surrounding Obama’s speech last year caused a stir when, in the run-up to his talk, the Department of Education put suggested lesson plans for teachers and students on its website, one of which asked students to students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.” Detractors said it sounded like the administration was pushing a partisan agenda, and the lesson plan was later reworked to remove that language. The speech that Obama eventually gave carried a similarly apolitical message as this year’s version appears to do. Media coverage this year suggests that some schools are taking a cautious approach to broadcasting the president’s latest back-to-school speech. Meanwhile, one critic of last year’s speech, former Florida state Republican party chairman Jim Greer, has publicly apologized to Obama. Greer, who resigned from that post amid a financial scandal, said his remarks were an attempt to “placate the extremists” who he believes dominate his party.

This year, Obama draws from personal experience in an effort to inspire his audience. He speaks of his mixed-race background and says some students “may be working through your own questions right now,” in terms of addressing their identity.

Obama’s speech comes after several months of furor over religion and politics (propelled by cable television and talk radio) about plans to locate an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, and more recently, a Florida pastor’s plans, eventually dropped, to burn a copy of the Koran. The president’s speech—while making no direct mention of those controversies— calls for students to be respectful of people of different backgrounds, a perspective that he says makes the country stronger.

"[L]ife is precious, and part of its beauty lies in its diversity,” he says. “We shouldn’t be embarrassed by the things that make us different. We should be proud of them. Because it’s the things that make us different that make us who we are. And the strength and character of this country have always come from our ability to recognize ourselves in one another, no matter who we are, or where we come from, what we look like, or what abilities or disabilities we have.”

UPDATE: The president’s back-to-school speech as delivered was pretty much as noncontroversial as it reads on paper. Obama sought to draw a personal connection with his student audience, talking about his own upbringing and his boyhood anxieties over his racial identity. He also spoke about being “kind of a goof-off” during school at times, who needed an occasional motivational push.

Anthony Mullen, a former blogger for our sister publication, Teacher, weighs in with his reaction on CNN.

A video of the speech should be available later from the White House website. What did you make of Obama’s message? Will it resonate among students?

Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP

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