On Politicians and School Visits

By Sean Cavanagh — September 04, 2009 2 min read
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President Obama is being criticized by Republicans for making a nationally broadcast speech at a school, which his critics allege is an attempt to “indoctrinate” students into his political philosophy.

I can’t help wondering if teachers and students in Iowa are watching all this with some curiosity and amusement.

Maybe the reaction in my native state is similar to what’s occurring among hard-core partisans around the country. I know that Iowa has an unusually outsized influence over presidential elections, but when I was growing up, the presence of national political figures at schools was a pretty routine thing. At my high school, I heard former President George H.W. Bush speak during my senior year, if memory serves me. (The school seemed to be swarming with Secret Service agents, some of whom we speculated were dressed up as students during the speech. These are the sorts of things teenagers obsess about.) Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, spoke there, too, for my high school graduation on June 3, 1990. (Thanks to Grinnell Senior High School for looking it up.) At the time, Harkin was locked in a tough re-election fight against Republican Tom Tauke, whom he eventually defeated. I can’t remember any objections to these visits from parents, students, or other members of the community from either party.

While I can’t recall any presidential candidates stopping by my school during caucus season, an endless number of them stumped through my hometown and surrounding communities. My teachers sometimes encouraged us to go to these campaign events, regardless of the candidate’s party tag, for in-class projects or extracurricular activities.

A lot of Iowa schools, in fact, actively seek to have students review and critique presidential candidates’ speeches and platforms as part of their lesson plans, as I reported in a story a few years ago. Back then, I visited the classroom of an enterprising teacher in a Des Moines suburb who had encouraged his students to doggedly court 2004 presidential candidates to make visits to their school. One candidate, Howard Dean, took them up on it. Of course, Obama’s critics seem to be arguing that his speech will have unprecedented reach (that’s unclear) and that students were somehow being asked to approach his speech uncritically. It’s hard for me to imagine many teachers (or many parents, for that matter) encouraging that, especially given the state of political dialogue in this country today.

So I’ll broaden this discussion beyond Iowa’s borders. What memories do you have of a national political figure visiting your school? And under what circumstances? Graduation ceremony? Was it during a campaign? Was any mention made of his or her policies—and if not, then what did the politician have to say?

Photo of President Barack Obama at a Washington, D.C. charter school in February, by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images-File. Undated photo of George H.W. Bush, above.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.