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Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009

Teaching Intolerance

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I´ve long entertained friends with the story about the historic day our small-town elementary school almost got to see the president of the United States.

Like a lot of small towns nobody cares about, my hometown of Union City, Ind. (population: 3,622), adopted an exaggerated civic nickname to try to inflate its importance. It called itself “Hub City” because all the railroad tracks in the world crossed there.

Word got out that at a certain time on a particular day, a train carrying President Harry Truman would pass right through town. Our elementary school principal organized the entire school to line up by class to walk to the train depot to see the president.

The train wasn’t scheduled to stop, mind you. But our teachers thought there was a very good chance that the president would order the train to stop immediately when he saw our expectant throng. He would probably get out and make a speech or something.

We all walked to the depot in orderly rows. At the appointed hour, the presidential train sped through. Some maintenance guy on the caboose waved. We waved back. Then, we all walked back to school.

It really does show how times have changed. As far as I could tell growing up, the members of my immediate family were pretty much the only Democrats in that conservative, little Indiana town. Yet, the slightest possibility of glimpsing a Democratic president stirred excitement and respect.

Fast-forward to the present day, when schoolchildren have far more reason than we ever did to be excited about a historic presidency. Not only is President Barack Obama the first African American to be elected president, but he also is an inspirational leader who personifies for young people the possibility of overcoming obstacles and achieving your dreams through education and hard work.

Yet, unbelievably, when the president of the United States scheduled a televised speech to deliver that important message directly to America’s schoolchildren, an organized right-wing political attack succeeded in frightening some weak-kneed school administrators into banning the speech.

Elmbrook School District, in the conservative western suburbs of Milwaukee, has now been joined by school districts in Waukesha, Wauwatosa, West Allis-West Milwaukee, Grafton and West Bend in refusing to allow their children to hear a live message from President Obama urging them to succeed in school.

Presidents who were far less likely to inspire young people—the first President George Bush and the geriatric Ronald Reagan—both delivered televised stay-inschool messages to the nation’s schools without parental protest.

We even allowed President George W. Bush in person into a second-grade class in Florida to read “The Pet Goat” on Sept. 11, 2001, when he should have been responding to the 9/11 attacks.

So, clearly, there is something about this particular president that extremely conservative, suburban parents don’t want in their schools. Hmmm. Wonder what that could be?

Ignorant Objections

The organized objections against the presidential school address on right-wing talk radio have been nothing less than a hate campaign.

“The thing that concerned me most about it was it seemed like a direct channel from the president of the United States into the classroom, to my child,” said a Texas parent. “I don’t want our schools turned over to some socialist movement.”

Actually, Obama did not become president through some socialist movement. He was elected by a large majority of the American people in a democratic election.

Political extremists, who apparently don’t believe in democracy, ridiculously suggest there is something controversial about this particular president speaking to American schoolchildren. And cowardly school administrators reinforce that impression by making a work-hard, stay-in-school message “optional.”

Mark Steyn, a right-wing extremist from Canada appearing on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, said Obama was trying to indoctrinate children into his own “cult of personality,” just like Saddam Hussein and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Chris Stigall, a right-wing talk-show host in Kansas City, even compared Obama to a sexual predator. “I wouldn’t let my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone,” Stigall said. “I’m sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone.”

Administrators in the schools that have banned the presidential speech are intelligent enough to know the organized protests are absurd. But the schools’ own gutless reactions to the ridiculous protests teach terrible lessons to children.

One is that, in a democracy, the loudest bullies win no matter how extreme a fringe they represent or how nonsensical their arguments are.

The other lesson is even more poisonous to civil discourse: If you or your parents disagree with someone, you should never listen to anything that person has to say. Listening to opposing arguments might make you question the soundness of your own beliefs.

Schools that cave to right-wing protests are really teaching children ignorance and intolerance.

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