Obama’s Speech on Education

440px-Official_portrait_of_Barack_ObamaAt 11 a.m. central time, President Obama delivered a speech addressed to school children across the country. The hullabaloo that has preceded this event has amazed me; last week, Florida Republican party chairman Jim Greer said he was “absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.” A Facebook poll that asked whether President Obama should “be allowed to do a nationwide address to school children without parental consent” was running at 50.2% saying “no,” 46.1% saying “yes,” and 3.7% saying “I don’t care,” as of just before 11 a.m. this morning.  Another online poll, on Newsvine, showed that 81.3% of the respondents indicating they’d let their children hear the speech, 16.9% saying they wouldn’t, and 1.8% indicating that the idea of a speech was fine, but that there wasn’t enough time in the school day for such a thing.  This isn’t, of course, the first time that a sitting president has addressed school children.  In 1991, George H.W. Bush gave a speech at a junior high school, “urg[ing] students to study hard, avoid drugs and turn in troublemakers.” Democrats criticized the speech as “paid political advertising.”

As I read the text of President Obama’s speech, I find it hard to discern “socialist ideology” or even “paid political advertising.”  (Let us remember that pretty much everyone to whom his remarks are addressed is unable to vote!)  His remarks seem more “Republican” than not.  The themes of personal responsibility and hard work pervade the speech.  He says, “But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities”? He exhorts students to avoid making excuses about their role in their education.  “[T]he circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. . . . That’s no excuse for not trying.” And he reminds students that success is hard work and that they should learn from their failures.  “[Y]ou can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you.”

How could any parent find fault in such advice?  Is it simply because the messenger is from a different political party or is it something else entirely?  Barack Obama is the president of the United States.  A demanding job, to be sure, but also a job that is heavy with symbolism.  There shouldn’t be anything inherently political in the simple fact that the county’s figurehead wishes to press upon the country’s future – its school children – that they ought to do their best in school and work hard.

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Town Hall Meetings and Democracy

lippmannIt is difficult to watch the video of the various “town hall meetings” and constituent listening sessions that have taken place during the current congressional recess.  The overwhelming feeling engendered by these scenes of screaming faces is a feeling of despair for the future of democracy itself.  After all, town hall meetings hold an important place in our nation’s history as a symbol of the general public’s continuing participation in their own democratic government.

  We are very far removed from the time when the residents of a small New England town could gather together on an occasional basis and make communal decisions that governed their daily lives.  Today, members of congress are expected to use these forums to report back to their constituents, to answer questions and solicit concerns, and then to return to Washington, D.C. with a greater sense of the priorities of the voters.  This is not exactly direct democracy in action, along the classic New England model, but it is the closest that most of us can claim to actually participating in the machinery of our own government.

 At many of these town hall meetings, ostensibly intended to address the topic of health care reform, the proceedings have been anything but an exemplar of participatory democracy.  I am not referring to the “exaggerations and extrapolations” of the pending health care reform legislation that some attendees and some Republican opponents of the bill have espoused.  Trying to prove that something is a lie is like chasing your tail.  The task of separating truth from fiction is simply a never ending part of the human condition.  Nor am I particularly concerned over the shouting and the ill manners of many attendees.  I cannot think of any period in our nation’s history when politeness was the norm in political debate.

 Instead, my concern is with the future of democracy itself.  In 1922, in his book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann presented a pessimistic view of the public’s ability to govern itself through our nation’s democratic process.  Three years later, he followed up his critique in the book The Phantom Public.  If anything, the sequel held out even less hope for the meaningful participation of the general public in the shaping of the government policies that have such a dramatic impact on their lives.

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“Be Wise: Revise,” Lisa A. Mazzie Advises in Latest Wisconsin Lawyer Magazine

lisaHatlenFor nearly a year, several of the Law School’s legal writing professors have been offering legal writing advice in a semi-regular column in the Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.  The latest such contribution is Lisa Mazzie’s “Be Wise: Revise,” which provides “guidelines for creating effective style through revising – guidelines on when to revise, how to revise, and when to quit.”  Her helpful advice highlights the importance of an objective attitude and critical eye during revision of one’s own work.

Professor Mazzie contributed another column, in June of this year, entitled, “Conciseness in Legal Writing.” Past legal writing columns from Marquette’s legal writing faculty also included Jill Koch Hayford’s November 2008 piece, “Style Books, Websites, and Podcasts:  A Lawyer’s Guide to the Guides,” as well her March 2009 advice, “Update Contract Language to Meet 21st Century Readers.” A column about split infinitives, “Dispelling Grammar Myths:  ‘To Split’ or ‘Not to Split’ the Infinitive,” by Rebecca K. Blemberg, appeared in the December 2008 issue.

The legal writing faculty will continue to write about legal writing for Wisconsin Lawyer magazine during the coming year.

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