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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Let us hope that ACORN doesn't register those 8th graders to vote

by folkbum

The local right--and, by now, the national right is too--is up in arms over an 8th grade literature textbook's inclusion of a speech by Barack Obama in its section on literary speeches. The speech in question, Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic convention (YouTube link), which is farily non-partisan (for a convention speech), is a master of oratory and rhetoric. If my current crop of 9th-grade students could write half as well as Obama does with that speech, I would quite literally weep for joy.

The textbook includes no mention of Obama's being a candidate for president. And, given textbook publishers' lead times (I have sat on the committees; I have met their representatives), when the current version of the book was put together, Obama was almost certainly not officially a candidate yet. In other words, the book may say ©2008, but it was likely assembled in 2005 and distributed in 2007. The McDougall-Littell people might be able to provide a better timeline; however, when I was reviewing texts for an adoption committee, we had advanced versions with copyright dates 18-24 months out.

From what I understand, the textbook also includes no discussion of Republicans v. Democrats, and Obama's speech itself is quite post-partisan. He talks about service as duty and how being a good person is not dependent on your Red or Blue status. I suppose conservatives and Republicans might take issue with such a hopeful, post-partisan message, but personally I think teaching children the value of self-worth outside of labels is not a bad thing. (And, as I said, teaching them to write as well as Obama would be an awesome thing.)

When building the non-fiction section of a literature textbook, particularly when you start thinking about speeches, any attempt to be contemporary is inevitably going to raise a question. Is the Kennedy speech in the texts I have sitting in my classroom at school partisan and political? Would a speech by King be? Probably not, you would say, likely because those are all 40 years old. But what about a speech by Reagan or Clinton (who, like Obama, both gave good speech)? Is the mere fact that Obama is a contemporary politician enough to disqualify him from inclusion in literature texts? And if there were a contemporary Republican (certainly neither Bush nor McCain fits this bill) as gifted as a writer and speaker, would her inclusion also be automatically disallowed because her words might similarly be too relevant to students' lives?

And how do the complaining conservatives think those 8th-graders are going to affect the vote?

In the end, perhaps the publishers should have considered that Obama's career was not over and there was a strong chance that he would be a national figure in coming years. But taking a fairly non-partisan speech by a contemporary figure (one with, as it turns out, about a 2/3 approval rating from the public at large) and using it to teach students how to craft their own writing is not a crime, not a give-away to a political party. Turning your 8th-grader and his textbook into a headline to benefit your candidate, on the other hand ...

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