Despite the crossfire from conservatives, the remarks President Barack Obama plans to deliver to America’s pupils on Tuesday turn out to be in the mainstream of back-to-school remarks the previous four presidents delivered in classrooms.
The White House posted the president’s prepared text on Monday, and it includes a variety of fatherly advice on persevering, finishing school and pursuing their dreams, plus his admonition that they’re “no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude … no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school … no excuse for not trying.”
Dan Pfeiffer, White House deputy communications director, said: “As people can see from the text, this is a completely non-political speech that is in line with the tradition of presidents of both parties speaking directly to students about the importance of taking responsibility for their education.”
It turns out that Obama’s four most recent predecessors made remarks during fall visits to schools, many of them similar in tone and content to the script to be delivered at a high school in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday.
President Ronald Reagan told junior-high students they were living in a "time of unlimited possibilities, bounded only by the size of your imagination, the depth of your heart, and the character of your courage." President George H.W. Bush told another group of junior-high students: "I'm not here to tell you what to do or what to think. Maybe you're accustomed to adults talking about you and at you; well, today, I'm here to talk to you and challenge you. Education matters, and what you do today, and what you don't do can change your future."
President Bill Clinton said teachers need to give students a "high degree of self-awareness and an ability to learn and absorb and grow throughout a lifetime." And President George W. Bush used remarks at a magnet high school to reinforce his campaign message that "every student needs to be challenged."
Here are samples of what recent presidents have told returning students, as compiled by Democrats:
—President Reagan, “Q&A with Junior High School Students,” Oct. 14, 1988: “America is not yet complete and it's up to each one of us to help complete it. And each one of you can place yourself in that painting. You can become one of those immortal figures by helping to build and renew America. And we're entering one of the most exciting times in history, a time of unlimited possibilities, bounded only by the size of your imagination, the depth of your heart, and the character of your courage. More than two centuries of American history, the contributions of the millions of people who have come before us have been given to us as our birthright. All we can do to earn what we've received is to dream large dreams, to live lives of kindness, and to keep faith with the unfinished vision of the greatness and wonder of America.”
--President George H.W. Bush, “Remarks to Students and Faculty at Alice Deal Junior High School,” Oct. 1, 1991: “Let me tell you why I've made the trip up from the White House to Alice Deal Junior High. I'm not here to teach a lesson. You already have a very good teacher. I'm not here to tell you what to do or what to think. Maybe you're accustomed to adults talking about you and at you; well, today, I'm here to talk to you and challenge you. Education matters, and what you do today, and what you don't do can change your future. … I ask every student watching today: Look around you. Count four students. Start with yourself. No one dreams of becoming a dropout, but far too many do. Which one of you won't make it through school? The fact is, every one of you can. Let's make a pact then right here. Let's work to see that 5 years from now, you and your friends will be more than sad statistics. Give yourself a decent shot at your dreams. Stay in school. Get that diploma … Make the connection between the homework you do tonight, the test you take tomorrow, and where you'll be 5, 15, even 50 years from now.
“You see, the real world doesn't begin somewhere else, some time way down there in the distant future. The real world starts right here. What you do here will have consequences for your whole lives. … When it comes to your own education, what I'm saying is take control. Don't say school is boring and blame it on your teachers. Make your teachers work hard. Tell them you want a first-class education. Tell them that you're here to learn. Block out the kids who think it's not cool to be smart. I can't understand for the life of me what's so great about being stupid. If someone goofs off today, are they cool? Are they still cool years from now when they're stuck in a dead-end job? Don't let peer pressure stand between you and your dreams. … Let me leave you with a simple message: Every time you walk through that classroom door, make it your mission to get a good education. Don't do it just because your parents, or even the President, tells you. Do it for yourselves. Do it for your future.”
--President Clinton, “Remarks at Oak Bluffs [Mass.] School,” Sept. 3, 1997: “You know, every start of a school year is special because, as you well know, teachers come together with a new sense of dedication and energy and students show up wide-eyed in anticipation and parents pour all their hopes into what they hope will come out of the next year, that they're all truly wonderful. And I think they reflect the central premise of what you do for a living, and that is that our most important common enterprise as a people is clearly education. It's necessary not only for young people to grow up and be able to earn a good living, but perhaps more importantly, to be good citizens and even beyond that to live their own lives to the fullest, with a high degree of self-awareness and an ability to learn and absorb and grow throughout a lifetime.”
--President George W. Bush, “Remarks at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School,” Aug. 29, 2002: “We've got to aim higher. We need to challenge every student. I don't mean just the top 10, I mean every student needs to be challenged. We've got to make sure that people understand, starting with the parents, by the way, that they ought to challenge their children to take the toughest classes possible. That's what we have to do. You get people up to the minimum, but that's not good enough. We've got to provide people to continue to challenge themselves.”