Rick, you’re absolutely right. It is a pretty wonderful speech, Obama’s controversial address to America’s schoolchildren, and is, I would say, quite remarkably nonideological.
The key passage, in my mind, is this:
That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education — and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. . . . Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things. But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.
That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you — you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.
Given his predecessor’s odd take on education—asserting its profound importance while joking all the while about what a terrible student he himself had been—this comes as a welcome message from any American leader and especially from an African-American president of the United States. Work hard, don’t be overwhelmed by failure, and keep a sense of what it means to have a future. This all has the distinct advantage of being true, being true for everyone, and being something every young person can hear with profit.
None of this means anyone under the age of 40 will actually be listening, though.