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State of the Union -- What Will I Tell My Students?

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I just replayed the part of our president's State of the Union speech when he told everyone it is time to show teachers more respect and the mild applause that followed. I watched it on a loop until those applause seemed sincere.

Then I went back and watched him remind parents of their responsibility to make sure the TV is off and homework gets done and his beautiful--if a bit idealistic--assertion that "hard work and discipline, not fame or PR, are what lead to success."

I enjoyed the comic relief about how his education reforms are not top-down mandates right after he boasted that he'd gotten governors to revise education standards for all the peons in their respective states. I appreciated the irony of his challenge-- "If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money"--followed by his characterization of teachers as the very non-innovative "man or woman at the front of the classroom."

Then he managed to alienate English teachers everywhere (or at least the really picky ones like me) with the unthinkable: "...to every young person [SINGULAR] listening tonight who's contemplating their [PLURAL] career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher." Sorry, Mr. President, but I'm out here imploring my 11th grade students to stop mixing tenses and now they see their hero flouting a basic rule of grammar. Please, have a word with your writers. Or have them sit in on my classes. I can go over transitions with them also. I can't believe you used one as pedantic as:

"Of course, the education race doesn't end with a high school diploma. To compete, higher education must be within the reach of every American."

Is it wrong to expect more from such a formidable orator--one whose speeches my students have analyzed as examples of transcendent rhetoric? I don't think so. In his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell wrote:

"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

"Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. "

Our education debate, of course, has no shortage of foolish thoughts or slovenly language.

Starting with the names of these programs--or maybe the fact that they even have names:

No Child Left Behind? Race to the Top?

These are not honest or precise identifiers of what they represent? They are slogans--and the purpose of a slogan most often to hype inessential over-priced products.

Why not call the new so-called education reform plan, Education Plan for Better Schools? Or call it: Something for the Voters We Hope Might Help.

Perhaps the hype is meant to inspire us, like telling parents to turn off the TV and making children do their homework and encouraging them to pursue a career as a math or science teacher when they grow up.

I kind of hoped President Obama would go beyond just calling out parents and children. Tell those "bad teachers" out there to resign immediately. Tell them they are hurting our children and our economy. Tell them to go find something else to do. Get an administrative credential or apply for a job with one of the foundations or go to work for the testing industry. I wish he had called out the drug dealers and gang bangers and the people who sell term papers over the internet and dishonest anti-intellectuals everywhere, including those right there in the senate chamber.