Memo to conservatives: Chill out

So Barack Obama has given his speech to school children, and it was a fine if slightly flawed one, a needed, important call for students to be self-responsible, and I am very close to saying shame on you to some of my fellow conservatives. Why work yourselves into a mountain of frenzy over this pebble of an event?

There are a couple of answers to that question, of course, including the U.S. Education Department’s supplying the nation’s schools with follow-up materials that would have had students contemplating how exactly they should respond to the president’s wisdom. It was an act of oafish, bureaucratic overkill feeding the fear of political indoctrination and the instilling of Mao-style hero worship.

But schools were not obliged to use the materials or even to show the speech itself, and some did not. The education department later more or less conceded those materials were a mistake, and the next thing we had was Obama telling students from kindergarten through high school that their success in life — and their contribution to their country — would depend on what they learned in school and that it was finally up to them whether to learn or not.

This message from as imposing a figure as the president matters especially in a society forever informing one and all that we are victims almost wholly at the mercy of the victimizers. Although we can certainly suffer at the hands of others, we Americans are ultimately almost always free to make of ourselves what we will. This is not just a platitude, but also a truth especially necessary for achievement when disadvantages beckon us to live our lives in defeat.

Hurrah to our president for making the point, for talking about the virtue of hard work and for linking school days to the days to come. I happen to think he left something out, though — that, like good health, education is not just a means to various ends, but an end in itself.

In this pragmatically inclined land of ours, we can’t help emphasizing the utility of a thing, which is not so terrible except that a thing like education has an enormous value beyond its practical applications. It’s not just a way to get ahead, but a process that informs every minute of our existence, that turns on lights where otherwise we would stumble in the dark, that lets us see what ignorance hides and can supplant confusion and misapprehensions with understanding.

Education is capable of conferring not just a more successful life, but also a fuller, more aware, more electrifying life. Just the fundamental accomplishment of learning to read opens a door to a world of ceaseless wonder, namely the world of books which are available absolutely free of cost in the nation’s libraries.

Of course, no single speech can say everything that might be said, and it’s also highly unlikely that this speech, in and of itself, will make a major difference in the performance of huge numbers of the nation’s students. Federal policy can conceivably make such a difference, though, and we’ll have to wait and see what Obama comes up with. Some of what’s been mentioned so far sounds good — an emphasis on charter schools, for instance — but some of what was said in the campaign about vastly extending the federal reach sounds unaffordable, unnecessary and unwise.

Meanwhile, I’d like my conservative friends to calm down a bit. For sure, be vigilant — Obama has worked hard to earn our wariness. But don’t let wariness slip into paranoia. Back off when concerns are met with plausible explanations, save your energies for the causes that most need it and give credit where credit is due. It is due to Obama for his education speech.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)