01 September 2010

Word Choice in Political Speech - Obama 31 August 2010

During one of President Obama's departures from what was supposed to be the central issue of his address on 31 August, he spoke directly to the issue of education. I admit that I'm a stickler for words, especially in a prepared speech such as this. With that in mind, I have a problem with one statement in particular. Mr. Obama claimed, "To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve, and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy."

The first problem I have is the idea that education is something which is given. This is absolutely not the case. An education is something that must be worked for. An education is not something which can be wrapped up and given like a present, like some gift. The Latin verb discere - which means "to learn" - does not have a passive form; it can only be an active verb. This may seem to be a minor point, but it is important nonetheless. Mr. Obama's coupling of education with the action of giving indicates a belief in a passive learner, one who can be molded as the teacher sees fit. It is a belief that does not meet reality. One may offer an education; it is the business of the student - be he a kindergartener or someone retraining for a new job - to grab and internalize that education. It cannot simply be injected; education has to be personally ingested, which is an activity of the learner, not the teacher.

The second problem is Mr. Obama's use of the pronoun "we" in this statement. One must guess who exactly he means, as the antecedent is not clear given the full context of the speech. If one looks back several paragraphs, one might deduce that Mr. Obama means all Americans - the "big" we. However, given the lack of a clear antecedent, he may mean the government. Or he may mean his administration and the various agencies within the executive branch. If either of the last two is the case - and I believe it is - then it is clear that Mr. Obama sees the federal government is the "giver" of education. This would be consistent with what appears to be his view of the role of government - centralized control should be exercised over as much as possible because, in the end, the government knows how to cure social problems. I strongly disagree with this view of the role of government.


Kristin said...

By saying "we", maybe he simply means the ones currently providing that education to students - be it teachers or parents, or those with more experience than the student that are willing to provide their knowledge as a means of education. I didn't hear his entire speech, but maybe you're reading into it too much.

Glad to see you're posting again and offering up your insight.

Bob M. said...


I only mention his choice of pronoun because of his tendency to use "I" and "me" so very much in his prepared remarks (and unprepared, for that matter). So when he says "we", I noticed a shift and wondered why - though of course he wouldn't say "I" in this case! Anyway, perhaps I did read too much into the "we", but I think the use of "give" is much more telling.