Lately it seems like not a day goes by when I don’t see an image like the one at the right, usually posted by a friend or two of mine who has conservative political leanings. Now, I have voted Democrat since I was 18 and will continue to do so, so none of what I see in this regard is going to change my mind at all.
I have, however, found it a little offensive. But, I have to say, not offensive in the way that might be expected. Making fun of the president is a national pastime for both political parties, and unless the ridicule crosses a line into something that’s bigoted (which this does not) there’s no real reason to find it offensive. What is offensive, though, is that everyone who has harped on this doesn’t seem to realize that this isn’t what President Obama said.
Oh sure, he actually uttered the phrase “You didn’t build that,” but those who don’t like him are taking that one phrase completely out of context from these paragraphs of a larger speech:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
That sounds a heck of a lot different than “You didn’t build that!”, now doesn’t it? In fact, that sounds like the spirit of collaboration I often hear discussed among my fellow educators. I’ve said before that I value the efforts of the individual, but I definitely know that in order to succeed in whatever profession they choose, my students are going to need to know how to work well as part of a team. It doesn’t matter what that chosen profession is–teachers, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, construction workers, video store clerks, baristas all at one point or another work with someone or perhaps for someone. There is no vacuum for success and while there may be competition, even that isn’t done completely alone.
With the important yet obvious point about collaboration and education out of the way, I want to get to the heart of what is really bugging me and that is that people–who are college educated, mind you–continue to fall for the old political trick of a quote taken out of context. I realize that said out-of-context quote is merely a representation of an opinion those people already had, but when I saw the very first criticism of the president’s “comment” my b.s. alarm immediately went off and I looked up the full text of his speech. It’s not the most eloquent of statements and Obama’s made better, but if you read even those few paragraphs it’s easy to see his point. In fact, I think he makes it very clear in the last two sentences I quoted there.
If you’re teaching English (or any -ish for that matter), I think it’s clear to see that you still have a job to do here. We talk a lot about the Internet and the amount of information that our students take in and how they’re “digital natives” or something, but when you look at our culture overall it’s probably just as lacking in savvy and in knowledge as it has been for years. The old-style research methods that use books, encyclopedias, almanacs, and The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature might be dinosaurs, but the fact remains that we still need to be sure that our students know how to not only access but evaluate information and its sources.
I don’t know if it’s laziness or what, but it seems that the hardest habit among my students to break is ignoring the very thorough online databases that our library and media center subscribes to, going right to Google, clicking the first link, and declaring they’re done with research. Because obviously, they’re not. And neither are you if you think that research is something that be contained within a unit or a project. In order to break bad research habits and actually make an attempt at fighting the ignorance that comes with believing every quote out of context posted to Facebook, research methods and evaluating information needs to be done continuously.
When I taught intro to journalism a number of years ago, I taught a class that was a mix of learning how to write like a journalist (with the goal of going on to advanced journalism, which was the student newspaper staff) and media studies. We constantly looked at current events and how they were reported, and very often evaluated that reporting (okay, some of that “evaluating” involved me making fun of the New York Post on a regular basis). I don’t know how much my students actually took a way from it and I definitely know that plenty of my lessons on media savvy probably weren’t successful (since it was an elective, I experimented with different lessons a lot), but at least, I feel, that I was trying to make them active consumers of news.
My former department chair used to tell us to “Go forth and stomp out ignorance.” Now, in the context of where we taught, he was sort of making a pithy comment, but I have to say that I do feel as if that’s part of my mission as a teacher and when I am not successful in that endeavor, I get very frustrated. Don’t take for granted that your students have had access to a computer since they were zygotes. Don’t assume that they have read news online beyond what they’ve seen on Facebook or Twitter. Make sure that they know what they are looking at and can properly judge it. Then, maybe, we can take a few steps toward eliminating ignorant crap like “You didn’t build that!”