What kind of parents?

During the dispute over President Obama’s speech to the nation’s schoolchildren, it became apparent that some parents actually told their children not to listen to the president and to opt-out from the speech in favor of other school activities set up by schools for such cases.

Think about that. Parents were telling students not to listen to another point of view.

How did we get to this point, of parents considering it a positive development that their children are not exposed to other viewpoints?

What happens when those students become teenagers and refuse to listen to their parents?

What happens when those children encounter the real world and try to work under supervisors whose instructions they do not respect?

And what kind of parents would want to limit the intellectual horizons of their children in such a way?

It’s unlikely that such a middle-of-the-road politician as Barack Obama would lead anyone astray in the first place, but that’s not really the point. Parents should already have trained their children to regard voices of authority, from breakfast cereal boxes to comic books to school textbooks to presidents of the United States with a healthy skepticism. By the time they get to school, that skepticism can weigh and test the claims the children hear.

But simply shielding children from viewpoints of which parents do not approve is silly, self-defeating and a disservice to the children themselves.

There are those who have expressed regret at the way this incident has shown that presidents have been displaced in civic leadership. Author Susan Jacoby, for instance, wrote, “What are the educational (forget, for a moment, about the political) implications of this kind of successful pressure on public schools? What does it say about the future of our civic values if the nation’s president—any president—cannot give an innocuous speech to kick off the school year?”

We share that frustration, but we are more concerned about what it will do to growing and learning children to fit them with intellectual blinders.

In the 1890s, there were calls for the firing of a Wisconsin professor who taught the fundamentals of socialism along with those of capitalism in economics classes. The state Board of Regents responded, “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Children, even—or especially—small children, don’t learn from having the “truth” prescribed and handed to them by adults. They learn from testing propositions against each other and using their brains to subject verities to evidence. If they fail to learn those processes, they are ill equipped to compete and achieve in society. And those who do learn those processes are going to leap ahead of the others.

Children learn best by example, and parents who told their children not to even listen to President Obama were sending those children a powerful message and setting them a terrible example.