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School speech worthwhile Ideological criticism often off the mark for talk emphasizing work, dedication

This just in: President speaks to schoolchildren at the start of the school year, urging them to work hard and take responsibility for their own education.

Not much new there; other presidents have done much the same.

But in some quarters President Obama's video talk to schoolchildren Tuesday somehow became Indoctrination to Socialism 101, and tantamount to brainwashing. Never mind that many of the same students watched Obama's inaugural address in January, a speech much more steeped in the president's agenda than this talk ever was.

But this wasn't about education; it was about politics. And even beyond politics, it was a lesson in how divided this nation has become.

The office of the president is, without doubt, the most powerful pulpit in the land. And any address beamed to a captive audience of young minds certainly demands careful crafting, and deserves scrutiny.

That was true for President Ronald Reagan's similar school year talk in 1988, and of President George H.W. Bush's back-to-school address in 1991. Both drew some taxpayer-expense criticism from Democrats.

But the firestorm over the Obama speech follows on the heels of the summer's vitriol over health care reform, and of flame-fanning by those opposed to Obama in any form. Some school districts pulled the plug on the speech in response -- another lesson, and an unfortunate one, for any schoolchildren paying attention.

Some good came of it. There were some changes in the proposed text -- which eventually was posted online by the White House for parents and anyone else to review before it was delivered. The major change -- substituting a call for students to set and work toward their educational goals, for an earlier version that asked them to think what they could do to help the president. That crossed a line. Former President John F. Kennedy was on target when he asked Americans to help their country; personalizing that to the presidency strayed off the mark.

But the change was made -- and, even more importantly, changes in distributed federal Education Department supporting materials also were made. The message got back on target, and was worth delivering.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a conservative icon, was right in summing up the concept Sunday by noting that "it is good to have the president of the United States saying to young people across America, stay in school and do your homework. It's good for America."

It is. And Obama can reach a wide segment of schoolchildren, including at-risk schoolchildren, because of the possibilities he represents. "Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up," he told schoolchildren. "No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future."

That's socialism?

Here's the core of Obama's message: "Today, I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education -- and to do everything you can to meet them. . . . Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it."

"The truth is," he said, "being successful is hard. You won't love every subject you study. You won't click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won't necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try."

But, he added, "We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don't do that -- if you quit on school -- you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country."

Not a bad thing for kids to hear, before a new school year.

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