President Obama's Farewell Address a Civics Lesson and Call to Action

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

President Barack ObamaLast week, President Obama returned to Chicago to deliver his farewell address at McCormick Place. “Our nation’s call to citizenship” was central to his message, wrapped around three threats to our democracy. His words translate into a powerful lesson plan for engaging students in post-election public policy and the democratic process more generally.

Our collective work in civic education lies at the center of two (often) competing agendas, both of them present in the President’s address. One, we seek to build adherence among our students to the American system of democracy. And two, we strive to equip them with the tools and dispositions to form a more perfect union.

The first threat detailed by President Obama was various roadblocks to the American Dream, including equitable access to an education. This leads naturally to class discussions of the platforms of our two major political parties, and how they square with the campaign rhetoric and Cabinet appointees of President-Elect Trump.

The parties themselves are very much in flux at this juncture in our history, and our students can play a major role in shaping their future. Millennials now constitute the largest voting bloc, and a plurality refuse to identify with either party. Opportunities abound to craft an inclusive message that appeals to this next generation of voters.

President Obama elevated the contentious issue of race relations as a second threat to democracy, claiming that “race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” For example, Chicago, among many other cities, is grappling with racially discriminatory policing practices and appalling violence that cripples deeply disadvantaged communities disproportionately populated by people of color. The President encouraged us to assume the best of intentions among all parties as we aspire for the true meaning of our creed, that “all men (and women) are created equal.”

The third and final threat centers on the lack of shared assumptions among Americans, where even a “common baseline of facts” is elusive and there’s a strong tendency to demonize our opponents. It’s therefore difficult, for example, to address the devastating consequences of climate change if we can’t even agree that it’s real.

As educators, we must own each of these threats.
  • We must develop an ethic of shared mutually among our students, helping them recognize that the fate of our neighbors and communities is intimately connected to their own.
  • That tolerance of difference is a floor, not a ceiling. Indeed, diversity among Americans is and always has been our greatest strength.
  • And, while everyone is entitled to their own personal opinions, there are a basic set of empirical facts that set the stage for value-laden debates.
President Obama concluded with a call to action, and it’s my hope that it inspires our students to buy into the American system of government, but also commit to using the tools of citizenship to build a more inclusive and upwardly-mobile society.

If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere.

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