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Obama’s Education Promise, a Rhetorical Analysis Essay

“Education is the best provision for the journey to old age.” – Aristotle Today, 314.5 million people call themselves Americans. Each of them, with God permitting, will make the journey to old age. However, in this huge set of individuals, roughly fifteen percent of adults over the age of twenty-five have not received a high school diploma (“Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009”). By itself, this percentage feels rather small, and so we as Americans pride ourselves in our educational system. After crunching the numbers, however, this measly percentage actually represents twenty-nine million Americans, twenty-nine million individuals who lack an accomplished high school education.

Aristotle would be displeased to say the least. In 2008, then senator Barack Obama delivered a speech to the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts titled “What’s Possible for our Children.” Though intended for his election campaign, the speech also reflected this introduction’s attitude, calling attention to the gaping holes in American education. More specifically, however, Obama promoted educational reform based on a three-point platform: “fixing” No Child Left Behind (an act which encourages state standardized tests to measure and regulate primary and secondary education in the United States), encouraging teacher reforms and furthering teaching employment, and increasing opportunities for minor ethnicities and other disadvantaged students. In retrospect, his speech met with great optimism and is often quoted by leaders in education. To explain this speech’s success more fully requires an analysis of Obama’s seasoned rhetorical strategies, of ethos, logos, and pathos—respectively, as well as an explanation of how each of these three strategies establishes an effective speech.

Obama sprinkles ethos, or ethical proof, throughout his three-point platform. In doing so, he gears his audience’s attention towards his assessment of the ethical standards in American education to inspire motivation and change. For example, in the introduction, Obama states, “This kind of America is morally unacceptable for our children” (qtd. in “Full text of Obama’s education speech”). Through this statement, Obama assumes the role of an ethical mediator; he creates situated ethos whereby, as a presidential candidate, he has the power to tell us as a society where we are correct and where we can improve. By equating American education with moral irresponsibility, he calls society to consider the issues he addresses later in his speech. One such issue is No Child Left Behind, his first premise. In discussing the problems within the act passed by former President Bush in 2001, Obama repeats the phrase “we must” almost religiously.

Must is a strong word choice; it implies an obligation to something. As an audience member, we make the connection that the obligation is precisely what Obama stated in the introduction. We must make our educational standards higher for our children; thus, we become motivated to fix No Child Left Behind. Likewise, in his second point, which promises teacher reforms and employment, Obama begins with a simple commonplace: Individuals who do good jobs should be rewarded. Using the ethos from his introduction, he concludes that teachers who do good jobs should be rewarded, which gives motivation for teachers to do well. Obama even goes so far as to inspire change in education among ethnic minorities, his final point. In this point, he calls upon hope—hope that disadvantaged students will one day rise from the bottom with his new learning opportunity programs. His optimism and confidence calls us, his audience, to change.

Obama further generalizes this notion of change during his conclusion when he states, “We have to hold ourselves accountable” (qtd. in “Full text of Obama’s education speech”). By holding the audience accountable, educational reform becomes both a private and public matter. Therefore, the audience, 314.5 million Americans, feel more personally compelled, motivated even, to follow his advice—to change No Child Left Behind, to reward teachers for good work, and to give more opportunities to disadvantaged students—to reform much of the current educational model, in effect. Logos and pathos, however, are still needed to solidify such an undertaking.

Realizing he is delivering a speech about education, an intellectual topic, Obama adds several textbook examples of logos, or logical proof, to his speech. Simply put, after he explains the unacceptable educational current model to his audience using ethos, he uses logos to depict the reality of how unacceptable the system is. In his introduction, for instance, Obama equates knowledge to the “currency” of the Information Age, stating that an individual should use his or her knowledge to “sell” himself or herself to a career position. A cause-and-effect relationship soon follows to support this extended metaphor: “If the more than 16,000 Colorado students who dropped out of high school last year had only finished, the economy in th[e] state would have seen an additional $4.1 billion in wages over these students’ lifetime” (qtd. in “Full text of Obama’s education speech). Logically, we as the audience then deduce that education, in reality, is profitable. It is in our interest to be well-educated, but as of now, we are losing money from being uneducated.

From there, Obama makes a more explicit logical deduction to support his first premise. If we as Americans want to help the economy, we should fix No Child Left Behind. His logical reasoning for fixing the program stems from its seemingly insufficient economic policy, which stifles the paychecks of teachers who we as a society want to inspire. Because of such, he suggests that, while No Child Left Behind’s goals are noble on paper, its functional mechanics are illogical and unacceptable in the real world. By doing so, he gains more support from educators and economists. Obama also uses logos in his third premise, albeit implicitly.

Back in the introduction, Obama quotes the following from Thomas Jefferson, a well-respected president from American history: “[T]alent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth or birth” (qtd. in “Full text of Obama’s education speech). Obama knows that the general public will agree with anything Thomas Jefferson says because he is so well respected in American history. Therefore, when he discusses the current issues of ethnic minorities, he conjures support from a broader spectrum of Americans because he is in accordance with Thomas Jefferson. In that respect, he is able to use logos as a means to show the unacceptable truth behind the educational system—to showcase the relationship between revenue and education as well as highlight student-teacher discrimination—to the widely diverse American people.

Among all the strategies Obama uses in his speech, pathos, or emotional proof, is the most commonly used, especially in the introduction and conclusion. The reason for this distinct placement of pathos is elementary: In order to grab the audience’s attention and illustrate the realities of America’s educational system, of which both processes require ethos and logos, Obama must connect to the audience’s emotions—to bring about changes in thought and heart. His most effective strategy that does so is his appeal to children. Countless numbers of times, Obama urges us as older Americans to provide better education for our posterity. By doing so, he uses our unconditional love for children, perhaps seeing our own children in other children, in a way that grabs our attention so that we may listen and critically think about what he has to say regarding education.

On top of using the obligation to children as the basis for attention, Obama also invokes imagery during his oration. An example of this imagery is found in his third premise: “When they [students at disadvantages] look around and see that no one has lifted a finger to fix their school since the 19th century, when they are pushed out the door at the sound of the last bell—some into a virtual war zone—is it any wonder they don’t think their education is important? Is it any wonder that they are dropping out in rates we’ve never seen before?” (qtd. in “Full text of Obama’s education speech”) The very thought of a neglected child, or a child in a “war zone” for that matter, tugs at the hearts in the audience. By using such imagery in the third premise, the audience is helpless, for not many people can resist such raw emotion.

The audience’s helplessness makes them vulnerable to changes in thought. In this case, the audience’s thoughts will largely favor Obama’s intent to dampen the disadvantages of ethnical minorities and mentally handicapped students. To conclude his emotional journey and to leave his audience emotionally “fulfilled,” Obama taps into the biggest patriotic commonplace in America—the “American dream.” He takes the one idealistic value that all 314.5 million Americans hold in common and equates the chance to educate oneself with that core value. It leaves a powerful, lasting impression on his audience and, alongside all the other pathetic strategies mentioned previously, heightens the audience’s interest in investing in educational reform.

Hence, after looking extensively at all these different strategies at work, is it any wonder why the speech did not meet with such critical acclaim? Ethos persuaded us as the audience that our educational system was ethically unacceptable. Logos described the current state of the educational system in a way that made us want to change it to Obama’s standards. Pathos sweetened our perception of that change, making us believe that educational reform will correct the current unacceptable model. Together, the three major strategies mixed in just the right proportions to yield instantaneous changes in audience perception and evaluation of America’s educational standards. It created waves which propagated Obama’s educational reform ideals to all parts of the United States. In fact, these waves continue to ripple throughout the American political arena; one needs to look no further than the 2012 presidential debates to confirm such a statement.

Ultimately, education is on the minds of everyone, as well it should be. True as it is to say that agriculture started civilization, it is equally as true to say that education started modern civilization. Therefore, we as citizens of the entire world should be concerned with the development of our education, for when we lose our education, we lose our modern civilization. Aristotle is correct. As humanity matures, it ages. How does humanity mature? It educates itself. Without education the future remains uncertain, for there are no provisions to account for the uncertainty. As Americans, all 314.5 million of us would like to believe that the future of our nation is determined to stay. To claim such a belief with any amount of certainty, however, requires all 314.5 million individuals to be educated. Until then, we continue to build provisions for the hazy future that awaits us.

Works Cited
“Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009.” U.S. Census Bureau. Feb. 2012. Digital file.
“Full text of Obama’s education speech.” denverpost.com. 2 Dec. 2008. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.

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