Rhetoric and Civic Life
10 Oct. 2012
Obama’s Education Promise, a Rhetorical Analysis
“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...
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