Education is one of President Barack Obama’s key issues. It is a very import factor in determining the rising generation’s competitiveness and more important a keystone in maintaining their position as the only superpower. Obama’s speech “Back to School”, which was held at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia on September 8, 2009, is an excellent opportunity for the President to address students across America directly and to state and elaborate the importance of education.
The audience consist of students aged six to eighteen and due to this audience he uses colloquial language and many real-life exemplifications to simplify his message and engage the audience. This is already clear from the first line, “Hello everyone – how’s everybody doing today?”1 By being delightfully informal and speaking directly to his audience, Obama puts on an equal footing with his audience. This is an intentional choice to assure that the students can identify themselves with him and thus hopefully listen intensely. Obama presents himself as honest and reliable: “I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have”. To acknowledge one’s errors is considered sympathetic and the purpose with this quote is to edify or improve Obama’s image and hereby strengthen his ethos. Obama acknowledges that he has made errors, but inspiringly emphasises that with hard work you can still achieve goals in life, that even with errors you can become the President of the United States.
After Obama has created a certain image of himself, he has the ability to demand something of his audience. Thus he repeats the word ‘responsibility’ up to eight times in a short amount of time. He also uses several anaphors as a rhetorical device with the purpose to clarify his message, “I’ve talked about your teacher’s responsibility (…) I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility (…) I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility (…)”3 He clearly wants to imprint the importance of an education and that every student has responsibility for their own learning. Later in his speech he points out that even if the overall framework is good none of it will matter unless the student ‘s responsibilities are fulfilled.
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Education is not only important to the student, but also wields significant influence on the state, “We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect (…) If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.”4 The quote has a doublet effect. On the one hand Obama appeals to patriotic feelings and pathos, which puts in one’s minds the former President John F. Kennedy’s well-known statement: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” On the other hand he hopes that the audience will feel discomfort if they don’t get an education and help their country to develop positively.
His speech is filled with different anecdotes from real-life to motivate his audience, which furthermore appeals to pathos. First he speaks of his own experiences, which is followed by an anecdote about First Lady Michelle Obama and her upbringing. Then Obama tells three different anecdotes about the three students Jazmin Perez, Andoni Schultz and Shantell Steve. In all cases they refused to give up because of their individual challenges but overcame their hurdles by hard work. It is possible to create the future you like by pursuing your dreams which is a hidden reference to the cultural heritage “the American dream”, which also appeals to pathos.
At the end of his speech he appeals to logos by bringing the students to reason. He mentions that it is important to keep up the hard work because, “Maybe you could be a good writer (…) but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator (…) but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class.”5
Obama clearly uses the Greek trinity pathos, ethos and logos, the three forms of appeal to address his audience. It is very important for Obama that his speech inspires and motivates students not to give up and to energetically study to finish their education no matter which situation they’re in. He also wants to make it clear that only hard work will lead to success. In addiction to that it shows that Obama expects a lot of his country and its youth and that he assigns a high priority to values such as diligence and hard work.
He encourages students to study hard and take responsibility for their education, urge students to set goals, believe in themselves and to be the authors of their own destinies. In addiction to that, children are only able to break their social heritage through education, which demands a great deal of the students but in the end gives quite a few opportunities.
Obama makes a clear display of the fact that students are not only responsible for themselves but also have a responsibility to the country, and thus Obama tries to unite the students as one symbiont organism rooted in the country of their origin. Because of the economic crisis and America’s low rate of growth, it is important to stabilize the economy. Education is an economic issue if not the economic issue. Among other things the high unemployment rate is for people who do not have a college degree almost doublet compared those who have an education. Furthermore many jobs require a higher level of education. In these economically difficult times education has a high priority. Especially with challenges from newly industrialized countries with high economic growth and China’s change from primarily exporting manufacturing goods to producing highly value added products. Thus Obama encourages students across America to roll up their sleeves to prevent the economic crisis’ adverse effects and meet the increased globalized competition.
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