First Lady Michelle Obama moved into new political territory today when she visited students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C. to discuss the importance of higher education. It’s not the first time the First Lady has weighed in on the importance of education, but today marked her first official forway into the world of ed policy. And while she framed her remarks around President Obama’s goal to make the U.S. the world’s top producer of college graduates, she kept her speech policy-free, instead choosing to speak about her own childhood, and lace her story with the personal responsibility themes which show up so often in her husband’s remarks toward black audiences in particular.
“At the end of the day, no matter what the president does, no matter what your teachers and principals do or whatever is going on in our home or neighborhood, the person with the biggest impact on your educaiton is you. It’s that simple,” Obama said today. “It’s you, the student. And more than anything else, meeting that 2020 goal is going to take young people like you steppig up and taking control of your education.”
“It’s not your circumstance that defines your future,” Obama later said. “It’s your attitude. It’s your commitment. You decide how high you set your goals. You decide how hard you’re going to work toward those goals,” she said.
Her words are important and inspiring; that Obama can call on her own path growing up the daughter of working-class parents and climbing to the heights of the country’s most elite educational institutions makes them even more powerful. But, much more than Obama acknowledged in her remarks, structural forces like poverty and racial inequity have a great deal of power over young people’s educational outcomes. In fact, recent studies have shown that the achievement gap today is not solely due to a bottoming out of the test scores of the poorest students. It’s actually that the test scores of the wealthiest students are rising higher and higher into the ether, dynamics exacerbated by growing class and enduring racial stratification in the country. There are always exceptions—take Obama herself—but for most and on a broad scale, structural forces beyond the control of any one student matter.
The First Lady’s remarks today were innocuous enough on their face, stressing the importance of hard work and believing in oneself and never feeling shame for the struggles one has faced. But they should be noted with caution. Obama, with all her power and charm, may very well be carrying on the neoliberal education reform agenda her husband has championed, while wrapping it up in her deeply personal words which erase the larger political and social forces at play.
Watch Obama’s remarks in full here.