This past weekend, a school colleague challenged me to ‘get a selfie with the president.’
As I watched President Obama leave the State Room where he had just spent the last hour talking with about a hundred of us about education, I heard one young woman in the front row ask him for a selfie. He paused, smiled at her, and said, “If I start doing that, I’ll be here all day.” And he moved on. He has a lot of work to do.
So I failed at the challenge, and I’m a little surprised that I would start describing my day at the White House here. But it provides some context for my takeaways from the experience.
First off – what happened. Tumblr invited users to submit questions about education access and student loan debt, and to apply to be part of an in-person event at the White House on Tuesday, June 10. I use Tumblr with my Graphic Design classes, and have also used the platform to document other projects. I’m also trying to learn as much as I can about journalism, because the (mis)adventures I’ve shared with students in this area over the last couple of years have been some of the most rewarding parts of the teaching gig. When Tumblr contacted me with an invitation to attend Tuesday’s town hall, I couldn’t say no.
So, after a surprisingly leisurely stroll through the East Wing of the White House – rooms that I’d only seen in photos or on television, and would have laughed if you’d told me a few weeks ago I’d be there – I found myself sitting in the State Dining Room, waiting for the President to speak. I was in the back row, but I was still sitting less than fifteen feet from his chair.
The rationale for the Tumblr session at the White House was transparent. The President wanted to have a conversation about some current events, and he wanted to do so with people affected by the current state of student loans. More than 40% of Tumblr users are between the ages of 18 and 34 – people either on the cusp of taking on student loans, or dealing with them as they try to begin their adult lives.
Current events. There was a vote this week on a bill sponsored by Elizabeth Warren that would allow millions of student loan holders to refinance at lower rates. The President signed an executive order this week to expand access to income-based repayment – full disclosure, I might be homeless without IBR, so this was good news in my book. The student loan issue is a big one, worthy of a Tumblr town hall and a lot more discussion. Forty million Americans have them, totaling over $1.3 trillion dollars of debt that is keeping us from buying homes or making major investments.
But the Boston Globe speculated that Warren’s bill might be “little more than a sacrificial lamb, designed to make Republicans look callous ahead of mid-term elections.” Indeed, this bill did fail, less than 24 hours after Obama discussed it with us. Warren’s bill promised to pay for the refinancing by closing some tax loopholes for the wealthy, so Mitch McConnell tossed it right back to the Democrats. “Senate Democrats don’t actually want a solution for students. They want an issue to campaign on — to save their own hides in November,” said McConnell, according to The Hill.
On multiple levels, this political conversation saddens me. Whether these leaders are finding issues for campaigns or mudslinging back and forth, millions of us still sign away our middle class mobility in our student loan checks each month.
But chin up. It’s encouraging that a conversation about student loan debt is happening, even though neither Obama’s executive order nor Warren’s bill made any gestures towards reducing the spiking costs of college tuition. The longer the issue is in the headlines – be it New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Tumblr, the better the chances that it puts as much pressure on our politicians as our student debt puts on us each month.
Tumblr founder David Karp started yesterday’s conversation off with the caveat that the questions were blogger-submitted, and none had been reviewed by the President or his staffers in advance. He thanked Obama for inviting us to his house for the afternoon.
“This is a rental house. My lease runs out in about 2 1/2 years,” clarified the President.
We laughed. We relaxed. This was going to be the unscripted conversation we had hoped for.
There are a lot of news outlets who covered yesterday’s event far better than anything I could do here. You can watch the full broadcast on Tumblr (and see me there), read reports in just about any national news source, check out what Mashable and Buzzfeed noticed, or – and I love this – check out what Natalie posted on USAToday yesterday about the President’s propensity for viral social media. I’d spent the morning at the Newseum, and I felt nearly as humbled to be in the same room as the newsmakers manning their cameras and microphones. What a job they have to do, in reporting so much, so accurately.
President Obama talked a lot about high school yesterday. Or maybe he talked about the solvable problems in education – and his challenges were thrown at high school education.
One question referred to the current executive order as a ‘band-aid,’ and asked Obama what he would do to lower college tuition so that such heavy borrowing would not be necessary. Obama noted that college tuition has skyrocketed past other costs because state legislatures are subsidizing less than they used to, and that personnel costs have shot up faster than wages and incomes. “There are ways to bring down those costs, and we know this because there are some colleges that have done a very good job at keeping tuition low. But we also have to do a better job at informing students how to keep their debt down.”
From that point forward, much of his discussion felt weighted towards what we can do before college to help solve the problem of overwhelming student debt. President Obama wants high school students to have greater exposure to careers. He also plugged Federal Student Aid programs designed to help students who are considering college make solid, affordable choices. (The College Scorecard is going to be impressive once all the data is in.) He called for more hands-on experience, more apprenticeships, more training, so students get a sense of the training they need and whether they actually like the fields they are considering.
“High school should be a time in which young people have greater exposure to actual careers as opposed to just classroom study. If you are somebody who is interested in graphic design, I’d rather have you work at a company doing graphic design your senior year or junior year to see if you actually like it, to get a sense of the training you need. You may not need a four-year degree. You might only need a two-year degree. You might be able to work while getting that degree. All that can save you money. So that can make a really big difference for high school kids.”
But how do students figure out exposure and experiential opportunities? How do they learn about all of these resources? Last I’d checked, underfunded school districts are making catastrophic cuts to the guidance counseling teams whose job it is to help students sort through options and opportunities. (Or wait – their primary job is counseling students, when can they even get to the college counseling part?) Even at private schools like mine – where college counseling is an art form and experiential learning is now a stated goal – it’s often up to overachieving students and their families to identify (and finance) the sorts of programs that might let them really try out career experiences before the commitment of college. Admittedly, no contest between the challenge levels facing public and private schools. But the problem of reinventing education to help students make better choices about college and career is real, wherever you go.
It’s all so important that I was glad to hear the President dwelling on this theme. Because the longer I teach, the more I’m realizing the importance of the ‘trial run’ – the time when a student gets to figure out what it is that s/he is willing to invest time and energy into. And those opportunities have moved beyond classroom doors.
“I think too many of us see college as a box to check or a place to have fun and extend adolescence, as opposed to a opportunity for each of us to figure out what is it that we’re good at, what is it that we care about, what is it that we’re willing to invest a lot of time and effort and energy into, how do we hone some skills or interests or attributes that we already have. And as a consequence, I think young people waste a lot of time in school.
Education is not a passive thing. You don’t tip your head and somebody pours it into your ear. It is an active process of you figuring out the world and your place in it.
Look, nobody expects that somebody who is 16 automatically knows exactly what they want to do, and people may change their minds repeatedly. But what we can do is expose young people to enough actual work and occupations that they start getting a feel for what they would be interested in.”
David took a detour later in the conversation, to ask a question about what the President is going to do to keep schools safe. I didn’t know it, but at the time he asked this question, my former student and friend Natalie was working on filing a story on the most recent school shooting at a high school in Portland, OR. I’d missed the headline while I was browsing the Newseum. Her story cites this as the 74th shooting on a US campus since the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, CT. Visibly moved, Obama responded to his question:
“My biggest frustration so far is the fact that this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do just unbelievable damage. We’re the only developed country on Earth where this happens. And it happens now once a week. And it’s a one-day story.
There’s no place else like this… …The country has to do some soul searching about this. This is becoming the norm, and we take it for granted in ways that, as a parent, are terrifying to me.”
Crushing amounts of student debt. Political theatre and impasse. Violence in our schools. And yet, President Obama closed by cautioning us against cynicism.
“Even when I’m frustrated with Congress or I’m frustrated with the press and how it’s reporting things and Washington generally, I also know that there’s something I can do every single day that’s helping somebody,” he said.
“Guard against cynicism. Look out on the horizon. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.”
After the White House adventure, I met Natalie for dinner in her DC neighborhood. While we were swapping stories and planning a journalism workshop for the staff of the paper I advise, a group of police officers sat down at a nearby table.
Natalie stood, went over to the table, and spoke to the officers. “I’m a journalist, and I spent my day covering the Oregon shooting. I can’t even imagine what we would do without people as brave as you. Thank you for everything you do.”
The officers smiled. I just stood there watching this decidedly uncynical moment, thinking back on the day.
My biggest takeaway from spending an afternoon with the President? We have a lot of work to do. It’s hard work, everyday work, everyone-has-their-part, you-damn-well-better-care work. Obama said, “Work is not always fun, and you can’t always follow your bliss every day, but ultimately you are going to your best at something you care deeply about.” Some of our politicians are missing the point that it’s good, rewarding, and unselfish work, too – and that we’ve had to entrust some of our opportunities to do it to them.
To keep from growing cynical, maybe it’s the little things we do each day, the opportunities we say ‘yes’ to – like Natalie did, at the restaurant – that keep us focused on our ideals.
With all this work to do, I don’t think that we even have time for selfies, so I’m glad that none of us left the State Room with a presidential one. (Except David.)
I did take one of my own, though, with Calvin Coolidge. He once said, “We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once.” Words to live by.