Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Barack Obama, Notre Dame Commencement Address 17 May 2009

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Nicole Kennerly, Independent Educator.

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value for Teachers

  1. This speech addresses how the character of public discourse affects the democracy in which it takes place; specifically, Obama argues that civil communication about controversial issues is necessary for sustaining a healthy deliberative democracy.
  2. Some people argue that those with power (such as political figures) use calls for civility to silence dissent and shut down free speech and vigorous debate. Students may explore whether “civility” is really necessary for free speech, or if instead it might be used to silence free speech.
  3. Obama uses rhetoric effectively by appealing to ethos and through the strategic organization of his speech, which allow him to connect with his audience at a historically Catholic university over the contentious topic of abortion.
  4. Obama’s emphasis on civil discourse places him in a history of presidential rhetoric around this issue that dates back to the Founding Fathers.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.2 Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • In his speech, Obama argues two main points: 1) that civility, moderation, and “fair-minded words” build a robust democracy through more open communication, and 2) that finding common ground amidst sharp disagreements is essential if Americans are to come together to meet the nation’s most difficult challenges.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

  • Obama’s speech at Notre Dame elicited strong reactions from pro-life groups, and Obama tried to appeal to that audience. He leverages the controversy to appeal to reason, citing pro-life figures who strike a balance between faith and tolerance. Furthermore, he arranged his speech in such a way to illustrate his point about civil discourse both politically and personally by giving a concrete example of how a seemingly intractable issue, race relations, has been debated productively over the last fifty years through respectful words and an emphasis on common ground among disparate groups.
  • Commencements speeches are usually “epideictic” in nature, meaning they are designed to celebrate the particular occasion or event. Obama achieves this celebration through insider references to Notre Dame and by recognition of the talent and therefore responsibilities of its graduates.

Ideas for Pre-Reading & Discussion

  • Ask students to explore the National Institute for Civil Discourse website here: http://nicd.arizona.edu/. What themes do they notice on the website? Based on their findings, have students generate a list of adjectives that they think characterize “civil discourse.” Where in U.S. politics do they see civil discourse in action today? What are the pros and cons of an emphasis on civil discourse? Have students consider who is making the calls for civil discourse. How effective are words alone at bringing about change?
  • Have students read Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, where he mentions the need for a “wall of separation between church and state.” They can read the letter on the Library of Congress website here: http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html. Based on the letter, have students consider Jefferson’s personal beliefs about religion. Does he seem like a religious man? Now have students consider his political beliefs. What did he see as the role of religion in politics? More than two hundred years after this letter, does there still exist a “wall of separation between church and state?” How does this question help us make sense of the controversy surrounding Obama’s visit to Notre Dame?
  • What is the policy of your school toward inviting controversial public figures to give speeches on campus? Who should get to decide who is invited? What factors should be taken into account in such decisions? What is gained or lost by welcoming, honoring, or listening to those whose views are different from your own?

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Father Jenkins [para 1 & throughout]: Notre Dame’s current president, Reverend John Jenkins, introduced Obama on the day of the commencement, defending the invitation and describing Obama as an “inspiring leader.” Jenkins also called the visit “a basis for further positive engagement,” anticipating the president’s theme by cautioning the audience against letting their differences divide them (see Rood essay in the VOD journal).
  • Father Hesburgh [para 2 & throughout]: Former Notre Dame president, Theodore Hesburgh, whose vision of the university as both a lighthouse and a crossroads metaphorically described a balance between reason and passion.
  • A Lighthouse and a Crossroads [para 27 to 36]: Obama invokes this imagery and reference to former Notre Dame president to illustrate his call for civility; a lighthouse represents religious influences (passion), while the crossroads symbolizes reason. He claims that the new graduates, and the U.S. populace as a whole, need to be guided by both passion and reason if they are to meet the challenges of their generation.
  • Brown v. Board of Education [para 41]: S. Supreme Court case in 1954 in which separate but equal schools for black and white students was declared to be unconstitutional.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964 [para 41]: Landmark legislation that made illegal discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Pre-reading & Introduction of Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Students will complete pre-reading of teacher’s or student’s choice.
  • Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.

Day 2: Connecting with the Audience and Making a Call for Collective Action

  • [Read paragraphs 1-19]
  • Students will assess the tone of Obama’s speech and contrast it to the occasion of university graduation at a historically Catholic university.
  • Students will examine how Obama sets the stage for a global, pressing need for finding common ground as “one human family” (para 13).

Day 3: Addressing Hard Controversies with “Fair-Minded Words”

  • [Read paragraphs 20-33]
  • Students will analyze how Obama uses personal examples to illustrate his shift from divisive language (e.g. “right-wing ideologues,” para 22) to more civil discourse.
  • Students will characterize Obama’s definition and purpose of civil discourse.

Day 4: The Golden Rule and Race Relations in the U.S.

  • [Read paragraphs 34-46]
  • Students will consider the speech’s claim that the call to serve implies the need for civil discourse.
  • Students will assess how Obama uses the history of race relations in the U.S. as a “successful” example of what civil discourse can achieve.

Day 5: Post-Reading & Assessment

  • Students will complete post-reading of their or teacher’s choice.

Key During Reading Passages

  • Paragraphs 1-9: Discuss with students the normal tone and purpose of commencement speeches. Who is the audience? What is typical about the opening of Obama’s address?
  • Paragraphs 10-17: Obama makes a call to the agency of the new graduates, identifying issues of national and global concern that do not recognize borders or skin color. He claims addressing these issues will require diversity of thought and the overcoming of differences among disparate groups and thinkers.
  • Paragraphs 18-26: Here Obama provides examples of people who share the same concerns but from different points of view, which he uses to transition into the topic of abortion. He provides examples of what almost all of us agree on surrounding the abortion debate (reducing unwanted pregnancies and helping woman in general) as an example of finding common ground during civil discourse.
  • Paragraphs 26-37: In these paragraphs, Obama uses the imagery of a lighthouse (religious) and a crossroads (secular) as a symbol for the union of passion and reason, respectively, in people’s thinking and conversations. Passion that they share their viewpoints and values, but with reason that so that they do it with respect and enough room for doubt and an open-mind.
  • Paragraphs 37-40: This passage focuses on The Golden Rule, which Obama considers a moral law that transcends all faiths. It is another example of finding common ground so that we may serve and make a difference in others’ lives.
  • Paragraphs 41-43: Obama then provides an example of what civil discourse in action can achieve by discussing the progress of race relations in the U.S. This progress is social and political as well as personal, since Obama is the first U.S. president of color.
  • Paragraphs 44-46: Obama closes with religious tones, calling on the new graduates to embrace their commonalities with all people. Through this finding of common ground, they may enter into collective labor to move America “towards a more perfect union.”

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Are there situations in which we should not speak about controversial issues at all? Is it even possible to talk about very divisive issues with “fair-minded” words? Why or why not? What is gained or lost from speaking about highly controversial issues in civil tones?
  • At several points in this speech, Obama makes specific references to his own personal experiences. Identify these references and discuss how they support or distract from his main arguments. How, if at all, does Obama connect his personal experiences to the issue of civility?
  • Research the 2012 presidential election and identify instances in which candidates connected to the issue of civility as outlined by Obama in the Notre Dame speech. Do you find other candidates calling for more civility and dialogue? Can you identify examples of politicians rejecting to controversial issues with civility? Has Obama himself ever violated his own vision of civility, as laid out in his Notre Dame speech in 2009? If so, did this violation seem justified?
  • Is “civility” itself a debatable issue? (Some scholars claim that those who call for civility are using their power to silence dissent and shut down free speech.) Can Obama’s call for “civil debate” be seen as an attempt to silence anti-abortion activists and discourage debate? Provide imaginary scenarios that would have students reflect on whether similar calls for civil discourse directed at black protesters who are part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, or others on the political right or left, might be viewed the same way.