Obama, “Notre Dame Commencement Speech,” Teaching-Learning Materials

Classroom Activities

A. What did President Obama hope to accomplish in this speech? In what ways did he fail and/or succeed in meeting these goals?

B. Based on those you have read, what do you think characterizes the “typical” commencement address? In what ways does Obama’s speech conform or not conform to the conventions of the typical commencement speech?

C. In classical rhetorical theory, there is a distinction between a ceremonial speech—called “epideictic”—in which a speaker reinforces existing values, and a deliberative speech, in which the speaker advocates a change in policy. Do you think Obama’s speech at Notre Dame should be considered more of a deliberative than an epideictic speech? Please explain.

D. Obama does not mention the issue of abortion until nearly half way through the prepared remarks for his Notre Dame Commencement Address. Why do you think he made this choice? Was it effective or not effective? What did waiting to mention the controversial issue allow him to accomplish? How might the effect have been different if he had addressed the issue from the beginning of his speech? What if he had not addressed it at all?

E. Identify the instances where Obama demonstrates insider knowledge about Notre Dame. What effect do you think these references might have had on his immediate audience? What effect might these examples have had on his broader audiences (such as people not affiliated with Notre Dame who might have read or listened to the speech)? Do you think Obama effectively appealed to both audiences? Can you think of any other audiences for this speech?

F. Obama acknowledges that, at some level, the two sides in the abortion debate have “irreconcilable” differences. Why do you think he says this? Do you agree? He then explains that “each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction.” If the two camps are irreconcilable, what is gained by continuing to argue about this issue?

G. 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?

H. Part of the reason that the petitioners and protestors opposed Obama’s visit was because of his position on abortion and stem cell research. Do you think they were justified in opposing his visit to Notre Dame? Did they make a convincing argument for not inviting Obama?

I. What do you think should be the policy of your school toward inviting politicians or other public figures to deliver commencement addresses 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?

J. There are multiple invocations of religion, religious themes, and religious symbols in Obama’s speech. Are these invocations effective? How do you think that they support (or do not support) the main arguments of the speech? How do you think they connect (or do not connect) to the audience(s) for this speech?

K. 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?

L. In addition to discussing abortion and religion, Obama talks about the civil rights movement in this speech. Discuss the implications of race in his address. How do racial issues relate to Obama’s discussions of civility, abortion, and religion?

Student Research

A. In 1984, Mario Cuomo spoke at Notre Dame about abortion and the relationship between politics and religion. Read and analyze this speech (available at http://archives.nd.edu/research/texts/cuomo.htm. What was the rhetorical situation that inspired Cuomo’s speech? How does it compare to Obama’s? How are the speeches similar and different?

B. Read the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which restricted state laws banning abortion. Identify the arguments and reasoning used in this decision. The ruling is available here: http://www.findlaw.com/.

C. Begin by reading the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (1 January 1802), where he mentions the need for a “wall of separation between church and state.” (You can read the letter on the Library of Congress website: http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html.) Continue by researching the current debate in the United States about the relationship between religion and politics. In an essay, explain how this history helps us make sense of the controversy surrounding Obama’s visit to Notre Dame or his speech.

D. In January 2011 Obama spoke about civility in Tucson, Arizona, following the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 17 others who attended the “Congress on Your Corner” event. In May 2010 he spoke about civility in another commencement address at the University of Michigan. Find, read, and analyze one or both of these speeches. Next, compare and contrast these messages and argumentative strategies with those used in his 2009 Notre Dame Commencement Address. In what ways did Obama talk about the issue of civility differently in these other speeches? In what ways was his vision of civility the same in all of these speeches?

E. Research the 2008 presidential election and identify instances in Obama’s rhetoric that explains his vision of civil discourse. What role, if any, did the issue of civility play in his campaign? How are Obama’s views on civility the same or different from those of other politicians?

F. Research the 2012 presidential election and identify instances in which candidates (from either party) connect 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 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?

G. Watch Split: A Divided America (2008), a documentary about polarizing discourse and isolation in the United States. Write an essay explaining how the vision of civil discourse that Obama offers in his 2009 Notre Dame Commencement Address might help address some of the problems identified in the documentary.

Citizenship Resources

A. Write a letter to the editor or op-ed for your school or local newspaper in response to some person or group with whom you disagree. State your disagreement. Rather than attempt to refute their position, identify common ground that you share with that person or group and suggest ways that you might productively work together. Afterward, reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to public arguing.

B. What policies, if any, does your school have for fostering diversity on campus and in the classroom? Does this concept of diversity include anything about how people speak about and across differences? How might the policy—or people’s awareness of it—create more civil discourse on your campus or in your community? Join with one or more classmates to create a list of “rules of intellectual engagement” and then submit this list to your student government. Publicize your proposal by writing an op-ed to your campus or local newspaper.

C. What issues do you think that students on your campus or members in your local community should be talking about but are not? Hold a small roundtable discussion to brainstorm ideas or to begin discussing these issues. You might choose to keep the group small. You might also talk with your initial group about hosting several roundtable discussions in which each member would facilitate their own conversation with more members of the campus or local community. In publicizing the event, you should emphasize that, rather than “winning” arguments, your purpose is to bring people together in a non-threatening environment where they can share their perspectives and concerns openly.

D. The next time someone speaks negatively about another person or position, ask him or her one or more of the following questions: I know you feel negatively about ____, but can you identify something positive about the person or position? Why do you think the person/group you oppose came to their position? How might we find common ground to work with—or at least understand—this person or position?

E. In the next election cycle, invite state or local candidates to your campus or community to speak. Request that they use “fair-minded words” about their political “opponents” and identify common ground before they talk about the differences between them and their opponents.