A high school ethics lesson from President Obama

President Obama focused on ethics in his annual back-to-school speech today at Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington. It’s worth thinking about what he had to say about ethics:

Now, if you promise not to tell anybody, I will let you in on a little secret: I was not always the very best student that I could be when I was in high school, and certainly not when I was in middle school. I did not love every class I took. I wasn’t always paying attention the way I should have. I remember when I was in 8th grade I had to take a class called ethics. Now, ethics is about right and wrong, but if you’d ask me what my favorite subject was back in 8th grade, it was basketball. I don’t think ethics would have made it on the list.

But here’s the interesting thing. I still remember that ethics class, all these years later. I remember the way it made me think. I remember being asked questions like: What matters in life? Or, what does it mean to treat other people with dignity and respect? What does it mean to live in a diverse nation, where not everybody looks like you do, or thinks like you do, or comes from the same neighborhood as you do? How do we figure out how to get along?

Each of these questions led to new questions. And I didn’t always know the right answers, but those discussions and that process of discovery — those things have lasted. Those things are still with me today. Every day, I’m thinking about those same issues as I try to lead this nation. I’m asking the same kinds of questions about, how do we as a diverse nation come together to achieve what we need to achieve? How do we make sure that every single person is treated with dignity and respect? What responsibilities do we have to people who are less fortunate than we are? How do we make sure that everybody is included in this family of Americans?

Those are all questions that date back to this class that I took back in 8th grade. And here’s the thing: I still don’t always know the answers to all these questions. But if I’d have just tuned out because the class sounded boring, I might have missed out on something that not only did I turn out enjoying, but has ended up serving me in good stead for the rest of my life.

So that’s a big part of your responsibility, is to test things out. Take risks. Try new things. Work hard. Don’t be embarrassed if you’re not good at something right away. You’re not supposed to be good at everything right away. That’s why you’re in school. The idea, though, is, is that you keep on expanding your horizons and your sense of possibility. Now is the time for you to do that. And those are also, by the way, the things that will make school more fun.

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