January 09, 2007

Is Oprah right?

La Shawn Barber opines on the Oprah Winfrey "controversy" surrounding her recent opening of a school in South Africa, and her comments about American education:

"Say what you will about the American educational system—it does work," she says. "If you are a child in the United States, you can get an education." And she doesn't think that American students—who, unlike Africans, go to school free of charge—appreciate what they have. "I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there," she says. "If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."

I've encountered this ... "sentiment" both here and abroad. During my travels in Costa Rica, I noticed that all public school students wear uniforms and kids will walk miles to get to school (especially in rural areas). Costa Ricans literally go out of their way to get to school!

Here, I've similarly noticed this attitude ... but mostly from immigrant students or parents. I'll never forget the [Indian, from India] mother of one of my students (way back in my first year of teaching) who was exasperated at the devil-may-care attitude of too many American students. "Indian students would LOVE to have what American students have in their schools. You have everything you need to get a great education ... and more"she said. Yet, there exists an atmosphere of "being spoiled" here. Is this the price America must pay ... for success? Have we become soft and spoiled as a people? La Shawn thinks so:

We Americans, black and white, are so spoiled. We take for granted things like free government education, proper sanitation, an economic system under which we can make a decent living if we actually work, private ownership rights, access to safe, plentiful, and relatively cheap food — the ingratitude is sickening.

Is this accurate? I mean, is it a "Why bother with an education when even the most uneducated among us can have things and live in conditions which people who live in REAL [Third World] poverty would give their eye teeth for?"

In a related matter, ABC's Director of Foreign News, Chuck Lustig, praises Oprah for her generous donation to South Africa, asking "is there something wrong with our educational priorities in this country that a college coach can make so much money at a time when many of our country's school districts are wrangling with huge deficits?" Ironic that Chuck missed Oprah's actual pertinent statements about this country's school districts, eh?

I could ramble on and on about this topic, but I'm interested in hearing what YOU have to say. I'll ask the post's title again: Is Oprah (and La Shawn) right?

Posted by Hube at January 9, 2007 05:49 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

In a word, yes. We are indeed slovenly and spoiled (I include myself in that).

Here's where I go all pinko lefty: I never appreciated what we have here until I traveled. Specifically one brief foray into North Africa was enough to send me fleeing for the homeland. Similarly, a brief residence in a first world European state made me realize how much better we had it than them. Everything there is much more expensive, less convenient, shoddy quality and a bit dated.

Some of that was indeed culture shock but after that wore off I could see the charm but the gap in parity was noticeable.

Posted by: Duffy at January 10, 2007 10:11 AM

I gotta agree with Duffy. My trip to Germany this past fall made me realize we're much better off in America than they are over there. I shudder to think what the worst parts of the world must be like.

A while ago, I made a conscious decision to direct more of charitable giving to overseas focused charities for that reason. Due to our social safety nets and stronger economy and national character, the poor here are much better off than the poor in, say, sub-Saharan Africa. So I chose to make sure some my money where it's more needed.

On the original point, I do think people take things they are given for free for granted. I think that's one of the arguments for school uniforms: if you ruin your school uniform from fooling around, your parents have to buy a new one and boy will they be mad. It's not quite the same with regular clothes. So school uniforms should drive better behavior.

I think the same thing applies with school tuition . Parents are paying for their childrens' education so they have an investment so they make sure the kids get something out of it. Now, there is a selection bias in the current system where the parents who send their kids to the private schools are the most interested in education, but I think expecting parents to pay some tuition, even if it were just a part of the total cost would drive parental involvement and increase student attention on academics.

Posted by: Paul Smith at January 10, 2007 12:57 PM

Sure, you can get an education here. But that realization doesn't mean that 1) we should compare ourselves to nations whose schools are in utter shambles, or 2) that we should forget there are cultural and sociological traps that make it extremely difficult to get an education.

Regarding #1: We should be the best United States that we can be, because we're the greatest country in the world (here's where I go all "righty," I guess!) Inner-city schools in NYC and Philly are surely a far cry from India, but they sure are not how I like to think of U.S. education. I hold us to a higher standard, because we have so many more resources.

As for #2, the cultural issues: You can get an education here. But at times it takes a lot of self-motivation to succeed. And though some will, bafflingly enough, blame all kids for not being motivated, many are growing up in families and/or neighborhoods where they're ingrained with an ambivalence or outright hostility toward school. How does an educational system fight the notion that it's uncool to learn? They don't have a shot in hell.

Personal anecdote: My best friend is black, middle-to-upper-middle class. Other black kids in his neighborhood would (and did) say that he "acts white." He didn't like to take the bus to school because when he brought his tennis racket for our team practices, he'd get hassled.

So do we need to improve the school systems? Yes. Do we need to stop the painful cycle of cultural problems that plague many areas where the schools also happen to be in bad shape? Hell yes.

Posted by: dan at January 10, 2007 04:23 PM

Duff and Paul: I agree. It's been a while since I was in Europe, but I recall thinking how much better we have things here. I was like, "They're supposed to be as developed as we are?"

Maybe it's a degree of perception thing. Quality, modernity, stuff like that. But hell, I recall in Holland I couldn't get any damn water pressure to take a shower. 3rd World Costa Rica might not have an abundance of hot water, but at least they had water pressure!

Posted by: Hube at January 11, 2007 08:16 AM

Three things about the state of education:

1. Good grades != good education. Many parents don't realize that.

2. We are trying to teach 21st century kids with 18th century technology. We need radical re-engineering of what school is.

3. We are keeping a great many kids in school long after they should be let go to get jobs. A great many of them are restless because they are bored and are not going to need or use any education beyond 10th grade. Give them more practical skills (personal finance, trade skills) and get them working. The idea of sending every American to college is just stupid.

Posted by: Duffy at January 11, 2007 09:25 AM

One more thing on Europe:

When I was in Froggyland, getting a drink with ice or even a cold can of soda was a big deal.

Brits could not possibly imagine that my brother flew to and from his university. Also the idea of a shop open 24 hours was beyond comprehension.

Posted by: Duffy at January 11, 2007 09:26 AM

"Good grades != good education"

Duffy, I'm assuming that's supposed to mean does not equal? (I'm no expert at HTML myself) If so, you're absolutely right - especially with the trends towards outcome-based and self esteem enhancing in higher ed.

As far as over-educating goes, I've had numerous conversations regarding this with friends of mine who were educated in their native countries and have come here for grad school and/or high tech and professional careers. The consensus is that just as there really are jobs most Americans won't do, there are jobs most Americans can't do. It goes like this: "I have a college degree, so hard work is beneath me, even if it's in an entry-level job that will lead to a better paying job with benefits in the future." In which major did you get your degree? "Umm, sociology." Why didn't you major in something useful, like chemistry or engineering? "It was too hard." And so it goes...and Madame Speaker wants to perpetuate this state of affairs by spending our tax dollars to send more of these kids to college.

Posted by: G Rex at January 11, 2007 05:13 PM

The biggest trouble with Oprah's assessment of the IPOD worshipping lower class kids in America is that it sidesteps the complexity of our culture: handing over school uniforms to destitute children in other countries plays much better to the media than facing the complexity of the problems the very same media has helped to create here.

Posted by: Mark Tatara at January 22, 2007 01:04 PM