Daring to tell truth about education

January 09, 2007|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Oprah Winfrey's poke at the shortsighted materialism of some of America's low-income students has delighted conservative commentators, but that doesn't mean she's wrong.

Liberals love to speak "truth to power," but the powerless need to hear the truth too. Knowledge, after all, is power. Don't keep it to yourself, I say. Spread it around.

That's why the Queen of Daytime Talk did poor folks a favor when she candidly explained in a recent Newsweek interview why she decided to build the lavish $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls for impoverished teenagers in South Africa instead of in an American city. South Africa's students, she said, had a greater need and appreciation for education.

"I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools [in America] that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there," she said. "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."

Having reported from South Africa at various times since the 1970s, and as the parent of a teenager, I agree with Ms. Winfrey. She's not blaming the victims. Our kids are a reflection of us, their parents. Kids don't know anything except that which they are taught by parents, peers, teachers and other role models. My folks didn't even need college degrees to know that, as they let me know on a daily basis.

Yet, these sentiments sound so politically incorrect these days that it is easy to understand why Fox News Channel's John Gibson sounded shocked - shocked! - at Ms. Winfrey's quote. "Uhh, just asking, but can anybody else in America say that and get away with it?" he opined.

And Rush Limbaugh responded with similar astonishment. "This is quite Cosby-esque of the Oprah," he said approvingly. That, of course, was a reference to Bill Cosby, who sparked a backlash from some quarters for lashing out at parents who buy their kids overpriced gym shoes instead of assisting them with their homework.

Indeed, there were some critics who accused Mr. Cosby (incorrectly, in my view) of blaming the victims. But having paid close attention to the reactions Mr. Cosby has received, I have heard more positive than negative responses from black parents and from educators of all races. However, to conflict-driven news media, it's conflict that sells.

The same Cosby-esque frenzy has swirled up in recent days around Herman Badillo. Mr. Badillo, 77, the first native-born Puerto Rican elected to Congress, is being criticized for writing in his new book, One Nation, One Standard, that too many of his fellow Hispanic-Americans are stuck in poverty because they don't value education.

"Education is not a high priority in the Hispanic community," wrote Mr. Badillo. "Hispanic parents rarely get involved with their children's schools. They seldom attend parent-teacher conferences, ensure that children do their homework or inspire their children to dream of attending college."

Unfortunately, Mr. Badillo is right, and not only about Hispanics. Indifference to education is unfortunately epidemic across racial and ethnic lines, and it is particularly damaging to the poor. For earlier waves of immigrants to America, unskilled jobs were much more plentiful. Upward mobility for most of today's kids requires at least a couple of years of schooling beyond high school.

Yet instead of discussing the points Mr. Badillo raises, many will try to shout him down. Bronx Democratic leader Jose Rivera has blasted Mr. Badillo in a New York Post interview as being a "total insult" to Latino parents. That's OK, Mr. Badillo says. He wanted to stir up a dialogue. The controversy will help him sell a few more books too. Puerto Ricans certainly are not the only Americans who need to read it.

With that in mind, I don't mind the lavishness of Ms. Winfrey's academy, which has come under fire from critics on the right and the left. Sure, the $40 million could have serviced at least 10 times more South African students in more modest structures. But why shouldn't bright and promising future African leaders have a learning environment at least as nice as that enjoyed by the Ivy League elites who populate America's leadership class?

We want our kids to appreciate education. We should follow Ms. Winfrey's example and fix up the crumbling structures into which we herd too many of our students here at home. If we want our kids to appreciate education, we grown-ups have to show some respect for it too.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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