In today’s debates about how best to improve student performance, little mention is made of how students’ personal views on learning may affect their academic achievement. Specifically, commentators seldom discuss students’ understanding of the utility of an education and the effects of this perception on how much they value education and how well they perform in school. Perhaps because doing so can be controversial.
Ask talk-show host and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey, who faced criticism earlier this year when, in comparing students in South Africa to those in U.S. inner-city schools, she indicated that the American students valued education less. “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,” Winfrey told Newsweek. “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.” Winfrey quickly drew the disapproval of a Washington Post columnist, who countered that in the inner-city schools he’s visited, most students “desperately want to learn.”
As someone who attended school in both Africa and the United States, I think both Winfrey and her detractors are somewhat off the mark. It’s not enough to argue about whether or not inner-city students want to learn. Rather, we should be asking why these students don’t value education enough to want to do well at it.
Update: A reader emailed this article. by Fred Reed, author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.
3 thoughts on “Where Education Is a Matter of Prestige”
What a terrific article – and a sad commentary on the U.S. school system. In the Madison paper, I’ve noticed in the past week or so that a handful of schools in the county don’t choose valedictorians, and I imagine it’s an effort to be kind to everyone. But as this author points out, attitudes like that are defeatist. They bring DOWN the masses instead of elevating them.
While there’s a national trend toward silly things like teachers not wanting to use red pens to grade papers for fear of making students feel bad, that flies in the face of real life. And in real life, those who work hard and do the best are often the ones who succeed. Athletes don’t make it into professional sports because they know someone; they get there because they are good at what they do.
I have a niece who dropped out of school at age 14. This year, at 18, she jumped into an alternative GED program. And according to her, in less than six months, she’ll have earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. While I’m happy that she finally got off her duff and realized the importance of having a diploma, I really have to wonder about a school district that lets you skip three years of high school and make it up with a few months’ worth of studying and tests. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t EVERYONE go that route? Certainly less time-consuming and bothersome than actually doing the real work, yes? (She’ll have a rude awakening if she ever gets a job, because you can’t just do a couple hours’ worth of work and still get 40 hours’ worth of pay…)
I wish I knew what it would take to get rid of our society’s overwhelming sense of entitlement – that everyone should get whatever they want without having to work hard and compete in real-world situations. We need to figure out how to instill discipline, determination and an eagerness to learn in our students, or the U.S. is going to end up being a third-world country filled with under-educated people, while those in places like this author’s Sierra Leone will end up rising to the top.
I would not put too much stock in Oprah Winfrey’s opinion in this matter, if the Newsweek article is an accurate reflection of Winfrey’s views.
For $40 Million, here’s what Oprah says are her goals for the 22 acre campus:
“These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire,” she says, sitting on the couch of her hotel suite overlooking the deep-blue Indian Ocean. “I wanted this to be a place of honor for them because these girls have never been treated with kindness. They’ve never been told they are pretty or have wonderful dimples. I wanted to hear those things as a child.”
She personally chose the china and the pleated uniforms, the sheets and the beds—she actually sprawled out on each one to check for comfort. She also insisted that the dorm rooms and the closets be extra large, even though the girls have minimal amounts of clothes. “People asked me why it was important to have closet space, and it’s because they will have something,” she says. “We plan to give them a chance to earn money to buy things. That’s the only way to really teach them how to appreciate things.”
More than 3,500 girls applied for 152 spots—that’s a 4 percent acceptance rate. (Harvard accepts about 9 percent.)
As for her criticism of inner-city youth having no desire for an education and only wanting things (which I consider hooey), its clear to me, and should be to anyone within shouting distance that Oprah could not be any more hypocritical.
She wants to teach these 152 girls how to fill their spacious rooms with THINGS, so that they can appreciate THINGS; and she wants them to hear how pretty they are, and how they have cute dimples!
$40 million could have easily built good schools for all 3,500 applicants that she whittled down to 152, with plenty of money left over for books, teacher salaries, etc. Clearly, what these 3500 girls will never hear (including the 152 who got in) is they have learned alot, they can teach others and help their community, and that they’re smart.
Foreign concepts to Oprah:
“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today; teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.” Chinese Proverb
And heard recently:
“Teach a man, and he betters himself; teach a woman, and she betters her village.” Arab Proverb
Sorry. Oprah cares not one iota about education.
Gee Oprah, at least Reading Recovery takes 20% of the kids!!
What a profound waste.
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