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.