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Posted at 10:06 AM ET, 11/20/2009

The problem with 'Oprah as Teacher'

By Valerie Strauss

Oprah Winfrey seems to love to teach--on her top-rated television show, through commencement speeches, in her successful magazine.

But in an era where educators say the one thing students need to learn is so-called “critical thinking skills”--or the ability to deeply analyze problems--Winfrey does very little to help on several levels.

Winfrey’s mantra is self-empowerment, and that, of course, can be a very good thing--but only to a point. She goes well past that point way too often.

I’ve watched her show over the 23 years it has been televised (it was just announced that she is giving it up in 2011, and listened to speeches she has given, including one at Howard University’s graduation in 2007. Her message is loud and clear. As she told the Howard graduates:

"I’m here to tell you today, ‘Don’t worry. Don’t worry about it. Relax. . . . All you have to know is who you are.’ "

Well, actually, no, that is not all people have to know to succeed. Furthermore, failure in this view means that you just aren’t good enough to get where you want to go, as if there were no real roadblocks in your way. Life, simply, is not that simple.

I am all for individual responsibility, but let’s not kid ourselves: Too many people are born into circumstances that are outside their control and that largely affect the course of their lives. Yes, some people can climb out of muck--through hard work but also good fortune. Ignoring the power of environment and genetics leaves you with a partial, flawed view of success.

This notion reminds me of the mindset in the world of education today.

If kids can simply learn what they need to do well on standardized tests, then they will be successful, and so will our public schools. Kids can be successful if only they get enough test prep. It’s that simple, too many policymakers say. It doesn’t if they aren’t healthy enough to focus in class, or whether they live in fear walking to and from school.

Another problem others have raised about Oprah as Teacher is that she just gets too many things wrong. As a Newsweek article well chronicled, she is the queen of glib.

The article starts with messages from Oprah-land: “Live Your Best Life Ever! Wish Away Cancer! Get A Lunchtime Face-Lift! Eradicate Autism! Turn Back The Clock! Thin Your Thighs! Cure Menopause! Harness Positive Energy! Erase Wrinkles! Banish Obesity! Live Your Best Life Ever!”

As if we could, if we just try hard enough.

And the advice she allows people to dispense on her show is often incomplete or just plain wrong. A number of critics have blasted her medical advice.

But let’s talk about a show she did last May, during which she hosted a psychologist who recommended that parents teach kids to take on bullies with tougher body language and to talk back to a bully. This, the expert said, was effective about half the time in stopping bullying.

There is nothing wrong with that advice on the face of it, but comprehensive research over time shows that kids by themselves cannot stop a bully. It takes a school-wide program in which every single person in the school--the principal, teachers, janitors, cafeteria workers and every student--is trained in how to approach a bully, how to avoid being a bystander and how to ask adults for help.

This is what is done at Vivian Elementary School, about 12 miles from the site of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

There students spend about an hour once a week--every week during the school year--talking about bullying and what to do when they see one. Teachers there say the program is effective--but it takes time and a lot of effort--and that no child can do it on their own.

Winfrey’s show, the most highly successful syndicated talk show ever, has been on for almost a quarter of a century, during which she is has tried to teach us about all kinds of things.

I just don’t think she always teaches the right lessons.

By Valerie Strauss  | November 20, 2009; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Parents  | Tags:  Oprah Winfrey  
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Thank goodness someone sees the problem of Oprah for what she is: a fortunate daughter, one who is blessed because she was standing in the right spot when the gate opened and the powerful established interests wanted to add a person of color to the mix. Her "if I can do it, so can you" ideology is downright harmful. She negates diversity in a way that harms everyone with her "be like me" notions.

Posted by: imajypsee | November 20, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Watching Oprah is a great way to hone critical thinking skills. You have to consider the source of what you hear on her show. Jenny McCarthy is probably not the souce we should turn to for advice on how to "cure" autism. Ok, be open to her ideas, but stay skeptical. In a school system that doesn't devote an hour per week to talking about bullies, maybe a kid should consider having more assertive body language. Oprah is extremely talented at her job. Her success is due primarily to her skill and hard work. Yes, she had some luck. She is trying to be that good luck for other people now, through scholarships, mentoring, etc. Over 25 years, of course she has made some mistakes. After 25 years in any career, all of us will have made some too.

Posted by: drl97 | November 20, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I don't watch Oprah much since I'm at work when it's on. I did catch her show on the environment and it made me extremely angry that she went on and on about how we can all make sacrifices to be "green", while the following week she effused about her personal jet. What a hypocrite!

Posted by: mom11 | November 20, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

FYI, your first link about the "right" way to combat a bully was forgotten -- quite a disappointment, since I was looking forward to reading an in-depth article or balanced assessment of the effectiveness of that sort of program and how its moving parts fit together.

Posted by: quatsch | November 20, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

If you think Oprah is bad perhaps you should think about the head of the Department of Education.

"If we are to prevent the achievement gap and develop a cradle-to-career educational pipeline, early learning programs are going to have to be better integrated with the K-12 system," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Wednesday at a convention of the nation's largest early childhood organization, the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Child's play spurs serious debate
Educators argue over best use of time for pre-schoolers
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009; 12:27 PM
After almost 8 years of NCLB the government is still obsessed with "test them until they drop" and "teach to the test", and it is no surprise that the government intends to bring these policies to the preschool.

The insane when confronted with their ideas that do not appear to work expand the field. The idea of control of the insane individual by aliens when faced with reality is expanded to alien control of the entire world.

It appears that there is a great deal in common with the insane and government fixated on ideas that have been proved to not work.

Posted by: bsallamack | November 20, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

If a even a plurality of your education comes from a talk-show host entertainer, you've got too much idle time on your hands. Maybe it's a guy thing, but in her 25 years on air I've maybe seen 20-30 minutes total? Like anyone else dispensing knowledge we should consume, analyze, evaluate then either accept or reject it.

bsallamack, Where has NCLB 'proved not to work'? As a teacher the insight on student performance has been enlightening and instructive. Does it tell me something I didn't already know from what I already do? Of course not. If anything it's been that 'ugly light' upon a dysfunctional system that parents desperately needed. IF NCLB did not exist there would still be dysfunctional schools, just that parents and the general public wouldn't know it. The biggest issues my students have are not the quality of instruction they receive in the classroom (at least I think from me), but the destructive, debilitating yokes they wear each day from home, their neighborhood, and previous education experiences. When my students leave me they know more and can do more than before; are they 'Proficient' per NCLB? Mostly no, which is why teachers should be assessed against student growth vs. meeting an absolute standard which assumes erroneously every student starts from the same grade-level standard of knowledge an skills.

Posted by: pdfordiii | November 21, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

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