The problem with 'Oprah as Teacher'
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.
| November 20, 2009; 10:06 AM ET
Categories: Intelligence, Parents | Tags: Oprah Winfrey
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