Oprah Winfrey's poke at the short-sighted materialism of some 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 Newsweek interview why she decided to build her lavish new school for impoverished teenagers, the $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in South Africa instead of the United States. South Africa's students, she said, show a greater need and appreciation for education, even though American schools are free.
"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 black American teenager, I agree with Winfrey. She's not blaming the victims. Our kids don't know anything except that which they are taught by parents, peers, teachers and other role models. My folks didn't need college degrees to know that as they let me know on a daily basis.
Yet, those sentiments sound so politically incorrect these days that it's easy to understand why Fox News Channel's John Gibson sounded shocked Shocked! at 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 direct reference to Bill Cosby, who sparked a backlash from some quarters for lashing out at parents who provide their kids with overpriced gym shoes instead of assistance with their homework.
Indeed, there were some critics who accused Cosby (incorrectly, in my view) of blaming the victims. But having paid close attention to the reactions Cosby has received since his first bombshell in 2004, I have heard more positive than negative responses from black parents and from educators of all races. Nevertheless, in our dispute-driven news media culture, conflict sells.
A similar "Cosby-esque" frenzy has swirled up in recent days around Herman Badillo, the first native-born Puerto Rican elected to Congress, 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 enough.
"Education is not a high priority in the Hispanic community," wrote Badillo, 77, a Democrat-turned-Republican and former mayoral candidate. "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, Badillo is right and not only about Hispanics. Indifference to education is unfortunately epidemic across racial and ethnic lines, but 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 already requires at least a couple of years of schooling beyond high school.
Yet, instead of discussing the worthy points Badillo raises, many will try to shout him down. Bronx Democratic leader Josť Rivera already has blasted Badillo in a New York Post interview as a "total insult" to Latino parent-advocates. That's OK, 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 Oprah's academy, although it has come under fire from other critics on the right and the left. Sure, the $40 million could have serviced 10 times more students in more modest surroundings. 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?
Besides, if we really want our kids to appreciate education, we should follow Oprah's example: Fix up the old, crumbling structures into which we herd too many of our students here at home. If we want our kids to appreciate education, we have to show some respect for it, too.