I have long been an admirer of Oprah Winfrey (see "Everything I Know About Reading Instruction I Learned from Oprah Winfrey," Curriculum Administrator, May 2000). She has been a force for good and a champion of literacy. And because Oprah said to do so, millions of Americans have read outstanding literature from Steinbeck to Toni Morrison.
By now you have undoubtedly heard about Oprah's Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, which has been the subject of controversy. Some people are offended that the school cost $40 million to build and features fine china and trillion thread count sheets. I don't care! Ms. Winfrey is free to spend her money any way she wishes. Besides, don't South African girls deserve the finer things in life?
I'm also not interested in discussions of how many less glamorous schools could be built for the same money, or that only girls are admitted. I think that Oprah's school handpicked academic winners and is making them even bigger winners, but that's her prerogative. I'm even willing to ignore the accusations that the girls have been separated from their families and have highly restricted visitation privileges. It's harder to ignore the cultural insensitivity expressed by school officials who tell poor parents to bring books instead of food for their daughters. I've been to Soweto, and there is no Barnes & Noble. Even Oprah's ad hominem attacks on the lack of educational motivation among American students were misguided, but I forgive her.
Having said all of that, I do not question Oprah's generosity or sincere desire to make the world a better place (although I do wonder how much she earned from her related school television special and the exclusive feature stories on Good Morning America and in People magazine).
The More Fundamental Issue
Even a casual Oprah watcher can name Ms. Winfrey's best friend, favorite actors, party planner, beloved authors, mentors, medical expert, personal trainer, hair stylist, home decorator, chef, financial advisor and spiritual guru. Oprah shares her favorite experts, friends and ideas with her audience. That's her brand. If Oprah thinks it, you might too. If Oprah loves a product, you need to run out and buy one.
I have read and watched everything I could to learn more about Oprah's school, and yet nagging questions remain. What is the educational philosophy of the school? What will students do differently there to justify the investment? What are the learning theories that excite Oprah? Who is Oprah Winfrey's educational guru? Is the Leadership Academy closer to Hogwarts or Summerhill? West Point or Reggio Emilia? What does Oprah believe about learning? Does innovation end at thread count?
These are not esoteric issues. The school will fail to realize its potential if its objectives and principles remain vague or secret. The school will also reduce its potential to inspire others if its practice cannot be compared to its ideals. The $40 million would be a waste of money if no lessons for other educators or philanthropists were to emerge from the school.
Is it too much to ask for Oprah to give as much thought to learning theory and pedagogy as she dedicates to mixing a festive mojito?
I recently visited a college where undergraduates were traveling to New Orleans to create better schools. I was amazed by the students' chutzpah. What makes the students think that they can reform education? I guess they figure, if Oprah can do it ...