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It's Not All About the iPods, Oprah

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

There can't be more than a handful of people on Earth who are better at choosing their words than Oprah Winfrey. So I was stunned last week to read a quote from her that was so . . . so totally un-Oprah.

She was talking about the new $40 million school for poor young girls she has built in South Africa and her awareness that some people would ask why she hadn't spent that money to benefit poor students at home. She already gives millions to educate underprivileged children in the United States, and anyway, she told Newsweek, the two situations are different. South Africa has desperate poverty and rudimentary infrastructure. The American educational system may have its faults, but "it does work."

Point made. But she wasn't done.

"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," 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."

Oh, no, she didn't.

It's hard to know where to start. I guess the most charitable spin is that Oprah should visit some different schools. If she checks out some rich suburbs, for example, she'll find that kids there also want iPods -- and, yes, that they lust after overpriced sneakers, too. It's possible to argue that young people in the United States are overly materialistic, but not that the problem is confined to inner-city youths or is even worse among inner-city youths.

And there's no way to put lipstick on the part about how "the sense that you need to learn just isn't there" among inner-city young people, who, by the way, tend to be African American and Hispanic. As a nation, we should be outraged that there are so many failing, dysfunctional schools in our inner cities. No one should make excuses for students who foolishly fail to understand how education can better their lives and who do their best to drag others down with them. But in the inner-city schools I've visited, most students desperately want to learn -- just as Oprah, growing up poor in inner-city Milwaukee, wanted desperately to learn.

The razor-sharp contrast that Oprah drew between young people in South Africa and those in the United States gets all fuzzy when you read her "What I Know for Sure" column in the December issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

She writes of 10 South African orphans, ages 7 to 14, whom she took under her wing several years ago, hiring caretakers for them, sending them to a private boarding school, buying them a big house and hiring a decorator "to personalize each of their bedrooms." Last summer, she said, she went to South Africa and dropped by the house unannounced.

"I found them all at the homework table off the kitchen, doing their work," she wrote. "That's a good thing. But when I sat them down in the living room for a conversation, everyone's cell phone kept going off." But "the inner spark I was used to seeing in their eyes was gone, replaced by their delight in their rooms full of things."

The girls had "long, braided hair extensions flowing down their backs" and were wearing baseball caps. In general, the kids "could talk about what they owned -- the latest portable PlayStations, iPods, and sneakers -- but they couldn't speak of what they'd done."

Once again, those dastardly iPods and sneakers. But it seems that South African kids, as well as Americans, are susceptible to the evil lure of really cool stuff.

Look, I have nothing but sincere applause for Oprah's philanthropy, both at home and abroad. It's mean-spirited to criticize her for building that $40 million school outside Johannesburg, complete with beauty salon and yoga studio. Her idea is to offer a unique opportunity to a few special girls who have the potential to do great things in their society, and Oprah generally accomplishes just what she sets out to do.

But she should realize that however exceptional the students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls might be, they're still teenagers. They will be sporting the latest look, whether it's long braids or elaborate curls. Their cellphones will buzz and hum nonstop with instant messages from their friends. That's what teenagers are like.

If Oprah should drop in unexpectedly and find them doing their homework, she shouldn't complain. She should get them iPods.


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