In the space of two days, I watched a PBS biography, of Benjamin Franklin and an journalistic discussion of Oprah Winfrey Show in Newsweek (June 8, 2009). Of course, the scholars who discussed Franklin mentioned again and again his place in American history as one of the first and most powerful advocate and practitioner of self-education both through one’s own efforts and through the efforts of people like himself to teach in such a way as to make it easier for people to self-educate. The journalists reporting on the Winfrey show emphasized the way she presents health issues with an emphasis on personal vs. expert knowledge. Arguably, both Franklin and Winfrey belongs to the same American tradition that Franklin helped institutionalized. Both establish their authority by calling on the common sense skepticism about the wisdom of legitimized authority. It has been said that P. T. Barnum used similar rhetorical moves as he presented the displays for which he was famous as occasions to exercise the skepticism of the audience. One did not have to take Barnum at his word, but one should come in and check for oneself. Winfrey uses the same argumentation in the statement she released to Newsweek when she was asked to respond to their story: “People are responsible for their actions. The information presented on the show is … not an endorsement … My intention is for the viewers to … engage in a dialogue with their medical practitioners.” In other words: “Do not believe me! Judge for yourself!”
Early in my career I would have stopped here with a quip like “only in America!” and possibly mentioned other famous current people who use similar forms. The symbolic successes of Sarah Palin can certainly be linked to the same broad cultural pattern; and so can the refusal to accept the usual narratives about U.S. history, or evolution; and so perhaps can much of what has made the Interned powerful as a tool for cultural production (education). In the inner cities, the Bible Belt, and probably everywhere else as well, the call to trust common sense over expertise remains what it has been—and Hollywood is happy to profit from it. As Franklin said of his Almanac: “I endeavored to make it both entertaining and useful and … I reaped considerable profit from it” (as quoted in Cremin, 1970: 374).
But today, I will not stop with an altogether admiring wonder at American quirks. I am involved in an academic struggle with the definition of what is to count as educational (school reform) policy in the United States and, particularly, with the search for a method to control what experts have determined should be taught by American schools so that it is learned by all American children (so that no child, indeed, is left behind). I have argued that this attempt is unlikely to work if it focuses solely on schools. Actually I am not even sure that going beyond schooling to understand education would be enough. This is where Winfrey comes in. Provocatively, how might “we,” expert scientists from schools of education, tame Winfrey and come to control her health education curriculum? Should “we”? And who are the “we” who claim the right to control this curriculum?
And so, I was reminded again of Rancière and the argument that education cannot be tamed. I thank Dr. Linda Lin for thinking of the paradigm of the wild/domesticated/tamed as best capturing Rancière’s argument as it must be generalized. Education cannot be tamed and all the efforts to tame it are in vain—and this is a very good thing for the production of new cultural forms.
But that leaves those of us who are quite sure of our expertise with a dilemma. How do we reach the settings where licensed teachers do not have direct authority, from families to the media, from street corners to churches or mosques? How do we tame Oprah?
Cremin, Lawrence American education: The Colonial Experience. New York: Harper & Row. 1970