how to tame Oprah …

What sort of policies might be established to control the kind of systematic education that is not controlled by experts in pedagogy or curriculum? How are professional teachers to control people like Oprah Winfrey when they push what experts consider “mis-“education?

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

2 thoughts on “how to tame Oprah …”

  1. Is it fair to say that the ones in control/power are the ones who feel like others need to be tamed? If so, then surely Oprah cannot be tamed! I do think that, to the extent that people gravitate towards the viewpoints (media outlets, news shows, etc.) that they themselves share, then education becomes more limited and distorted. Certainly, people can self-educate, but only if they want to. Perhaps I am thinking of “tame” as synonymous with “control” and perhaps that isn’t the right frame to think in.

    At the same time, I continue to be amazed by the level of critical thinking and analysis that people demonstrate they are capable of. Just from watching players play video games and the level of insight they bring to the (seemingly) most mundane things makes me feel that self-education is a skill that most people share, but are perhaps unwilling to bring into different contexts.

    Just for another example (since we’re talking about pop culture), I was getting into the Bravo show Top Chef, which is a reality show where chefs compete against one another. The new season is on, but I was watching the older seasons just for fun. After watching the second season, I checked out the conversations on the Internet, and was fascinated by the amount of blogging that had went on, to the degree that the producers of the show felt like they had to respond both in words and in re-configuring the show (dropping a reunion episode). There were a few incidents that happened on the show that led to people blogging about the editing of the show, the sequence of events that transpired, who was accountable, whether the producers were trying to make some people more sympathetic than others, how that might foreshadow the outcome, and so on. This is quite sophisticated analysis. As much as scholars argue that we need more critical media education, I have a feeling that these bloggers are not coming only from people who took Critical Media Studies 101. These are smart people.

    Perhaps this is a generational question (pure speculation on my part). Just as some people might be more willing to trust Wikipedia than others, I think this might also be the reason why some people gravitate towards the viewpoints that they agree with. It’s more comforting to think that you’re not completely alienated. The media distortion comes when you think that there is a significantly larger number of people who agree with you than others. This reminds me of this book I read called “The Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion,” which talks about why it is that we need to persuade people to share our views (even when it’s not a voting issue where we need their support). For example, the book argues that people who buy a product might feel the need to persuade others to buy the same product because they feel that it makes them more right (ask a Mac user). This is the taming process at work.

  2. I guess I should have put some clearer indication that my question “how to tame Oprah?” self answers as “it cannot be done!” (at least not by a university professor).

    So the issue is, of course,who can control whom and when. By bringing in blogging about a show, as well as Wikepedia, Aaron points a way at other kinds of controls than the obvious. In a conversation, people can move each other in directions that they might not have envisioned. The difficulty is in getting people into the conversation.

    So, perhaps, though one might not be able to tame Oprah (or Rush Limbaugh, or any one of your favorite’s least favorites), one might try to engage them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *