In an earlier post, I asked a question, with a tongue in my cheek: “how could we tame Oprah?” I did not specifying who ‘we’ are, on what grounds ‘we” should try to tame her, and whether taming Oprah (and others like her) is something that could be done. After all, they are wonderfully extra-Vagant (as Boon, 1999, might put it) and likely to escape most forms of social control.
I leave the questions open for the moment in order to expand the puzzle triggered by a critique of the advice Oprah dispenses on matters like vaccination. There is every evidence that, from the ‘official’ public health point of view, her shows can be dangerous, particularly when she discusses vaccination. She may endanger the health of individual children not getting vaccinated, as well as the health of the public as these children get sick and may sicken others. At least this is what us, sober headed experts in public health as driven by medical research, might say (and have said). As a highly schooled expert myself, and someone who generally accepts what other experts tell me, I am uncomfortable at any challenge to my expertise, particularly when it comes from someone as powerful as Oprah. But I am not writing her to complain. I continue here to puzzle.
In the earlier post, I marveled at Oprah’s pedagogy (the way she formats the discussions) and at her use of a classic American formula where highly schooled experts are pitted against the common sense of the non-expert. As a cultural anthropologist, I cheer at a particularly striking improvisation on an old theme.
But I am also an anthropologist interested in education. As such I am puzzled and need to figure out how the new skepticism about medical authority is actually performed, by whom and when. So I was fascinated by an editorial by Joel Stein of Time Magazine about “The Vaccination War” and how it played out in a “liberal, wealthy [couple] of L.A.” and their immediate network. He assumed his new-born would be vaccinated, his wife said ‘No’. So:
To try to be open-minded and stop our fighting, I went to a seminar about inoculation at Cassandra’s yoga center. Along with about 50 other people, we paid $30 each to listen to Dr. Lauren Feder.
This Dr. Feder explained why inoculation is not necessary, and how not immunizing might possibly be healthier for the child. I am tempted to write about this as a case of deliberate mis-education and induced ignorance among the prosperous and powerful. I could also write it as a case of resistance among some of the powerful (the people who might appear in Larry David’s Curb your enthusiasm) against some other powerful people (health experts). Unless of course it is just a case of mass hysteria.
Again, I do not want to complain, but the problem remains: “how are we to tame the mis-guided powerful?” (if we decided to do so).
“Educational research” has produced much that has documented the apparent ignorance of the poor and powerless, particularly as compared to the apparent knowledge of the prosperous and powerful. This literature assumes that the latter know (more) and that they pass this knowledge on to their children (“cultural capital”). But what if the prosperous also mis-educate their children, if not on matters relating to schooling at school-relevant moments (e.g. high stake exams), at least on a lot of other matters, and at other times? And what if the prosperous’ success in school tests is not quite a reflection of what they end up “knowing”? What if the prosperous, often, just pass (pretend, lie) at passing (school tests)? There is some evidence that the children of the poor sometimes fail at tests because they refuse to do what it takes to pass. We need to see if, in some case and for certain purposes, the children of the powerful succeed at the same tests because all they have done is do what it takes to pass, without learning in the sense of understanding or accepting the answers they gave on the tests. When test-taking is done, then what they actually learned over the course of their schooling, or what they continue to educate themselves about as they grow older, may reveal itself as something else altogether than school-people might have expected.
Joel Stein, in the same column, says something very interesting and challenging to us school people about the source of his adult knowledge:
Even in the age of Google and Wikipedia, we still receive almost all of our information through our peers. I believe in evolution not because I’ve read Darwin but because everyone I know things it’s true.
Now, that is a challenge for all educators, and for all researchers on education.