Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What's a school worth?

Although not normally interested in the doings of celebrities, I have been paying quite a bit of attention to Oprah Winfrey’s project of opening an elite school for South Africa’s disadvantaged girls and have been somewhat taken aback by the criticism she has suffered for her efforts. has quite a good article about it in which both the motivation of the critics and of Oprah herself is considered. One thing in the article I would definitely not agree with is the idea that people are free to do what they want with their money – money is power and people who have power are morally obligated to use it wisely and to the advantage of not just themselves but the broader community. Getting back to the school, while I understand the questions about Oprah’s particular motivation, I think the whole project is potentially the best use she could have put her money to.
One of the arguments that have been raised is that her money is only going to benefit the particular seventy something girls that the school will be accepting per year whereas it could have been used to help many more people. To say that, however, is to ignore what the graduates of that school will do in the broader community after leaving the school. The girls who finish it will probably become part of South Africa’s future professional class. For black girls from poor families to become lawyers, journalists, economists, scientists and even politicians in a society which until recently basically only had white males from well-off families in those roles must be seen to have a broader impact than just the lives of those few girls who get to attend Winfrey’s academy. The laws have changed since the apartheid era but what Winfrey is doing is changing the social reality by, in the long term, changing the social mix of those who will be in the position to affect RSA’s future. I just hope that the girls will manage once they leave the school behind and are forced to deal once again with the harsh realities of South Africa’s society.
The general point worth raising is that well-conceived educational projects are usually a very good social investment – the benefits that flow from such projects being so multifaceted that it is impossible to do them justice in a few short paragraphs. I can only hope that the educational programme at the academy will be designed to teach the girls intellectual skills such as curiosity and independence of thought. Knowing what little about Winfrey’s views of education I could not help but pick up from being exposed to American celebrity culture, this seems quite likely. All in all, I can only comment that I hope that if I had her money I would have her good sense to fund such a project.

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