Oprah for Secretary of Education

"[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power," wrote Thomas Jefferson, founding father.

(Except for OPENLETR Founder), education is not a sexy subject, let’s be frank. There is nothing about pedagogy, curriculum, or epistemology that rivets the attention. In fact, not since Allan Bloom’s path breaking, The Closing of the American Mind, has there been a bestseller on the subject.

And yet, democracies live and die according to the education of the electorate. Vladimir Putin’s interference in the 2016 election stands as a perfect example of what happens when education breaks down in a democracy, and media illiterate voters get taken in by Facebook bots with an aim to sow discord. The crisis, at this point in American history, is now existential.

We need a new focus on education

Unfortunately, our present Secretary of Education seems incapable of leading that change. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, she appeared to be exactly what her critics charge her as – an out of touch plutocrat.

In the new creative economy, we must all care about education. Aside from the national security aspect, elections are getting interfered with via social media hacks by enemy nations, and there is also the fact that jobs will be lost to computerization. Entire industries, like truck driving and real estate are set to be disrupted. The University of Oxford 2013 report on jobs that are subject to computerization was startling. It follows on several other reports on the subject. "Our key finding is that while there may be enough work to maintain full employment to 2030 under most scenarios, the transitions will be very challenging — matching or even exceeding the scale of shifts out of agriculture and manufacturing we have seen in the past,” The McKinsey report noted in 2017.

Which brings us to Oprah. The next Democrat President should appoint Oprah for Education Secretary. Many believe that, in fact, Oprah Winfrey should be President. But Oprah has nixed the idea, saying “I am the kind of person who tries to listen to signs.” “[...] am I supposed to run the country?” she continues. “I don’t think so.” Oprah would be much more useful to America, in this time of crisis, as Education Secretary. It is a subject that has been dear to her heart since a fourth grade teacher changed her life, and chose her as one of 16 students to integrate a local school.  Oprah has fought to reduce high school dropouts. The “Sons of Oprah” campaign has funded over 300 scholarships to Morehouse College. And like DeVos, Oprah has given millions to charter schools.

But a similarities between Betsy DeVos end at their respective fortunes. Oprah, unlike DeVos, earned, not inherited hers. For a decade, she has run a school in South Africa, transforming hundreds of lives. Oprah has spent $140 million to keep the school running. And while educational institutions like the Albert Shanker Institute have called for a national curriculum, it is an idea that could never happen, basically because of local control and the Constitution. Oprah’s book club is the closest thing to a national curriculum that this country has ever had.

Oprah actually got people reading Tolstoy. She introduced through the influence of her soft power many world-class authors to the viewers of her television show. “With 46 recommendations in six years, Ms. Winfrey had championed a diverse group of modern authors — Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb, and Mary McGarry Morris among them — whose members saw sales of their books grow exponentially, as hundreds of thousands of loyal viewers rushed out in search of the latest selection, often sending it zooming up best-seller lists,” Edward Wyatt wrote for the New York Times in 2004. The Oprah effect was real to the publishing industry where she helped sell millions of books.

If Oprah could influence this many people to read challenging books as a television host, imagine what she could do as Education Secretary.

Why would Oprah Winfrey want to be 15th in line for the Presidency, instead of Senator for Illinois or even Commander-in-Chief? The Education Department is the smallest Cabinet-level department, and highly constrained in power because of local control of schools. The department largely exists to collect data on students across the country, and administering federal aid. But the largest responsibility to the department Secretary is the bully pulpit. Betsy DeVos has used her bully pulpit to champion school choice, a cause that Winfrey has also, in certain moments, championed. But Oprah, who has created a multi-billion dollar brand and exhibited a commitment to education, could do much better.

“I value nothing more in the world than education,” Oprah said in 2010. “It is the reason why I can stand here today. It is an open door to freedom.”

Oprah, perhaps more than any other person now living, could open wide that door to freedom to other generations of Americans in a time of national crisis.



Cover photo via Time Magazine