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"They Ask for Uniforms..."

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"In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."

This was Oprah's response several weeks ago to those who criticized her contribution of $40 million to construct a girl's school in South Africa instead of in the United States. She went on: "I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools (in the US) that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers."

This is not a post about Oprah. This is also not about her school or South Africa.

This is about No Child Left Behind, the Friedman-esque flattening of the world, Education Without Borders, and the unfortunate reality for many Americans that Oprah's statement is true.

When visiting any developing part of the world, one of the first things I have always noticed is the young people. Whether in the Caribbean, Latin America, Central Asia, East Asia, the Middle East or Australasia, the bright smiles and curiosity of young people amidst the toils of poverty (from abject to "moderate") proves to be a striking contrast. What I've found even more remarkable upon visiting the local schools in these communities is the staunch commitment of teachers and students to education - even sometimes beyond the commitment to meeting more basic needs. Food may be difficult to come by, and the trousers a student wears in her/his home might be tattered hand-me-downs to the fourth degree. Yet when students are in school, they sit in defiance of their situation in cleanly pressed uniforms while absorbing as much as they possibly can. This is not true of every developing community, but in the communities in which it is, there is a stark awareness among faculty and pupil alike that the only possible way out of poverty will be to educate themselves as strongly as possible.

This drive among young people is even stronger in the BRIC countries - and it is evidenced by those countries' surging economies, the development of new industry, and more entrepreneurial energy than they seem to know what to do with. Despite the reality of many of their current problems (among them: China's pollution, Russia's corruption, India's rich-poor dichotomy...) the underlying ethos among the young people in these countries is a hopeful recognition that through education and hard work there may just be a way. And many countries such as South Africa are not too far behind. As evidenced by the young women in Oprah's new school, even if the going is difficult for most, the future seems wrought with new opportunity.

In two weeks I will have the unbelievable privilege of directing a conference in the UAE comprised of 800 university students from 103 countries who will learn from such visionaries as Muhammed Yunus and Nicholas Negroponte. Over the past several months I've received emails from students in such places as Uganda, Kazakhstan, India, and many others requesting acceptance to the event. Rarely, if ever, have I seen such fervor demonstrated by students wanting so desperately to learn and expose themselves to new people and ideas. One young Kenyan who had mistakenly received a rejection notice responded with such passion about his desire to attend and be one of the young people to pull his community out of poverty that I was nearly moved to tears. He will, of course, be joining the event and will receive a scholarship.

In contrast, we have the American education system. There is no single answer as to why America's students feel insanely over-entitled and score dismally low in international competitions, but No Child Left Behind is certainly one of the worst culprits for the continuing decline of intellectual capacity and increase in apathy.

It is not new news that No Child Left Behind is killing real education in America's schools. It seems obvious that when students are given answers to tests and classrooms are taught to the lowest common denominator because a teacher is seeking to ensure a passing overall score for their school or district, the students are actively denied a fundamental aspect of education: the challenge of actually thinking and solving. In the years since I graduated high school, for instance, geometric proofs seem to have all but disappeared from curricula in favor of standardized solutions which are to be replicated on tests. Students are expected merely to regurgitate; and whether as a physical or mental reaction, regurgitating is disgusting.

This is certainly not true of every classroom, and I do not necessarily blame teachers when it is. Many teachers are simply doing what they feel they must in order to keep their jobs - but at the same time, it's not difficult to see that the impact of these practices is disastrous for our country.

As a nation or as a citizen we are not entitled to anything beyond our basic rights. It is tragic that we are educating so many of our young people to believe that their birthright as a citizen of this country is to be rich, powerful, and always in possession of the latest hot thing. "We" ask for a gadget (admittedly, an ingenious one) that will play music for a while and then eventually break. "They" ask for uniforms that will allow them to go to school, learn how to learn for the rest of their lives, and do things like design and engineer ingenious gadgets.