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Gates, Viacom, and Obama: Educational Programming That Matters

Kenneth Libby

Right-wing fanatics are up in arms about President Obama’s speech to our nation’s children, alleging the President would like to use federal funds to push his “socialist ideology” or promote partisan politics. In response, lefties have ridiculed their conservative foes (a pretty easy task these days) by highlighting the speeches made by Presidents Reagan (1988) and George H.W. Bush (1991), both of which included the same “stay in school” and “no excuses” messages while promoting hard work and pro-education values. Left out of the controversy is any mention of a much more concerning form of message control: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Viacom-sponsored “Get Schooled” programming that will air tonight at 8 pm (EST).

“Get Schooled,” a five-year partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Viacom – with sponsorships from Capital One, AT&T, and NYSE Euronext - will kick off with a thirty minute documentary about the role of education in the lives of NBA superstar Lebron James, American Idol’s Kelly Clarkson, and President Obama, and the role of education in the lives of their support staff. The program will be shown on all Viacom-owned stations, including BET, BET J, CMT, CMT Pure Country, Comedy Central, Logo, MTV, MTV Jams, MTV Hits, MTV Tr3s, MTV2, MTVU, Nick @ Nite, Nickelodeon, Nicktoons Network, Palladia, Spike TV, The N/Teen Nick, TV Land, VH1, VH1 Classic, and VH1 Soul. While the documentary will essentially spread the same “stay in school” and “no excuses” messages of the President’s midday address, more subtle messages about gender, power, celebrity, and the role of education in a democratic society should give the public pause for concern.

The “Get Schooled” website – which both compliments and advertises the TV event - offers us a glimpse into how corporate America and the Gates Foundation have subtly shaped the way the public views education. In attempt to connect young people with work, inspire social change, and encourage dropouts to return to school, the “Get Schooled” website has offered visitors three choices upon arrival at the initiative’s digital doorstep: “I want to find an awesome job,” “I want to change the system,” and “I want to get back in school.”

Students looking to find an “awesome job” are asked if they’d like to find a career based on what they like, people they admire, or the level of education required for various occupations. Students selecting the “What I like” category are taken to a screen that offers the following “interests,” listed here exactly as they are stated on the website: fast cars, being loud, talking on the phone, outer space, TV & movies, throwing parties, animals, spending money, playing video games, helping sick people, saving the planet, and sports. Each of these “interests” – most of which revolve around participating in a media-driven, consumption-based society – provide students with a few suggestions for future employment opportunities tailored to their affinity. Enjoy talking on the phone? You could be a stock broker. Interested in spending money? Financial planning or real estate might be up your alley. Interested in throwing parties? You could be an event planner or cruise director. Are video games of interest to you? Become a video game designer or software developer. TV & movie aficionados can aspire to be broadcast producers, screenwriters, or advertising creators.

Evidently, teaching will be a forgotten occupation in the future: there is only one reference about a career in education (physical education teacher) on the website. This is particularly surprising given the Gates Foundation’s push for high-quality teachers - is this, possibly, an indication that corporate America and the Gates Foundation intend to have computers and technology replace teachers and their individually meager, yet collectively significant, salaries? Teach for America and Teacher Fellows programs are given specific accolades for bringing “impassioned and skilled instructors into classrooms across the country,” but these temporary, ill-prepared teachers are hardly a solution to America’s education woes.

Students looking at job opportunities based on people they admire are provided with seven potential role models: LeBron James, Kelly Clarkson, President Obama, skateboard legend Tony Hawk, R&B singer Teri Hilson, rap/apparel mogul Russell Simmons, and supermodel Heidi Klum. Young girls, at least in the corporate-controlled version of the future, can aspire to be singers or models. Boys, on the other hand, can become the President, athletic superstars, or rappers/clothing manufacturers. In the year 2009, the world’s largest philanthropic organization and a major media conglomerate present America’s youth with role models embracing gender stereotypes more appropriate for previous generations: men as powerful and dominating creatures, women primarily as eye candy despite other talents.


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“Get Schooled” also provides a list of careers that support the seven superstars. LeBron James, for instance, requires a chef, physical therapist, assistant account director, and sports agent; Tony Hawk needs an orthopedist, licensing attorney, video game designer, and graphic designer; Heidi Klum requires a publicist, photographer, TV network executive, and cosmetologist to be successful. The listing of so-called support positions preys on our perverted desire to participate in idol worship and places celebrities at the very top of the social hierarchy. We’re teaching our children to strive for recognition, and we’ll encourage them to settle for simply serving those who reach stardom. In this twisted take on the purpose of education, schooling is narrowed to striving to be a star or faithfully serving those who have reached positions of great wealth and power. There is no mention of becoming a community organizer, public interest attorney, nonprofit leader, or career teacher.

The website also encourages viewers to, ”Let your elected officials know that you want them to follow the lead of cities like Chicago and New York in making the system work better for students.” The two cities, unfortunately, are among the worst school districts in the nation. Gates, however, is backing these two school districts because they’re ruled by mayoral control (as opposed to an elected school board). If anything, the public should use these cities – capitalist-driven metropolises with high poverty rates - as examples of the kinds of school districts we want to avoid. There is zero evidence that consolidating power into the hands of a single elected official with stronger ties to the corporate elite than the educational system will produce better schools for our children. But this programming is not based on evidence or sound educational policy; it’s based on the desires of oligarchs, the corporate world, and the world’s most famous philanthropist. Gates has come out strongly in favor of mayoral control, and his foundation has invested millions in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and DC – all school districts placed under mayoral control. Gates even donated over $4 million of his personal fortune – not from his foundation money – to support fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s recent bid to maintain his control over the NYC public schools. Bloomberg succeeded thanks in part to the media blitz paid for by Gates.

In helping students connect with funding for post-secondary education, “Get Schooled” follows the lead of No Child Left Behind by helping strengthen the ability of military recruiters to access children. Students are encouraged to seek out ROTC scholarships and officer training, and the “Get Schooled” website provides a link to “Just make sure the military is right for you, because once you’re in, you’re in,” warns the website. There are no mentions of the potential dangers of military service.

While this web-based career counseling may help a few students understand the possibilities of post-secondary employment, the lack of honesty regarding prospects for the future should be troubling: sans wage reform and a reexamination of neoliberal globalization, jobs of the future will be mostly low-wage, low-skill rather than high-skill, high-wage occupations. This, of course, is a detail left out of nearly every discussion about education. But publicly claiming that future jobs will require additional degrees provides the corporate world with an excuse to pay low wages to the majority of American workers; it’s not that capitalism is designed to push wealth upwards while suppressing wages and creating a permanent pool of unemployed, it’s the failure of our school system and an inadequate workforce that contribute to poverty and desperation. This kind of lie – embedded in the “no excuses” mantra of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and now Obama – prevents America from coming to grips with the structural causes of poverty and the economic warfare waged by the elite on the working and lower classes.

President Obama’s midday speech should be a secondary concern to education/political observers and the public. Unfortunately, the conflict-hungry media served up plenty of stories about the President’s school-time address, neglecting to peek at the more subtle messages furthered by the partnership between the Gates Foundation and Viacom (in addition to their corporate sponsors). There has yet to be a dissenting voice regarding this educational programming; there are, however, reasons to be concerned when private foundations and media conglomerates can influence the way the public – and particularly our children – view education in a democratic society.

Kenneth Libby is an education researcher and (unemployed) teacher from Portland, Oregon.  He has co-authored a chapter with Dr. Jim Horn about the NewSchools Venture Fund in an upcoming volume about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the future of public education in America.  He and Dr. Horn blog at

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