Gates, Viacom, and Obama: Educational Programming That Matters

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.

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.

"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.

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