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Celebrity profs dabble while the ill-educated starve


Al Gore teaching at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, along with Fisk and Middle Tennessee State Universities, means that American education has one more celebrity professor.

Two years ago, Oprah Winfrey took to the classrooms of Northwestern University to teach business and marketing to students hankering for careers in moneymaking. Bill Bradley decompressed from the Senate by spending a few semesters at Notre Dame and Stanford. After leaving Washington and the ways of Eastern elites that he delighted in scorning, Alan Simpson of Wyoming didn’t go home to swap yarns with cowpokes at the Cody general store. He became a Harvard professor. George Stephanopoulos took his show to Columbia. Last week, David Broder of The Washington Post announced he would teach at the University of Maryland. Ben Bradlee retired from The Post to hold forth for a semester at Georgetown University.

Celebrity professors are little more than academic dabblers, providing star quality entertainment for privileged students glad to have one more privilege. A publicity-minded university welcomes the celebrities for the sheen.

But after that, what does it amount to?

If a Professor Famous feels called to teach, why not go where the need is great -- a low-income public high school or prison? Inner-city high schools are crammed with students hungry for caring and world-savvy teachers. They have gifts waiting to be discovered and nurtured.

Prisons, or at least the occasional ones in which politicians still allow money for academic programs, overflow with the ill-educated who never lucked out by having a kind teacher who might have intervened early enough. For these it’s not too late.

Public high school or prison teaching is the heavy lifting of American education. But how inspiring it would be for an Al Gore or Oprah Winfrey to give their time to students in those settings. Imagine the affirmation that teachers already there would receive. Think of the example given to high school and college students considering teaching careers.

The District of Columbia public high school where I began volunteering since the early 1980s is the closest school to the White House -- five blocks directly west on G Street -- and one of the poorest in America. Why doesn’t the new education president stroll over to teach a weekly seminar and gain experiential knowledge on ways to improve schools?

In the Maryland prison -- Oak Hill -- where I have been teaching juvenile offenders for the past three years, my students have been a mix of felons, dropouts, the abandoned and the still-hopeful. If former members of Congress, or presidents or vice-presidents, have time on their hands and need to fill it with something purposeful, the Oak Hill inmates, or the caged anywhere, would welcome them.

Students at impoverished high schools and prisons have little in common with the scrubbed and sparkling college folk crossing kempt acres at overpriced universities to pick up three credits listening to the Awesome One. They are long shots to make it, not the sure-shots. Would the odds be lowered if celebrities showed up to teach? I’d bet on it.

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace, Washington D.C. His e-mail address is colman@clark.net

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001