talk show host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey has been taking a lot of barbs recently for her magnum opus, the
for Girls. Located in
, it is the first – but surely not the last – school of its kind. Critics have called it too opulent and too elitist while complaining that it will serve too few students and only females. They also have questioned the choice of
as its location, asking why it was not located in the
The critics are wrong. But to see why they are wrong you have to dial past the shallow media focus which has, of course, been fixated on the “Oprah Winfrey” portion of the institution’s name. Much more compelling in the long run is the rest: “
for Girls. And from that careful formulation flow streams of strong, compassionate logic.
Within a protected setting Oprah has provided for 450 students in grade 7 through 12 to explore “math, languages, arts and culture, social science, life orientation, and natural science” with a through-line of leadership development transecting all. And they’ll do it with human teachers supplemented by technology and e-learning.
Given its intensity and its underlying goal of preparation for events far over the horizon, this sounds a lot like astronaut training.
Before advancing a more rational argument in support of Oprah’s choices, let’s first simply remind her critics that she “made this money, you didn’t, right?” She can do what she wants to do. A wide spectrum from Newt Gingrich to Bobby Brown must surely agree. It is her prerogative, her creation of opportunity in a global society – her choice of mission. And Oprah states the mission thus: “The school will teach girls to be the best human beings they can ever be; it will train them to become decision-makers and leaders; it will be a model school for the rest of the world.”
That’s just how we used to think of NASA’s astronaut corps (before the public affairs office adopted policies calculated to kill the charisma): a concentration of the best, the brightest and the most motivated brought together to realize difficult endeavors, some never-before attempted.
It is a bold strategy. Start where the problems are acute, not where they’re easy.
is a country recovering too slowly from the effects of pitiless apartheid, with portions of the populace still mired in poverty. It has a weak and overly bureaucratic police system ineffectively combating a high felony rate, and a struggling health care system dealing with a population mercilessly wracked with HIV/AIDS. It needs to become a society where – for the good of its sons as well as its daughters – the crime of rape, “intimate partner violence” and other sexual abuse is immediately recognized, held utterly unacceptable, and is severely punished. It takes at least a full generation to break such cycles.
Oprah’s end product will be class after class after class of leaders. They’ll need elegant toolsets to prepare then for generations of nation building. Especially, they will need a deep understanding of and facility with the explosive growth of new sciences. Moreover, they’ll need enlightened management skills to harness the sciences’ hard-working daughter: technology.
Though it stands apart, Oprah’s Academy is not alone. Earlier this year, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Development Alliance and the African Education Initiative launched Mindset Cabanga (Zulu for “to think”), a direct-to-classroom satellite service carrying math, science and technology course material. Fifty South African schools have so far been equipped to receive the signal. Twenty more in
will get similar programming in Swahili. Given Oprah’s media acumen, it would not be surprising for
to become a shining node on this net.
Oprah is not the only one to identify the need to support and supplement South African women. In October 2006, Sir Richard Branson, the power behind Virgin Galactic, and American undergarment entrepreneur Sara Blakely donated large sums to South Africa’s Women on the Move program. This is a four-year college-level course leading to a business degree. Some of Oprah’s first class of 152 students could be enrolling in it five years from now.
I’m not privy, of course, to Oprah’s student selection criteria (she personally interviews the finalists). But she’s invested more than $40 million of her own dollars and she knows the stakes. We know at least that these girls are there not only because of need but also because of ability and potential.
Likewise, by selection and training, astronauts and cosmonauts tend to be self-motivated workaholics and selfless team players. They don’t get paid that much. Their families endure long separations, regimented lives and, yes, quiet fear. Astronauts no longer enjoy rewards of fame. They tirelessly labor for something beyond themselves: often goals out there in the far future – some without precise definition, and none with surety of completion. Yet they all exhibit a soft-spoken confidence rooted in the importance of the work and the membership in that work’s extended tribal family.
NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy Capt. Bob Curbeam recently returned to Earth after serving as lead spacewalker on STS-116, his second space shuttle mission to the weightless, airless construction site that is the international space station’s exoskeleton. In May of 2006, at a conference of African-American engineers, Curbeam related what he sometimes needs to say to minority and disadvantaged American youth. His message was something along the lines of if you don’t make it, don’t tell me it’s because of a lack of money. Curbeam notes that his entire education cost him personally a total of $400. No similar opportunities existed in
. Until now; until Oprah.
In the sciences, the barriers aren’t only economic. Too often it is a cycle of sexual discrimination driving the killing of young girls’ confidence. Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman to orbit the Earth, has quietly been moving these mountains. Through her Sally Ride Science enterprise, she’s been erasing the imaginary lines that separate girls from exploring the universe through the methods of science. Supplanting fear with self-assurance, Dr. Ride’s team shows girls – and boys – how to perceive truth where others are blinded by superstition, preconception and prejudice – precisely what Oprah’s girls confront outside the Leadership Academy’s perimeter. Perhaps some of Dr. Ride’s science modules have found their way into the Academy curricula. If not, perhaps they will.
Here in the
, if you look like you are of African ancestry you may find yourself – by attitude, expectation or even overt counseling – directed away from the hard sciences. Astrophysicist, author, educator, communicator and planetarium director Dr. Neil Tyson has observed this particular cultural illness deeply and personally. I hope that his autobiographical work “The Sky Is Not the Limit” makes its way into the library at Oprah’s Academy.
The word “race” – much like the word “planet” – has cultural connotations. But, like “planet,” “race” has no precise scientific definition. It’s a term of convenience born of a misconception – one upon which we’re constantly tripping. We are all of African descent; all of us have African blood; all our families can trace our roots to the African continent, possibly even to a single “mitochondrial mother.” Wave after wave of restless, brave, clever explorers expanded our range across the world. And, in our time, we are just beginning to spread off-world; this fascinating story is unfolding in the pages of Space News week after week. It is part of what Neil Tyson calls “the fun and frustrations of living in a space-faring nation.” Now, paradoxically, as our satellite and aeronautical technologies accelerate the shrinking of planet Earth, the human family could – if we choose – draw ever closer back together. When Oprah bootstraps opportunities for South African girls, she accelerates us all towards escape velocity along both vectors.
All the assets of the Academy are chartered to encourage girls “to explore the changing world through advanced education techniques and technology.” This exploratory process really does need 52 acres protected by a high-tech security perimeter. It requires a set-aside; a safe haven for the weightless, timeless envelope of protected learning to work. For each girl, this won’t be just a mission to understand, and then alter, the changing culture outside the school. Essentially, it’s about the shifting of the universe within each girl. As Oprah put it, “I know that this Academy will change the trajectory of these girls’ lives.”
Soar high, young women, the sky is indeed not your limit. And you may very well show the rest of us multiple ways to get there.
Dave Brody is executive producer and director of media for Imaginova Corp., the parent company of Space News.