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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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When Celebrities Fall Short as Role Models

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

First, on Saturday evening's live broadcast of the U.S. Open tennis championships, we saw superstar Serena Williams throw an obscenity-filled tantrum that ultimately cost her the match.

Then, the following evening, at the MTV Video Music Awards, a reportedly drunken Kanye West grabbed the microphone away from 19-year-old winner Taylor Swift and told the world that he thought singer Beyonce should have been the winner. Beyonce came through later and invited Taylor back to make her speech, but the thunder had been stolen.

Then we have South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson, whose "You lie!" outburst during President Obama's health care speech last week was so incendiary that it inspired about 25,000 people to donate over $900,000 to his opponent, Rob Miller.

And earlier this year, one of America's most beloved athletes, Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps, was caught smoking pot.

All these folks have since apologized to some degree or another. Joe Wilson apologized to Obama but refuses to say anymore. Serena Williams apologized to everyone -- more than once. Kanye West apologized via his blog, and it got so many hits that it crashed the server. He later went on to Jay Leno's show -- a latter-day celebrity confessional -- to deliver his mea culpas in front of a live audience. Phelps issued a statement apologizing for his "behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment."

We live in a world where boorish behavior is captured and amplified and discussed ad nauseam, particularly when the boors are our heroes, celebrities, and elected officials. Then, the handlers issue an apology, and all is forgotten. Of course, this is not new -- John McEnroe was a brat on the tennis court in the 1980s, Hugh Grant hooked up with a prostitute, and Washington, DC, mayor Marion Berry was busted with cocaine. And then -- like now -- you only need an apology or two, and life proceeds apace.

All this would just be media noise if these people weren't such role models for our kids.

We were chatting about this here at the Edutopia home office today and wondering how teachers manage these types of media viruses, as writer Douglas Rushkoff once described these loud eruptions of celebrity misconduct. Do you embrace them, talk about them, invite discussion? Or do you ignore and move on? One could easily spend an entire school year with this stuff!

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
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Tamas Lorincz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sad state of affairs as you say.
We live in a world where even the BBC is more concerned with the gender of a South African runner than the GFC (Global Financial Crisis).
English Language Teaching coursebooks have a ratio of at least celebrity per unit, they start reminding you of tabloids.
Depressing. In the 90s there was no coursebook for young adults without a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio or Madonna.
Talk show hosts and reality show stars are banging on the classroom doors demanding to be let in. Many of us, in the name of being relevant, up-beat and wanting to encourage communication welcome them in, thus endorsing the culture of the uncultured.
To me, the blatant tabloidisation of our everyday thoughts and actions is the most frightening tendency in the modern world today. It makes us lazy to think, we search for easy topics to talk about, simplifies our moral and ethical judgments.
Teachers, especially when trying to teach English as a foreign language find themselves between rock and a hard place when trying to engage students in conversation without ending up talking about the latest celebrity scandal.
It's especially tricky here in the Middle East where every scandal is used to highlight the decadence and stupidity of western democracies.
They also make teachers lazy. "Oh, I don't need to worry about preparing for my class, we'll just talk about Serena for a while-job done."
Many of us try to find other, more meaningful ways to encourage real communication but it's a constant struggle and many a times we have to admit defeat.

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