American Idol Goes to "Africa"

April 13, 2008 | Blog

A recent National Geographic Society-Roper Public Affairs geographic literacy study of American 18-to-24 year-olds found that more than six in ten (63%) could not locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East. Shocking, given the billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, in the Bush-Cheney WMD folly.

Americans’ lack of geographic literacy is not new, so it’s not something we can blame on No Child Left Behind. A 1988 Gallup survey ranked Americans aged 18-24 dead last among nine Western nations in this area. Around that same time, 50 percent of high school students in Hartford, Connecticut could not name 3 countries in Africa. Egypt, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South AFRICA … it ain’t hard, kids.

That brings me to the most popular U.S. television show: American Idol. Beginning last season, American Idol has built an episode called “Idol Gives Back” into the series. The purpose of the episode is to raise money for worthy causes in the U.S. and internationally. Last year it raised about $67 million. Wonderful.

Something troubles me however. Last year and this year, “Africa” received a large amount of attention and support. The host and judges even traveled to “Africa” last season. Proceeds are going to help kids in “Africa.” However, never once has a nation in Africa actually been mentioned on the show.

To paint an entire continent with such a broad brush is troubling. Is it because much of the African population is black? Is it because they’re viewed as primitive or backwards? Or it is because American Idol thinks so little of the intellect or interest level of Americans (or Fox viewers)? “Well, those dumb bastards don’t know and probably don’t care about the differences between Malawi and Mozambique, so let’s just say ‘Africa.’

I mean, it’s clear from some of the video footage that Idol Inc. wasn’t visiting Egypt, Tunisia or downtown Johannesburg. But wouldn’t it be nice to contextualize the “Africans” we’re assisting? Are they suffering as a result of long-standing conditions like poverty or lack of education, or from current events, such as climatic change, civil war, or geopolitical turmoil? This approach could actually teach viewers a thing or two and, if nothing else, help them to name three countries in Africa next time National Geographic comes a-calling.

Reporting from North America (please don’t ask me where), this is Liam Goldrick for The Education Optimists.

1 Comment

  1. Reply


    April 23, 2008

    I agree with the general point, but I distinctly recall one of the trailer sequences for Idol Gives Back specifically mentioning Angola and the terrible aftermath of its civil war. They had Forrest Whittaker and his wife visiting war orphans.

    So not all bad.

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