One visitor who came to the city of Timbuktu (in West Africa) noted that the most valuable item there wasn’t the gold which Timbuktu was famous for. No, it was books. This stands out to be because this was perhaps the richest city in the world at this time period—Mansa Musa, who had ruled over the city of Timbuktu was named the richest man in history—and here books were more valuable than gold. This is the type of emphasis these people placed on learning.
Now we come to America, and books are not only less valuable than gold, they are less valuable than even entertainment. Speaking from a Caribbean perspective, if you ask an American to name a famous Jamaica the singer Bob Marley or the athlete Usain Bolt will come up, but you are less likely to hear about Marcus Garvey, Robert Love, Paul Bogle, Sam Sharpe, Nanny, or other Jamaicans who were thinkers or freedom fighters—and the sad part is that some of these people are mentioned by Bob Marley in his music, but people dance to his music while missing the deeper message. The media has no use for these people, so the Jamaicans you do know of are entertainers. In fact, Jamaica (and the Caribbean in general) seems to only matter to the American psyche when it’s related to vacation, music, or sports. You never get the intellectual side of the Caribbean in America; you never get men like Walter Rodney—at least, not before you get dancehall music.
Then we look at American culture itself where so much weight is placed on entertainers. I recall how ridiculous I found the idea that people were emotional upset by LeBron James leaving Cleveland. People were burning his t-shirts and publically crying. In Timbuctu books were worth more than gold; in modern day America a sport in which the goal is to throw a ball into a hoop is more important to people than things that actually impact their lives. This is something that I cannot understand. In a world where people are starving to death, there are Americans who find the time to cry over basketball?
This just goes to show were the priorities are placed. In fact, colleges themselves seem to place more emphasis on sports than academics. USA Today reported that public universities spend six times as much per athlete as they spend to educate students.
From a cultural standpoint this only makes sense. The general public seems to care more about a college producing the next NFL star or the next NBA star than a college producing the next great intellect or thinker. This is why colleges focus so much more on sports; it simply makes more money for large colleges than academics do. Once again we find that we are an entertainment driven society.
I mean think of the message this sends to aspiring scholars. The future scholars go to college and see how much importance is given to sports. They must also see that when they graduate, they wouldn’t be making as much as the athlete will be. In fact, scholars also won’t be making as much as the top paid actors, musicians, and even Kim Kardashian! Now I know it has become trendy to pick on the Kardashians, but in all seriousness, what type of society promotes entertainers (ignorant ones at that) over educated individuals?
Let’s look at rap music, specifically Tupac Shakur. Over Tupac’s short music career, his first album 2Pacalypse Now was by far his most political and educational, yet it was his lowest selling. His highest selling album, All Eyez on Me, was his least political record. Then we must look at the fact that Tupac’s first hit song was “I Get Around,” which was little more than a promiscuous party song. In other words, Tupac was more valuable singing about sex, violence, and weed than he was when he was singing about police brutality, racism, and making mention to Malcolm X.
Then we have Lil Wayne, who has demonstrated none of the political knowledge Tupac showed. Wayne got into a bit of some controversy when he made some lyrics that were insulting to the legacy of Emmett Till. With all honesty, this is to be expected. After all, when X Clan and KRS-One were discussing black history in their music, not as many people bought their work as they have bought Lil Wayne. And as political as Public Enemy was, I am sure today more people know of Flava Flav for his reality show, than they know of Chuck D, who has remained a political and socially conscious voice. And I am sure Brother J will never get a movie like Biggie Smalls has gotten.
Many young people do not even realize that there was a period when rappers didn’t just rhyme. They told stories, they shed knowledge, and they took pride in a mastery of the English language. Take for example Nas, who was not only known for his lyrical abilities, but for the fact that he actually sat down and read things, which in turn made his subject matters deeper than most other mainstream rappers and made his lyrical vocabulary unheard of in hip-hop. Yet, like Tupac, Nas’ greatest commercial success came when he was at his least political and least socially conscious. But what do we expect when we celebrate Thug Life, while completely ignoring that Tupac was also an avid reader.
Where I am going with this is that we must be aware of the dangers of celebrating mindless entertainment over intelligent entrainment. Likewise, there is also a danger in placing entertainment above education period.
Politicians can talk about education reform, but no amount of reform makes a difference when the society itself does not place a lot of value on education. Timbuktu has become the byword for a place that is not only very far away, but also seemingly insignificant. It might do Americans well to find out where it is and why it should matter to the educational system.