Funny thing about Bill Cosby: He's as passionate about education as he is about comedy. Maybe even more so.
The legendary entertainer supports education with his time, money, expertise, innovation and celebrity clout. He speaks his mind at stand-up comedy gigs, commencement addresses and fundraising benefits; produces educational software and school videos; develops innovative classroom programs and even drafts concrete plans for overhauling the public school system.
"Many kids and teachers are succeeding in spite of the system rather than because of it," he says.
Whether speaking at a college fundraiser or entertaining in a packed concert arena, Cosby doesn't mince words on the topics of schools and kids. When discussing the challenges facing teachers he asks, "How do you grade a teacher when the system is an F?" Sometimes he offers the quip, "Teachers should make a least a dollar more than police officers!"
And, as our interview revealed, his passion for education deeply influences his work as an entertainer. Says Cosby, "No matter what project I worked on, it had to do with getting a message to these children," saying to them, "here are some morals, some values. …Except for one show, ‘I Spy,’ the rest of the shows were dedicated to family and to making the right choices."
The Power of Learning
For Cosby it's all about showing children the pleasure and power of learning. He offers his own values and experiences as an example. "I don't smoke. I don't drink. I don't do drugs. There has never been a better high than knowing all my stuff before going on to perform. It's the same thing with a kid going in to take a test. You can be a little nervous. But, when you go in, open the book, and realize you know the material, that's a high."
Cosby learned the power of education firsthand, growing up in a $33-a-month apartment in a public housing project in Philadelphia. His sixth-grade teacher Mary Forchic "put a spotlight" on him and his natural storytelling abilities, suggesting "You should become either a lawyer or an actor, because you lie so well." As we all know, he chose entertainment, but he never lost sight of education.
His early TV characters—Fat Albert, Mush Mouth, the Cosby Kids and others—formed the basis of his doctoral thesis at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and went on to delight a generation of young Americans. Even as he soared to fame and fortune, Cosby used his characters to teach such values as love of family, tolerance and respect for others.
He continues to crisscross the country, speaking at fundraisers and commencement addressees, calling for increased public school funding, praising hard-working teachers and encouraging everyone to serve as role models.
"We need to bring good people—and the deeds that they're doing—forward for the children to see," he says. "We need to applaud them. We need to teach our children that doing the correct thing, having integrity, is wonderful."
One of Cosby's goals is to "look at children, and find out what causes them to run away from their strengths." In that vein, he is involved in a number of projects to find creative solutions to the problem. For example, he was instrumental in establishing a program at his alma mater, Temple University, called the Cosby Academic Posse Program. It uses retired teachers to tutor at-risk eighth- and ninth-graders from Cosby's old neighborhood. "We targeted kids in that tough time when they are going through all those hormonal changes and easily could flow into distractions," he says.
According to program director Tom Maxey, "Cosby is not just underwriting the program, he is very much involved." With Cosby's continued support, Temple plans to launch another program directed at kids in kindergarten through second grade. This one will use storytelling, cartoons and other creative tools to ease "math anxiety" and emphasize the importance of subjects such as algebra, geometry and calculus. Plans are also underway to extend the Cosby-backed programs to nearby West Chester University. Says Maxey, "This is a side of Bill Cosby that people are not aware of, and I think they should be."
Cosby has also authored a "modest" proposal for a $1 billion public/private program to "reform, revamp, and reinvent our schools." Written with Dwight Allen, Eminent Professor of Education Reform at Old Dominion University, the treatise was published as an e-book in 2000.
Not surprisingly, Cosby has also been a major contributor to education over the years. In 1989, he set a philanthropy record by awarding $20 million to Spelman College, an African-American liberal arts school for women outside Atlanta. The majority of the gift was used for construction of the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center, in honor of his wife of nearly 40 years, who also holds a doctorate in education and continues to support the cause. The remainder funded a Cosby-endowed professorship in the arts.
"The fact that the Cosbys have gone into this area of education is so forward thinking," says professor Ayoka Chenzira, who holds the Cosby-endowed chair at Spelman. And the Cosby characters continue to inspire new generations. "Little Bill," an animated show for preschoolers airing on Nickelodeon and CBS, is based on his children's book series of the same name. Since its debut in 1999, "Little Bill" has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, an NAACP res Award, and two Emmy nominations.
Cosby reached several new milestones this past year. His educational software, "Bill Cosby's Picture Pages-Early Learning Readiness Series," was named one of the 100 best children's products of 2002 by the San Francisco-based Institute for Childhood Resources. He also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to American culture. And he turned 65.
The man known for making people laugh is intensely serious at the mention of children, especially those with learning difficulties. Perhaps that's because he carries the mantle of his only son, Ennis, who was studying for his doctorate in special education when tragically murdered in Los Angeles in 1997.
Ennis Cosby's passion for kids with learning disorders stemmed from his own struggles with dyslexia as a child. As a testament to Bill Cosby's son, the "Little Bill" show features children with learning disabilities. And its main character opens each show with Ennis' trademark greeting, "Hello, friend."
Thoughts of his son no doubt weighed heavily when Cosby addressed students receiving master's degrees from Columbia University Teachers College (Ennis' alma mater). To the graduates, Cosby offered this challenge: "We cannot as teachers allow them to put us into a situation where we have tomorrow's grown-ups with inferior books, inferior lighting, inferior seating. You can't allow this." Cosby sums up his passion simply. "A child is an annoying person when they can do something and do it well. They want to show it to you time after time, and it wears you out. I don't care if a kid learns how to flip a pancake. If he or she learns how to do that and do it the right way, it is a beautiful thing."
How long will his crusade go on? "Dr. Bill Cosby and Dr. Camille Cosby will be doing this until we can no longer breathe," he told NRTA Live & Learn.