We've Been Talking About Education All Wrong. Wyatt Cenac Wants to Change That

Photo: Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas (HBO)

Wyatt Cenac knows it’s easy to laugh at Aunt Becky.

When news broke last month of the college admissions scandal—which saw dozens of the nation’s most privileged parents receive federal indictments for bribing their children’s way into the nation’s top universities—it dominated as many punchlines as it did headlines. Included in the schadenfreude were jokes about Lori Loughlin, know to many as “Aunt Becky” on the hit ‘90s sitcom, Full House.

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“It’s a weird thing because yeah, we get focused on the jokes—‘Oh it’s Aunt Becky.’ Cool. We make the jokes there, but what that really speaks to is just how problematic the issue is,” Cenac told The Root via phone.

Cenac is getting ready to launch the second season of his late-night HBO Series, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, which premieres Friday night at 11 p.m. Like the premiere season, the show will spend the majority of its time taking a deep dive into a polarizing topic; last year, Cenac chose to look at policing. This year, he went with an issue arguably as polarizing and complex: What’s wrong with America’s education system.

Cenac, a stand-up comedian and actor who was first introduced to late-night audiences as a Daily Show correspondent, travels to ten cities during the course of the show to probe different facets of our country’s education system: from school lunches in Minneapolis, Minn., to teacher pay in West Virginia.

While Cenac doesn’t shy away from discussions about race and class, he opts to spend the bulk of his time probing possible solutions to educational problems, rather than doing some of the more satirical, confrontational interviews the Daily Show used to be known for. In this way, the show is as much corrective as it is comedy—and that’s by design.

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“We get into these conversations about problems in society and we can get mired in the frustration of the problem and ignore the people who are actively on the ground trying to do something different, trying to disrupt the problem. Trying to create a new path forward,” Cenac said. By presenting his subjects—and his audience—with possible solutions to address problems like school safety, Cenac hopes to lead us into deeper, more multifaceted conversations about education than we’re used to.

Using the issue of school safety as an example, Cenac talked about how the sorts of security measures proposed by middle-class white parents and educators as a way to deter mass shooters—for example, metal detectors and increased police presence—have caused real, demonstrable harm to black and brown students. For them, these “safety measures” help keep the pipeline between schools and prisons flowing.

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In approaching the topic, Cenac wanted to give viewers of all backgrounds an entry point to consider their own biases and blindspots.

It was more about thinking about how these things criminalize students, what are the things that can be done to mitigate that and disrupt that for those students in those schools, and how do we shine a light on those things so that people ... see not just the sort of the impact of things like the school-to-prison pipeline, but also they see actual people doing the work to disrupt it,” Cenac said.

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As is true of many Americans, Cenac has personal examples of feeling like the education system wasn’t working for him. He recalled how, stressed about his high school grades (which, he wanted to make clear, were mostly B’s), he decided to seek advice from his guidance counselor—who was also the J.V. basketball coach.

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I remember he looked at my grades and he was like, ‘Hey these aren’t that bad. You’re the smartest of all the black kids,’” Cenac said during a recent screening of the show.

Another time, he got an assist from another guidance counselor who helped him forge a report card to change a “C” grade—the sort of mark that would warrant a whooping in Cenac’s house. Cenac steamed the envelope containing his original grade open, with his counselor providing the school letterhead so he could print out a fake report card and replace the original copy.

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While he laughs telling the story, Cenac offers, “There’s something about that. Like, oh wait, what the fuck is education for if I’m more concerned about the fucking punishment and the wrath I will feel from bringing home a C than what I’m actually retaining,” he said.

He also points out that much of education’s current inequities are baked in.

“It was originated for the children of landowning white males, and for the white males of landowning white males. And there has always been something embedded in the DNA of education, that this is for the wealthy,” he said. “And as other groups have said, ‘we want access to this thing,’ rather than be embraced—they have oftentimes been treated like a virus that you live with.”

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With Problem Areas’ second season, Cenac builds upon a long tradition of comedians exploring divisive and complicated social issues. He references stand-up comics Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Richard Pryor: “Inherent in comedy has always been political discourse, social discourse,” said Cenac.

And while the 42-year-old comedian has plenty of company among his contemporaries (Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix series, Patriot Act, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, also on HBO, toe a similar line between earnest discourse and comedic commentary), Cenac’s show remains the furthest departure from the standard comic late-night show format: making Problem Areas among the most ambitious comedy shows on TV. After all—despite nearly everyone in the U.S. agreeing that our education system needs to be fixed—many voters say they don’t hear presidential candidates offering comprehensive education reform.

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“I’m really asking for over 200 minutes of being invested in this conversation,” he points out. “It really does take an ask that the audience stays with that.

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“By doing this in an unconventional way—it draws a different set of eyeballs to it and perhaps helps to expand the conversation in our own little way,” Cenac added.

There is another hope seated deeply in this mission: that by deepening the conversation, Cenac’s audience could begin to reconsider the ways they think about education—especially as it impacts their families, their children, and their communities. Specifically, that Americans start thinking beyond their own children, instead of reducing the system to a game that must be rigged in your favor.

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“I think, unfortunately, education so often has been treated as a spaceship that is leaving a planet that’s about to explode. And it’s just like, ‘well we just got to save the ones we can,’” Cenac said.

“It’s about people confronting institutional racism in this country,” he said. “A big part of it is also just getting people to give a shit about poor people. ... Unfortunately, what we’ve seen with education in this country, at least with public education, is that when people get the opportunity to opt out of it—they take it. And that for those who don’t have that opportunity and don’t have that ability, they’re left with what remains.”

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?