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Here's the rap on Neil Bush's educational software

Friday, March 08, 2002

Sometimes a man can be so overwhelmed by feelings of self-loathing that he has no choice but to march himself into the nearest alley for a series of self-administered and well-deserved slaps. Cynicism can be such an evil taskmaster. It reduces even good-hearted people like me to the level of the folks I'm often forced to mock.

Biting into my knuckles while reading The New York Times yesterday, I nearly fainted from an adrenaline rush of nastiness. There, on Page A-16, was a story that left even the most sainted among us smirking from ear to ear. The headline gave only the barest hint of the story's absurdity: "Bush Brother Pushes Education on Sales Campaign Trail."

Apparently, Neil Bush, the president's 47-year-old brother, is no longer haunted by his involvement in a failed savings and loan association in the early 1990s. Consistent with the expectation that there's plenty of room for second acts in America, Neil Bush is now an education reformer pushing history curriculum software to school systems in the nation's biggest states for $30 a student.

And not just any boring history curriculum software. Mr. Bush knows how to reach out to today's attention deficit-saddled generation. Unlike many of his Republican brethren, Neil Bush is a big believer in using hip-hop beats as an educational tool.

Check out the rap Bush commissioned about the Founding Homies who met in Philadelphia in the days before MTV's Total Request Live:

"It was 55 delegates from 12 states / Took one hot Philadelphia summer to create / A perfect document for their imperfect times / Franklin / Madison / Washington / A lot of cats / Who used to be in the Continental Congress way back."

Look, I'm not going to playa hate the president's brother. We have to stop piling on easy targets. Neil Bush jackin' hip-hop beats to advance the teaching of American history doesn't rise to the level of Pat Boone ripping off Little Richard and Chuck Berry when rock 'n' roll was in its infancy. But, man, it comes close.

While reading the Times piece, I fretted over what such blatant cultural misappropriation by a Republican educational reformer would do to rap's hard-earned reputation as an anti-intellectual medium.

When I read how much money the educational software has made for Bush's company Ignite! in the three years it has been available -- $20 million and counting -- I finally understood: Neil Bush has already made it into P. Diddy's league. He has 20 million reasons not to care about what his critics have to say on the matter.

Bush's innovative software has attracted investors for Ignite! in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, along with nearly a dozen other countries where rap versions of say, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address are apparently coveted as much as a comprehensive Mideast peace agreement.

Playa hatin' critics like Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, rudely insinuate that foreign interest in Bush's American history curriculum isn't "solely on the basis of his product."

I don't know about that. A kid in the United Arab Emirates should have the same expectation of being condescended to as an eighth-grader in America. Sure, there are legitimate questions about whether foreign lobbyists are trying to gain access to President Bush by the back door. But I think a product that reduces all of American history to a series of animated cartoons and rap jingles speaks for itself.

Besides, I take perverse pride in the news that even America's remedial educational products have worldwide appeal. Isn't this what America is all about: exploiting an opportunity -- even a grim one?

When Neil Bush was the tender age of the students his software is now ruthlessly marketed to, he struggled with dyslexia, a learning disability that a reporter from Vanity Fair once alleged that he shares with his brother, George W. Bush.

Still, no one can blame Neil Bush for trying to make as much money as he can during a time of educational uncertainty. If the president's brother has to jack something to make a living, it's probably better that it was hip-hop than another savings and loan.

Gosh, another cheap shot. I really, truly hate myself.

Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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