Commentary

The education of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlk educationAs he labored for social, civil and economic justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was extremely concerned both about the educational inequities that were a function of segregation, and about the purpose and quality of education. As early as 1947, as a Morehouse College student, he wrote an article, The Purpose of Education, for the Maroon Tiger, the college newspaper. His article is as relevant today as it was then.

Today, much of the focus of education is on passing standardized tests; and while educational measurement is important, Dr. King suggests that these measures are insufficient. In his article, he pondered the meaning and purpose of education. He wrote that “Education must enable a (person) to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.”

King was critical of the results of specific aspects of education when he wrote, “education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think, incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and propaganda. A great majority of the so-called educated people does not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths.”

True in 1947, but even more so today with 3-minute commentary passing for news, and some classrooms the site of propaganda delivery. Some Southerners still believe that the South won the Civil War, and they fly the confederate flags to honor it, and teach this falsity in their classrooms. A friend who lives in Georgia said nearly half of her junior high school-age daughter’s U.S. history curriculum covered aspects of the Civil War.

From that perspective, young King was quite critical of segregationist, their intelligence, ad their prejudice. “The late Eugene Talmadge, in my opinion, possessed one of the better minds in Georgia, or even America. Moreover, he wore the Phi Beta Kappa key. By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are these the types of men we call educated?”

King said that intelligence is not enough. He said, “Intelligence plus character is the goal of true education.”

We must develop and support young people who are educated in the King tradition – young people with character and discernment. We cannot do this work without a consciousness of people who are committed to breaking down educational barriers, closing the achievement gap, improving the quality of schools and access to education. But while other countries are increasing their commitment to education, the United States is cutting back.

Said King, “The most dangerous criminal may be the man (person) gifted with reason, but no morals.” How moral is it to consign millions to low wages, refusing, even, to increase the minimum wage. How moral is it to cut food stamps and jobs programs in the name of economic growth, although many are still suffering? The art and science of politics is about compromise, but how do we compromise with people’s lives and well-being?

There ought to be a floor under which no citizen is allowed to fall. Wages, health career, education, and access to housing should not be bargained over, but automatically given. Too many of our legislators are educated, but lack morals. It is shameful to watch them celebrate the shredding of the safety net.

Budget cuts have made education less obtainable than ever. While many parents hire coaches to help their children write essays and complete their college applications, working class parents don’t have the money to do this kind of hiring.

The American School Counselors says that many states mandate a ratio of between 500 and 750 students per counselor. Even at the lower number, a counselor can spend just an hour per student per semester, hardly enough to get advice about college attendance, the filling out of applications, and other matters. Some states have no mandate at all. They include (but are not limited to) Florida, Illinois, Kansas, and Kentucky. Unless parents or civic organizations are willing to step up, some students face major barriers to college attendance and career preparation.

President Obama says he wants the US to be a leader in world education. Others could care less about the education of too many students. Those who fail to care about the next generation are, in Dr. King’s words, “dangerous criminals.”

Let’s celebrate the King holiday with a commitment to close the achievement gap and to improve the quality of education in our nation.

Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, D.C.

January 21, 2015
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