As we honor the legacy of Dr. King, let’s focus on equity, and character, in education

In 1947, as an 18 year-old student at Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College) in his hometown of Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned an essay for The Maroon Tiger, his student newspaper (and later mine, many years later).

“Most of the ‘brethren’ think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.

It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the ligitimate (sic) goals of his life.

He would go on to lament the fact that even degreed individuals were not able to think for themselves, “sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false” and think critically.

When I first read Dr. King’s essay, I was simultaneously amused and saddened that today’s debate about the purpose of education is over the same questions Dr. King was debating in 1947. We’re still trying to figure out whether education, specifically higher education, is to produce workers or thinkers. We’re still seeing, as California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley has so eloquently said, a climate in which men with degrees sit around and pontificate over who needs one.

Our very system of education is used as an instrument of exploitation to enable people to “forever trample over the masses.” We continue to maintain a system of education which creates one class of workers and a separate class of thinkers. We continue to fund schools unequally and provide unequal resources. We subject children in places like Baltimore to schools with broken heating on frigid days and no air conditioning on record heat days, and not to mention higher teacher turnover and fewer advanced courses and question why these students are unable to learn.

Dr. King closed out, saying:

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts.

When we talk about character and discipline and grit in schools, we tend to only talk about the need to instill these traits in low-income students and students of color, whom society tends to paint as lawless and needing saving from themselves. We usually assume that students who come from better-off and white families have some innate sense of morality.

But since poor children and children of color are not usually the ones who grow to hold all the power, perhaps it is not their lack of morality which is damning the country.

Maybe, then, the conversations about character with intelligence should be trained to all students, without perpetuating this notion that has been popular in our society that some people are inherently good and moral and some are inherental unscrupulous and amoral, and that these traits are determined by race and class. And maybe we should stop having conversations about what is best for a particular group of students without including those students, and others who have had similar experiences, at the conversation table.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com