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Remembering King’s Perspective On Education

by Cornelius Gilbert

Fifty years ago this week, at the age of 39, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died as a result of an assassin’s bullet. The murder of this great American, who sought to have America live up to its founding promises and creeds for all, was one of the most traumatic events in the history of the United States and still reverberates within American society.

Consider that the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the Black Greek-letter organization King belonged to, spearheaded a Washington, D.C. memorial that opened in 2011. Most Americans and organizations honor and remember King by not only reflecting on his commitment to humanity, but how they can contribute to make America what it ought to be.

Our reflections usually come on King’s birthday, a federal holiday, and probably during Black History Month. There are, however, other times when we seek to gain insight, knowledge, and wisdom from this soldier for freedom. Civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis, who marched alongside King, opined “What Would Martin Luther Jr. Say to President Obama” in a 2011 opinion article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, The New York Times ran a piece titled “The Lasting Power of Dr. King’s Dream Speech” commemorating the March on Washington.

Even in death, King has relevance. We might wonder what else one can offer on King. This remembrance takes a road rarely traveled by looking at his perspective on educational matters.

To do so, framing King’s educational background is appropriate. He earned a Ph.D. in theology at Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in divinity at Crozer Theological Seminary, but his alumnus status with Morehouse College is probably the most well-known fact about his education. So, Morehouse seems an appropriate place to begin.

King entered the private, Baptist-based liberal arts college in Atlanta at the age of 15 and graduated at 19 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. While an undergraduate at the nation’s only college or university exclusively for Black men, King wrote a piece titled, “The Purpose Of Education” for the Maroon Tiger, the school newspaper. The young King, who would receive his Ph.D. at age 26, wrote: “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.” He added that the “function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But…[t]he most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” Education must entail integrity, ethical concern and empowerment “all for the common good,” as the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota says in its institutional mission statement.

As King explained his educational philosophy in the context of social justice, he referenced Eugene Talmadge, the racially controversial Georgia governor of the 1930s and 1940s. Talmadge, King wrote in 1947, “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 those the types of men we call educated?” King cautioned: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Although King penned this educational philosophy more than 70 years ago, his words offer an approach to education that America has sorely needed to heed. King provided a timeless rationale to add value to the discussion regarding the purpose of a college education.

King’s contribution regarding education accurately revealed that the primary objective of a college education is to glean technical vocational skills to perform professional tasks in various functional areas. With his emphasis on intelligence plus character, King warned: “If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, ‘brethren!'”

King’s warning needs heeding, especially given that America’s colleges and universities have experienced attacks on liberal arts education. America cannot afford a narrow perspective on higher education where the central focus is on creating a workforce that specializes only in performing perfunctory vocational functions.

A more robust college education seemingly would be more enticing where students are encouraged to embrace the humanities, social sciences and other fields of study that promote critical analysis and generate critical thinking that cross-pollinates fields and beliefs. In doing so, we can learn not only more about ourselves, but about people who do not share the same experiences, backgrounds, identities, cultures and communities.

In turn, we could continue to develop into a more informed people, and place, to improve and expand relationships. This all-inclusive place would afford respectful engagement with one another to achieve a level of comprehension, understanding and respect regarding not only similarities but, more importantly, the differences among us.

The civility and regard of and for personhood within the diversity of human experience is the behavioral approach, or the “spirit,” that allows for oppositions to genuinely reconcile their differences. King popularly referred to this place to improve humanity as the “beloved community,” a term coined decades earlier by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce. One way we can achieve a beloved community is to take King’s philosophy of education and allow it to multiply.

King’s monumental significance could not have occurred without the necessary assistance of countless civil rights participants, many of whom remain unrecognized and nameless as they fulfilled their various roles outside the spotlight. Perhaps, then, one could say that King was a “man of the people.”

As such, acknowledging his educational side, particularly when questions swirl around the purpose of higher education, we would surely do as my university’s mission seeks to have students do: Think critically to act wisely, all for the common good.

Let us, therefore, go forward in faith on this 50th anniversary of King’s death, to join in the spirit of his work so that we are striving to truly make America great.

Dr. Cornelius Gilbert is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at University of St. Thomas. 

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