Fifty years ago this week, shots rang out in Memphis–silencing one of America’s most important voices on civil rights.
While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life may have been cut tragically short, his thoughtful words and enduring legacy on issues of race, equality, and peace will live on.
Dr. King was also a passionate advocate for education. He understood the importance of education in advancing the condition of minorities and in eliminating long-standing societal prejudices.
As a teenage undergraduate student at Morehouse College in Georgia, King wrote a forward-thinking column, “The Purpose of Education,” for the university newspaper. Even at a young age, King’s writing demonstrates both a broad intellect and a deep understanding of the challenges faced by society at the time—and the best ways to overcome them.
His conclusions remain just as poignant today—as America faces significant societal, cultural, and technological change:
“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.”
In recent years, we’ve seen this idea play out in debates over federal education policy. While the No Child Left Behind era was defined by an intense focus on proficiency and testing, the aim of the Every Student Succeeds Act was to give schools and states more flexibility in how they measure student success beyond the test.
As technology transforms the way we communicate and interact, our local schools have an important role to play in providing students with the social and emotional skills they need to thrive in a changing society.
“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 legitimate goals of his life.”
Perhaps the most important function of education, according to King, is to fight against ignorance and misinformation. In today’s era of “fake news” and the consistent questioning of truth and authority, King’s words ring truer than ever:
“At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do 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. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”
As we remember Dr. King this week, school leaders should reflect on more than Dr. King’s civil rights record. They should also examine whether their schools are living up to Dr. King’s dream for American education.
We know there is still much work to be done to provide an equitable education for all. As school leaders throughout the country—especially in large urban districts—work to eliminate the achievement gap in their classrooms, Dr. King’s words remind us of the challenges ahead.