In the spirit of MLK, we must rediscover the purpose of education | The Hill

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In 1947, an 18-year-old student published an op-ed in his college newspaper titled, “The Purpose of Education.” “We must remember that intelligence is not enough,” wrote the young Martin Luther King, Jr. “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

King ended his essay with a warning. “If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, ‘brethren!’ Be careful, teachers!” 

While the young King’s essay has not received the same attention as his other work, it is no less important. King’s philosophy on education has informed what we are doing as leaders of a civil rights organization committed to advancing fairness, understanding and humanity — values central to King’s pro-human worldview. Promoting, teaching and living these values is important because, as the young King observed, “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” 

As advocates for Dr. King’s pro-human philosophy, we aim to carry out what he lived and died for. King wanted adversaries to “sit at the table of brotherhood” and come together. That is what we do every day. He wanted people to be better educated and exposed to different people and opinions.

This is the focus of our work. Our goal is to “walk the walk” and work to heal the divisions and ignorance that contribute to racism and intolerance in our society. And we do this not just on MLK Day but every day throughout the year, because it is hypocritical to revere Dr. King as a role model and hold up his “I Have a Dream” speech as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered since the Gettysburg Address but not aspire to live the values of which Dr. King dreamed. 

Though one may advocate for noble ideas such as equality, equity, diversity and inclusion, it is likewise hypocritical for one to then engage in the current climate of trying to silence those who may not share those ideas or who may have a different understanding of what those words mean. A missed opportunity for conversation is a missed opportunity for reconciliation.

We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. for desegregation, voting rights, better conditions for sanitation workers and a bus boycott, among many other things. We remember that “the establishment” tried to silence him, often in violent ways.

But let us not forget how many people, including some of his strongest allies, also tried to silence him when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. They publicly decried his criticism of the war and disparaged him for co-mingling the civil rights movement with the peace movement, asserting that one had nothing to do with the other. It was their belief that his advocacy for the peace movement would weaken his focus on civil rights and be detrimental to both. What his critics failed to realize at the time was that Dr. King was a visionary. He was an advocate for human rights, of which civil rights is a part. He embodied the pro-human approach, which sought the highest rights for all people. 

It is not surprising that a man as accomplished as Dr. King was a precocious student, taking his first college class at age 11, finishing high school at age 15 and graduating from Morehouse College at age 19. By the age of 25, King had earned his doctoral degree. The education he received helped to shape and inform his revolutionary ideas, far beyond the foresight of his contemporaries. Even as a young man, King recognized that education is the key to opening young minds to new ideas and information, and to ensuring future generations have “not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” 

But what would King say about the modern-day approach to education, especially around the issues of race and racism? What would he say about the current state of our polarized national discourse? The answer to these questions can be found in the approach King took to his life’s work. King recognized that choosing love over hate, and embracing our shared humanity, was the way to move society forward. King’s positive, inclusive message of nonviolent resistance to the horrible injustice of segregation and discrimination in the Jim Crow South succeeded in changing hearts and minds where others had failed. 

King would have said that we should teach students to be anti-racism (the ideology) rather than anti-racist (the person). He would have preached that we should “hate the sin but love the sinner” because racism comes from ignorance, and even the most committed racist is capable of education, and redemption. As King famously said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

King was effective and helped to achieve positive change in his tragically short lifetime, because he lived his values. He recognized that the ends never justify the means. Rather, the ends are the means — you can’t plant a noxious seed and expect to harvest a rose garden. King demonstrated, every day, the positive character strengths that help move our culture forward toward his vision of a fully integrated “beloved community” where every person is welcomed as a unique individual, worthy of dignity and respect. 

King’s hopeful message still resonates today, because it is based on natural rights, moral truths and the founding ideals of this country. Treat every person equally, without regard to skin color or other immutable characteristics. Tolerate and listen to diverse perspectives in pursuit of the objective truth. Recognize that every person has a unique identity, that our shared humanity is precious and that it is up to all of us to defend and protect the civic culture that unites us. Fairness. Understanding. Humanity. These are the unifying, universal values that should be taught in our schools. 

So, what have we learned from this great visionary? That education is how we can bring about a world where all people are treated equally. That exposure to people with differing beliefs, viewpoints and solutions accelerates the journey on the path to human progress. And that it is our right, our responsibility, to ensure that schools and teachers bestow the next generation with both intelligence and character, as the young King advocated so many years ago.

Bion Bartning is an entrepreneur and investor, and the founder and CEO of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR), a nonpartisan civil rights organization. Daryl Davis is an R&B and blues musician, and Senior Fellow with FAIR, whose unorthodox approach to fighting racism and intolerance was documented in the film Accidental Courtesy.


Civil rights movement

Education reform

martin luther king

Opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War

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