Martin Luther King Jr. on Education

Guest Blogger: Melissa McCreery

When I began my typical social media ritual this past Monday morning, I found my Facebook and Twitter feeds overflowing with some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most popular quotes, in observation of the MLK holiday.

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Even President Obama alluded to Dr. King throughout the inauguration ceremony and during his speech on Monday, saying,

“We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still… just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth” (as transcribed in the Washington Post).

While King is remembered by most for being a voice, leader and symbol of equality in a time in history when equality was largely absent, his life was a symbol of more than the mark he left on the civil rights movement. He cared passionately about injustices of all kinds—be they global or domestic—issues of healthcare, malnutrition, violence, war, or transportation. It is his methodically astute voice on the purpose of education that has me writing this post today.

Nearly two decades before King led the March on Washington and delivered his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, he was but a humble undergraduate student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. There, King was an ardent and articulate advocate for what he believed to be the true purpose of education. He championed the important dual role education plays in society.

True education, King said, is more than memorization, grades, writing and acquiring information. Yes, education must teach its students to think critically and with reason, but it is responsible for so much more than that.  Education must also teach a set of morals and speak to the development of students’ character. Education should challenge students to think critically and with moral reason; to live life by a set of ideals and moral standards; to decipher right from wrong and truth from untruth. Teaching the next generation to be men and women of compassion and integrity.

Below is an excerpt from a 1947 article King wrote in the Morehouse campus newspaper, The Maroon Tiger, when he was a junior there.

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals… Education without morals is like a ship without a compass, merely wandering nowhere. It is not enough to have the power of concentration, but we must have worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. It is not enough to know truth, but we must love truth and sacrifice for it.”

I admire Dr. King for an abundance of reasons, certainly for his bravery and fortitude in the face of racism and hatred. Yet, as an educator, what has always stood out to me is King’s intensely pronounced belief that education is the gateway to creating a just, equal and free society. In essence, education is the single entity from which truth, compassion, courage and justice are born. Perhaps if the world had taken Dr. King’s educational views to heart, he would not have been known as America’s greatest voice of freedom, for it would not have been necessary.

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