Presidential lessons in education as a civil right

January 21, 2013

President Barack Obama’s second term officially began yesterday when he took the oath of office in a private ceremony surrounded by his family, using a Bible given to First Lady Michelle Obama’s grandmother by her father. Today, as he is publicly sworn in on the day the nation also celebrates the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the president will place his hand on a Bible that belonged to Dr. King, which itself will be stacked atop President Lincoln’s inaugural Bible.

President Barack Obama takes the official Oath of Office, Jan. 20, 2013.  (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson).

President Barack Obama takes the official Oath of Office, Jan. 20, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

The symbolism of this act goes beyond the obvious.  For all three leaders, public education has been one of the leading civil rights issues of their time.

President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862, establishing the framework for the nation’s public universities and colleges. In 1890, a second law, the Morrill Land Grant Act, extended accessibility to African Americans.

Lincoln’s views on public education were formed early in his life.  At age 23, when running (unsuccessfully) for his first political office in Illinois, the Sangamo Journal published his campaign statement, which included the following:

Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject, which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves. For my part, I desire to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present, and should be gratified to have it in my power to contribute something to the advancement of any measure which might have a tendency to accelerate the happy period.

Dr. King, too, began shaping his vision of education as a young man. In an often-cited essay, The Purpose of Education, published in the Morehouse College student newspaper during his junior year, he wrote:

Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.

Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. 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. 

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.

When President Obama discusses the value and importance of education, he speaks from personal experience. On September 8, 2009, in a nationally broadcast back-to-school speech from Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, the president admitted to not having been the most enthusiastic student – at first.

Now, I know it’s not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.

I get it. I know what it’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mom who had to work and who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us the things that other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and I felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse. 

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – none of that is an excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. There is no excuse for not trying.

Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future. 

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