By Rann Miller | Guest Blogger AC JosepH Media

I had the pleasure of taking part in a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. panel to discuss the disparities in our society as it relates to Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech; The Quest for Peace. Prior to the conclusion of our discussion, the moderator entertained questions from the audience. 

One question asked how to increase the graduation rate of Black students. One of the esteemed panelists remarked that parents must send their children to school prepared to get an education. My response to that was that we (parents and educators) must provide students with a reason for obtaining their education.

This may not be a popular opinion. But it is a reality that we must grapple with; simply telling Black children to get an education is simply no longer good enough a message to compel students to achieve academically. That’s because it is without an inherent impetus that demands action.

Let me explain.

Growing up, my mother and father told me that I was going to college. I heard from my grandparents and the elders of my community that I needed to be encouraged and get my education. Once I “got it,” I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It isn’t because those folks were wrong, but education is often presented as an end and not a means to an end. 

When I arrived at college and I was registering for classes, I had no clue what I was suppose to do. College was the destination my parents and grandparents journeyed with me so that I could arrive. However, once I arrived, I had to answer the question why was I there. I honestly couldn’t. School was always about good grades; it was never about purpose. 

There is a purpose for getting an education, however education for education sake is not and cannot be our purpose. When we make education our purpose, we’re sometimes left empty once we obtain it. I know this isn’t the message my family and the elders meant to portray. But I understand why their wording and phrasing was the way it was.

My parents watched the Civil Rights Movement happen; they saw Dr. Martin Luther King. They saw Malcolm X. They saw the marches, the water hoses, the police dogs. They saw the brutality at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. My grandparents grew up in a world before the Civil Rights Movement. They were only 2 to 3 generations removed from American enslavement. 

They lived during a time when White people sought to take away their human right to be educated. It was illegal for the enslaved to learn how to read or write. During Jim Crow, Black people were forced to learn with little to no resources. My grandparents attended schools that only went as high as the 8th grade in the South. My parents and grandparents watched White people re-segregate when schools were forced to desegregate. My parents watched and experienced schools lose funding as Whites departed the cities for the suburbs. So when there was an opportunity to get an education, they grabbed it.

Those truths and experiences informs the messages that I am my friends heard growing up. That message isn’t the wrong one. However, Black youth haven’t collectively experienced an overt attempt to take away their education. Racism has become more sophisticated in its application via public policy. 

We must package our truth in a way that speaks to the experience of Black youth. Our history is important and must be taught throughout future generations. But we can’t always rely on history in isolation to encourage Black youth to strive for what the elders marched and died for. We must provide our young people with a reason for getting their education.

Those reasons aren’t hard to find; they are all around us. 

Income Inequality in America sees Black people make less than Whites; exasperating the wealth gap. Gerrymandering & voter suppression tactics attempt to remove the Black vote from impacting elections. The school-to-prison pipeline ushers Black children from the classroom to jail cells via disproportionate disciplinary policies. 

It is not enough to teach a child the periodic table; we must teach them about how we can use chemicals to filter water so that it is clean to drink. It is not enough to teach a child how code; we must teach students how to create algorithms to help prevent bias that negatively impact students of color in the areas of health care and criminal justice. It is not enough to teach a child about the U.S. Constitution; we must teach children how to use the Constitution to defend the rights of marginalized and oppressed communities. 

Dr. Martin Luther King once said that the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. A great way for our children to be both challenged intellectually and have their character developed is to help them define their purpose. Once our children have purpose; education becomes a means to an end and is no longer the end.

The elders had their purpose; to take what was rightfully theirs to have. We must give Black youth theirs; to keep what others are attempting to take away.

Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.  

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