According to Martin Luther King, Jr., education plays a number of critical roles in our society, including:
To save man from the morass of propaganda… 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…; [and]
to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.
It seems appropriate, then, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream…” speech to take a look at how we are stacking up when it comes to his notions of education.
To Save Man from the Morass of Propaganda
In this, the mature stages of the Information Age, we are individually and societally overwhelmed by propaganda, which Merriam-Webster (online) defines as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”. Through social media, 24-hour television and radio, the Internet and even blogs like this one, we are pounded by bias and opinions that are trying to persuade us to act or think in one way or another — usually to click on or buy something. It can be awfully difficult to “sift and weigh” the information that we are presented with and to “discern the true from the false”.
On the other hand, I think we are much better at it than we were 20, or probably even 10, years ago, because we have become much more adept at gleaning what is true, or at least useful, from the all the flash, splashy, over-the-top crap we have to wade through each day of the electronic era. One area in which Americans have displayed such skepticism is in the value of higher education in light of its soaring costs.
A 2010 report issued by Public Agenda on behalf of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education indicated that we are fulfilling King’s notion of what eduction should be: we are sifting through the propaganda that colleges and universities are feeding us about the skyrocketing expense of attending college. Public Agenda reported that we are “becoming more frustrated with higher education and more dubious that colleges and universities are cost-effective and doing all they can to keep tuition affordable.”
So when King spoke of education, perhaps he wasn’t speaking of it in a sense of the more formal, institutionalized learning experience that we think of when we consider education. The more formal idea of education has become a commodity. Americans believe “that higher education is… more necessary” than ever in order to find gainful employment. Colleges seem to be taking advantage of this fact by hiking costs. They justify tuition increases with arguments about the quality of education: they need to charge more in order to maintain educational standards.
Education Which Stops with Efficiency May Prove the Greatest Menace to Society
King would be proud of our ability to discern “the facts from the fiction” when it comes to education. A majority of respondents surveyed for the 2010 Public Agenda report were skeptical about institutional claims regarding educational quality. According to the report, 60% of respondents feel that colleges are more like business that care more about their bottom line than the educational experiences of their students. Nearly 70% believe that people are being denied access to higher education because the cost of attendance is simply too expensive. As one respondent said, “‘[W]e are getting a better idea of what [schools] really care about, and it isn’t the educational experience of [their] students.’”
At the same time, Dr. King would be disappointed in the way our higher education system has placed such emphasis on economic efficiency, to the great detriment of education education itself. On the other hand, King may argue that many of today’s educational institutions are not in the business of truly educating people.
In his work, The Purpose of Education, King says that the “goal of true education” is to instill “intelligence plus character” in individuals. If you look at the advertisements and propaganda that institutions today use to lure in students, particularly for-profit, online colleges but also the more traditional public and private schools, it is clear that they approach students with an economic message. They say that their students get jobs. They say that their students are more successful. Meanwhile, their students are, in reality, simply just poorer, strapped with debt that they cant afford because the promised job hasn’t materialized.
So, if hardship leads to character, maybe today’s colleges are, in fact, fulfilling King’s hopes for true education. But their leaders are not displaying much character in doing so.