Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
8Feb/130

MLK and the Purpose of Education

You know elite universities are in trouble when their professors say things like Edward Rock. Rock, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and coordinator of Penn’s online education program, has this to say about the impending revolution in online education:

We’re in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge. And in 2012, the internet is an incredibly important place to be present if you’re in the knowledge dissemination business.

If elite colleges are in the knowledge dissemination business, then they will overtime be increasingly devalued and made less relevant. What colleges and universities need to offer is not simply knowledge, but education.

In 1947, at the age of 18, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a short essay in the The Maroon Tiger, the Morehouse College campus newspaper. The article was titled, “The Purpose of Education.” In short, it argued that we must not confuse education with knowledge.

King began with the personal. Too often, he wrote, “most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the "brethren" think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.” In other words, too many think that college is designed to teach either means or ends, offering the secrets that unlock the mysteries of our futures.

King takes aim at both these purposes. Beyond the need for education to make us more efficient, education also has a cultural function. In this sense, King writes, Education must inculcate the habit of thinking for oneself, what Hannah Arendt called Selbstdenken, or self-thinking.

“Education,” King writes, “must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” Quick and resolute thinking requires that one “think incisively” and  “think for one's self.” This “is very difficult.” The difficulty comes from the seduction of conformity and the power of prejudice. “We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” We are all educated into prejudgments. They are human and it is inhuman to live free from prejudicial opinions and thoughts. On the one hand, education is the way we are led into and brought into a world as it exists, with its prejudices and values. And yet, education must also produce self-thinking persons, people who, once they are educated and enter the world as adults, are capable of judging the world into which they been born.

For King, one of the “chief aims of education” is to “save man from the morass of 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.”

To think for oneself is not the same as critical thinking. Against the common assumption that college should teach “critical reasoning,” King argues that critical thinking alone is insufficient and even dangerous: “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.” The example King offers is that of Eugene Talmadge, who had been governor of Georgia. Talmadge “possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America.” He was Phi Beta Kappa. He excelled at critical thinking. And yet, Talmadge believed that King and all black people were inferior beings. For King, we cannot call such men well educated.

The lesson the young Martin Luther King Jr. draws is that intelligence and critical reasoning are not enough to make us educated. What is needed, also, is an educational development of character:

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

Present debates about higher education focus on two concerns. The first is cost. The second is assessment. While the cost is high for many people, it is also the case the most students and their families understand that what colleges offer is priceless. But that is only true insofar as colleges understand their purpose, which is not simply to disseminate knowledge or teach critical thinking, but is, rather, to nurture character. How are we to assess such education? The demand for assessment, as well meaning as it is, drives education to focus on measurable skills and thus moves us away from the purposes of education as King rightly understands them.

The emerging debate about civic education is many things. Too often it is a tired argument over the “core” or the “canon.” And increasingly it is derailed by arguments about service learning or internships.  What really is at issue, however, is a long-overdue response to the misguided dominance of the research-university model of education.

Colleges in the United States were, up through the middle of the 20th century, not research-driven institutions. They were above all religiously affiliated institutions and they offered general education in the classics and the liberal arts. Professors taught the classics outside of their specific disciplines. And students wrestled with timeless questions. This has largely changed today where professors are taught to specialize and think within their disciplinary prejudices. Even distribution requirements fail to make a difference insofar as students forced to take a course outside their discipline learn simply another disciplinary approach. They learn useful knowledge and critical thinking. But what is missing is the kind of general education in the “accumulated experience of social living” that King championed.

I am not suggesting that all specialization is bad or that we should return to religious-affiliated schools. Not in the least. But many of us know that we are failing in our responsibilities to think about what is important and to teach students a curriculum designed to nurture self-thinking and citizenship. We avoid this conversation because it is hard, because people disagree today on whether we should read Plato or Confucius or study Einstein or immunology. Everyone has their discipline to defend and few faculty are willing or able to think about an education that is designed for students and citizens.

Let’s stop bad mouthing all colleges. Much good happens there. Yet let’s also recall King’s parting words in his essay:

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!

King’s The Purpose of Education is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".