Martin Luther King and the purpose of education
January 19, 2022
The year was 1947, and college students were doing what college students do—hanging out and talking, in this documented instance, about the purpose of education. Martin Luther King Jr., then simply an undergraduate sociology major, was offering his synthesis on the topic. Some of his peers, King noted, believed that education should be the mechanism by which those who have been oppressed and exploited rise and become oppressors and exploiters. Others believed that education should be a mechanism of altruism, preparing them for nobler endeavor. But King, writing for the “Morehouse Maroon Tiger,” used these assertions to expound on his personal beliefs regarding the purpose of education.
King believed that the purpose of education was utility and culture. From a utilitarian perspective, education provides a practical purpose, serving to better us in the world and in society. It enables us to become more efficient, King noted, with an increasing ability to achieve life goals. Education also has the function of providing culture in our lives and at its foundation must enable critical thinking. Because we are bombarded with propaganda, King reasoned that education must afford us the ability to sift information to discern truth from falsehood. It is this ability to be discerning that helps shape culture. Without it we run the risk of being efficient in accumulated knowledge but ignorant to the lived experience that gives knowledge focus and direction. Such ignorance may lead us to immoral conclusions. To that point, King referenced former Governor Eugene Talmadge, a Phi Beta Kappa recipient, who in his educated ignorance regarded African Americans as inferior. Thus, King concluded in his article, education must provide us with knowledge but also the moral character that would engender an inclusive regard for all. Otherwise, “if we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of closed-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts,” he wrote.
An education system that results in a marginalized people with a subordinated sense of self or an inflated elitism by those in the majority must be regarded as immoral. However, when education can inspire a critical consciousness, people gain a greater awareness of self, which engenders dignity, fuels a transforming sense of agency, and inspires hope.
An understanding of our pedagogical system makes real the plausibility of King’s prophetic words. In our education system, the teacher is the recognized authority whose primary role is to deposit information into receptive students. The student’s role, in turn, is to be the docile regurgitator of what was deposited. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who perfected a method for teaching illiterate workers, called this method the banking concept of education. The teacher is seen as expert, while students are seen as ignorant. “Knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.”[i]
Not only is the teacher in this method viewed as oppressive, but so too is the content deposited, as evidenced by the narratives of US history. We hear, for example, the stories of Europeans fleeing their homelands to realize religious freedom and of founding fathers declaring that all men are created equal. What we do not readily hear, however, are the stories of indigenous peoples who suffered genocide or Africans who were enslaved and exploited. Instead, they are vilified antagonists whose fate was justified: indigenous peoples displaced and massacred for their savagery or mentally deficient Africans and their descendants enslaved for their benefit.
It is no surprise then that King’s Morehouse peers believed the purpose of education was to make it possible for the oppressed to become oppressors. The supposed superiority of the “sage on the stage,” depositing half-truths into empty vessels cannot help but produce people who aspire to be like their ruling oppressors. It is also no surprise that this banking system of education would produce elitists who would see the oppressed as inferior, because such a system regards the oppressed as the anathema of a healthy society. These are the conclusions about which King warned. An education system that results in a marginalized people with a subordinated sense of self or an inflated elitism by those in the majority must be regarded as immoral.
How then can education enable critical thinking, build character, and provide morally worthy objectives, thus achieving its utilitarian and cultural purpose? Freire’s notion of a problem-posing education may hold the key. Problem-posing education is a method of teaching in which materials are presented in the form of a problem and related to the worldview of the student. Not only does it honor the student’s lived experience, but the problem-posing method also motivates reflective and critical thinking. As students draw on their contextual knowledge to respond, new challenges are also evoked for the teacher, which elicit new realities. The ensuing dialectic engagement eliminates hierarchy as all participants become both teacher and student. Through their shared participation and cooperation, people are moved to a transforming action against an unjust reality. Teachers and students thereby become jointly responsible for a process through which all grow[ii] and as a result are liberated.
Viewed in this way, education becomes a practice of freedom. It was as Freire taught illiterate workers that he became cognizant of the fact that the education system was a means of oppression. However, when education can inspire a critical consciousness, people gain a greater awareness of self, which engenders dignity, fuels a transforming sense of agency, and inspires hope. It is in the end the purpose of education, an assertion with which King would agree.
Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is Dean of The Business School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a premiere Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) based institution recognized for project-based education that integrates the theory and practice of management and prepares students to assume positions of leadership in an increasingly global business environment while yielding societal impact. Her book Meant for Good: Fundamentals of Womanist Leadership, is available through Judson Press.