Martin Luther King Jr. on the aspiration, transformation, and limitation of education 

January 26, 2022

In the past year, I have spent considerable time contemplating the potential and pitfalls of education. In 2021 I crossed the threshold from doctoral student to doctoral candidate in pursuit of my PhD in theology and religious studies. I also made a vocational transition from longtime editor of Judson Press to director of the new ABHMS Center for Continuous Learning.

Not surprising, then, that when I was invited last year to reflect on the words of Martin Luther King Jr., I sought for his reflections on education.

A year later, I am more aware than ever that learning is a lifelong journey, and that education has as many limitations as it has opportunities. And I discovered that over the course of his lifetime, Dr. King reflected on that reality as well.

As an undergraduate student at Morehouse College, poised on the brink of adulthood, Martin Luther King Jr. published an article in his college newspaper titled “The Purpose of Education.” In that essay, he reflected on the twofold function of education, which he characterized as utility and culture. The former (utility) acknowledged the pragmatic value of education that produced intellectual reasoning and skills-based efficiency. The latter encompassed what has been traditionally described as moral education—the development of personal character and ethical behaviors. King’s argument was that true education required both functions to achieve its goal.

He wrote, “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.” And yet, King added, “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 [human] race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”

“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 young King offered an example from his own context in segregated Atlanta, Georgia, in the person of the recently deceased Governor Eugene Talmadge, whose reelection campaign in 1946 had featured rhetoric that declared, “The only issue in this race is White Supremacy.” Citing Talmadge’s intellectual and academic achievements, King asked, “By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively; yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated?”

King carried this cautionary insight into his later life and ministry, often citing the importance of education—but also its limitations. At age 31, in a 1960 speech delivered at a conference of the National Urban League (as abridged and published in “YWCA Magazine”),[i] King highlighted key factors that had contributed to a “new sense of dignity and self-respect” among African Americans.[ii] Many of those factors related to formal education—from increased literacy and college graduation rates to the desegregation of public schools and improved economic status that granted greater access and opportunities for black Americans to secure quality education.

But King also observed how various socioeconomic developments had ended the geographic isolation of southern blacks and expanded the global awareness of US blacks as a whole, teaching them that their “struggle for human dignity is not an isolated event.”[iii]

Expanding experiences of education, exposure, and awareness combined to broaden the outlook of African Americans, giving them “not only a larger view of the world, but also a larger view of [themselves].”[iv] Such transformed perspective created what King called in the title of that speech “The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness.”

Yet King didn’t lose sight of education’s limits. Less than a year later, at age 32, King delivered the commencement address at Lincoln University, a historically black institution in Philadelphia. In that address, King advised graduates about what was needed if they hoped to achieve what was called “the American Dream.”[v]

His exhortation to “develop a world perspective”[vi] honored his observations about how that perspective contributes to a broadened view of self. He highlighted the need to “keep our moral and spiritual progress abreast with our scientific and technological advances,”[vii] noting that “we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.”[viii] It is a caution that resonates with the insights of his 18-year-old self—that the goal of true education must be moral as well as utilitarian.

King also warned these college graduates that the work of racial justice—of securing the American Dream for all people—must resist the myth of “educational determinism,” which argues that education alone (not legislation, judicial decisions, or executive orders) can solve the problem of race relations. “Now I agree that education plays a great role, and it must continue to play a great role in changing attitudes and to change the hearts of men [and women], in getting people ready for the new order. And,” one can imagine the gifted preacher pausing in his oratory and leaning forward to underscore his point, “we must also see the importance of legislation.”[ix]

King went on to argue for a both/and approach to social transformation. “Both legislation and education are required,” he asserted, and added pointedly, “It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.”[x]

In his 1963 book “The Strength to Love,” King offered another both/and invitation in the synthesis of “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.”[xi] The tough mind he recommended is clearly a product of the utilitarian function of education, “characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment. . . . The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning.”[xii]

Yet, the preacher warned, “We must not stop with the cultivation of a tough mind. The gospel also demands a tender heart. Toughmindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached.”[xiii] Therefore, King urged God’s people to pursue a middle ground in the “quest for freedom, namely nonviolent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the softminded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”[xiv]

In today’s ministries of preaching, teaching, and mission education, we might frame King’s fondness for both/and in education as seeking a balance between critical reflection and intentional action. We might preach about it as combining prayer with praxis. We might celebrate it as the implementation of Micah 6:8, which commands us to both “do justice” and “love mercy.” And may all God’s people say, “Amen.”

Rev. Rebecca Irwin-Diehl, MTS, MA is director, Center for Continuous Learning, American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Martin Luther King Jr., “The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness,” in “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.,” ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperOne, 1986), 145–51. A speech originally delivered on September 6, 1960, subsequently abridged and published in “YWCA Magazine” 54 (December 1960): 4–6.

[ii] King, 145.

[iii] King, 146.

[iv] King, 145.

[v] Martin Luther King Jr., “The American Dream,” in “A Testament of Hope,” 208–16. A commencement address delivered in June 1961 to the graduating class of Lincoln University, a historically black university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The speech was later published in “The Negro History Bulletin” 31 (May 1968): 10–15, only days after King’s assassination.

[vi] King, 209.

[vii] King, 210. 

[viii] King, 211.

[ix] King, 213. 

[x] King, 213.

[xi] Martin Luther King Jr., “The Strength to Love,” in “A Testament of Hope,” 491–517. King’s book “The Strength to Love” (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) was a compilation of sermons preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The first chapter in that collection is titled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.”

[xii] King, 492.

[xiii] King, 494.

[xiv] King, 495.

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