“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.”  So wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. on the purpose of education in an essay appearing in his campus newspaper while still an undergraduate at Morehouse College some 65 years ago. Wise words then, and equally pertinent today.

By 1967, with the Civil Rights Movement well underway thanks in part to his leadership, King’s insights on poverty and social justice had led him to this in the “Where We Are Going” chapter of his final book

“Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development. The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

“While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development. Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy. Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions. Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies. At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else…. I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly….  We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

The observance of Martin Luther King Day inevitably reminds me of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education (May 17, 1954), which signaled the end of “de jure” segregation (the racial segregation of schools and public places mandated by law), and Brown II, which followed a year later and in which Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that school districts were required to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”  Reflecting on the Brown I decision at an annual gathering of the National Committee for Rural Schools, King said:

“To all men of good will, this decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity.  It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of colored people throughout the world who had had a dim vision of the promised land of freedom and justice.”

While the Brown victory was a major catalyst early in the life of the Civil Rights Movement led by King, that same struggle necessarily continues today, albeit against more nuanced segregationist policies that are “allowed” rather than “mandated” by our federal, state, and local governments.  This less blatant, insidious form of separation of the races, known as “de facto” segregation, typically also carries heavy overtones of economic (some say “caste-like”) prejudices and stereotypes that impact fair and equal access to housing, employment, health services, capital resources, the justice system, and even quality public schooling. 

Had his voice not been stifled prematurely, King would surely be lashing out at the de facto segregation that today continues to plague this nation’s public schools — with minorities and the poor concentrated in our urban schools, and white upper-middle-class students equally dominant in our high-wealth suburbs.  Surely, too, he would decry the newfangled de jure reverse segregation (all-minority learning) that is implicitly condoned by state governments, including the state of Connecticut, in the use of public tax dollars to support charter schools whose recruitment, retention, and other operational features essentially discourage full access and equal participation by non-English-speaking, handicapped, or even white middle-class students, all in the name of “better” educating a select few minority children.  Segregated education is inherently unequal — whether under the guise of giving a “leg up,” aimed at keeping down segments of the population, or as has occurred elsewhere, serving as “white flight” havens.  Whether occurring due solely to residential patterns or by design intent, segregated schools are contrary to the decades-long struggles against de jure and de facto separatism that the Brown decision, King, and the Civil Rights Movement have sought to eradicate. 

Nevertheless, here in Connecticut, King’s too-brief life continues to inspire and motivate.  His fight for social and economic justice and civil rights in education is evident in the vigilance and multifaceted work of groups like the Center for Children’s Advocacy, the Sheff Movement, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding.  These and countless other Connecticut organizations, faith-based groups, educators, and students are helping to preserve and expand the legacy of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., lest his voice and that of others among the aging generation of Civil Rights Movement heroes fall silent. 

In an era when school quality and student achievement are too often confused with test scores, the number of advanced placement courses taken, and acceptance into prestigious four-year colleges, it’s good that we have at least one day set aside each year for pondering King’s “intelligence plus character” as being the true goal of education and a necessary precursor for the success of American democracy.

Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.

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