What Black History Reveals About Education Then vs. Now

20 Feb

It’s Black History Month. The 28 to 29 days reserved every year for recognizing notable African Americans and significant milestones in black history. Most of us can recite from memory the names and occurrences that will grace Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Web sites, and student essays all over the country this month.

But when we reflect on black history, our attention is drawn to the powerful forces that inspired African American ancestors to overcome centuries of oppression—the pursuit of freedom, esteem for education and confidence to know they deserved everything this great country had to offer.

The unavoidable question relative to esteem for education is: what’s changed? What does our month-long look into black history reveal about esteem for education then versus now?

In answering this question, I’m reminded of a study soon to be released in the journal Demography finding that, in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as , much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.

Despite this disturbing trend, educating our children is not about how much we spend on them. It is about intensive cultivation that need not cost a great deal to produce a well-educated child. It does require a significant investment in the priceless commodity of time that, for many low-income parents, can be in short supply.

This reminds me of generations ago when, with similar constraints on their time, black people worked just as hard at multiple jobs trying to make ends meet, yet they prioritized learning to read and getting an education. A difference it seems is a philosophy of education that has gone missing.

Theresa Perry’s essay in the book, entitled “Young, Gifted, and Black,” which discusses a historical philosophy of education held among black people of freedom for literacy and literacy for freedom. This powerful philosophy informed the routines and practices of individuals and their families’ commitment to education – – from Fredrick Douglas who carried his book with him every where he went so that he could practice his reading to Ben Carson who at his mother’s insistence read every night.

Through the many narratives described in Perry’s essay, it becomes clear that the pursuit of education was not casual. It was intensely, persistently supported and fueled by an explicitly and continually communicated belief system. This belief system was part of an ethos, a culture of learning, that stood in opposition to the dominant society’s view of the intellectual capacity of black people, the role of learning in their lives, the meaning and purpose of school and the power of their intellect. This insistence about getting an education came not just from mothers and grandmothers, but also from teachers and the preacher on Sunday morning.

In this post Civil Rights society when the intellectual capacity of black people is not as widely or openly challenged, this historical philosophy of education  no longer seems to act as a source of motivation, yet it must. As globalization and technological advances continue, we are all better positioned to make choices about the quality of our lives and those of our grandchildren if we are educated, than if we are not.

While the study revealed real gaps, these do not mean that parents with fewer resources to spend cannot support and foster their children’s educational attainment. As the time parents spend with their children is as central to their success as an experience at a summer camp, let’s consider spending this time more effectively talking about people, such as Ken Chenault or Mayor Kasim Reed, who are using their educations to lead Fortune 500 companies or urban cities; visiting library branches and free museum exhibits; reading together; discussing books and movies; and generally talking to children about what interests them.

Let’s also reengage our religious leaders and teachers in the telling the stories of their own and others success through education so that more children believe they are expected to achieve, and that getting an education really matters!


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