Martin Luther King’s story is quintessentially American. During the days when I think of Dr. King and his fight, I think not of racism as much as I think of “choice.” Like Thomas Paine, an English emigrant to America who penned the 1775 essay Common Sense, King’s enlightened hope was that people would not so much gain freedom from oppression, but freedom to self-determination.
Also like Paine, his vision of American was larger and more revolutionary than America had for itself during his time. I am thankful for the Reverend Dr. King, and I am thankful for Thomas Paine, who wrote, “we have the power to begin the world again.” That is in essence a freedom to devote our attention to that which makes America great.
If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ve learned that these sometimes undirected writings of mine often return to the subject of education. Always on my mind, I am struck by education’s essential function to empower self determination - the freedom to. A great education brings an abundance of choice. In the middle of King’s time and Paine’s time, there stood another ambassador of choice and independence: Booker T. Washington. In 1881 he established Tuskegee Normal, currently starring in the must see George Lucas’s film, Red Tails. How those Tuskegee men earned the technical talent to become fighter pilots is part of Booker T. Washington’s legacy of creating the freedom to.
Albeit society separate and unequal, Booker T. Washington focused on developing the capacity of students to have independence and productivity rather than classical education. It is a plausible argument that this vocational education focus, for that time, was auspicious. Imagine the fate of segregated Black American communities had not they learned auto mechanics, agronomy, typing, farming, carpentry, and dental hygienics as job one who would have built their houses, grown the food they ate, added plumbing and electricity to homes? What a fortunate thing it was that importing from China was not a viable option for any American at that time.
The silver lining of segregation and insensitive government was entrepreneurial action focused on learning and doing what was needed to take care of themselves. We need a return to vocational education as a deliberate choice within the secondary education system. (Chattahoochee Tech seems a great after high school choice.) One challenge to doing this today is not only the delusion that trade-work is less respectable than being an attorney, but also re-shaping an education system that is far removed from teaching work and trade skills.
American strength in production and manufacturing, depends upon a return to skills based education in middle and high schools. As citizens and lay people, we need to temper ourselves and allow educators to develop job readiness curriculums without attacking them with fear words like “tracking” and “type casting.” Classic case in point of this public pressure is evidenced by the oft-stated assertion by one school principle after another, “At (insert school name here) we believe that all students will be prepared for college.” At the surface this sounds like a great and lofty school mission. Upon further examination however, one can see that at best, the heads of schools that make such an assertion are in fact attempting to say what they think we want to hear. They are, like a coach who tells every athlete s/he’s a champion, building a house of delusion. Lady Liberty does not guarantee everyone a 1300 SAT score. (nor is a 1300 SAT score proof that a person is smarter than the person with a 1000 score.)
Moreover, all people going to college is not necessarily a good thing. What if Suzy wanted to be a seamstress? What if Johnny wanted to be a brickmason? A society cannot be strong without tradesmen. I remember fondly the blue collar men in my hometown that didn’t graduate high school but built 5 bedroom houses with their own hands and taught their sons along the way. Others, like my now upper middle class uncle, stayed in school only long enough to take auto shop so he could learn welding and get a shipyard job. How I wish I had either of their skills. Let’s get real about education and the needs of American industry and "begin the world again." People like King, Paine, and Washington have given us the example, we simply need the commitment!