The education establishment likes to portray Martin Luther King, Jr. as a conformist in the sphere of education. Yet, the path that Dr. King took through his years of formal schooling is anything but conformist. The last high school he attended was the Booker T. Washington High School. It is well-known that in his junior year in high school, because of his exceptional performance on the college entrance examinations, he advanced to Morehouse College without formally graduating from Booker T. Washington.
Thereafter, he reportedly entered Morehouse College at age fifteen, having skipped both the ninth and twelfth grades. There is no doubt that Dr. King, like many academically exceptional students, took the road less travelled. In the immortal words of Robert Frost, Dr. King could have easily said of his journey through education “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, /And that has made all the difference.”
What a difference it has made for all of us. No one can argue that Dr. King changed our national psyche and influenced the world.
In September 1903, W. E. B. DuBois, introducing the term “the Talented Tenth”, wrote “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers.”
DuBois, like Dr. King, charted his own course through education.
Both these men, through their words and deeds, taught the human race another less-known lesson—we are not, by any means, all the same. The world isn’t changed by the conformists and the quiet; it is changed by those who dare go against the grain without being seduced by the temptress we call indifference, an idea that is most eloquently expressed by Elie Wiesel.
If there was ever a man I wanted to meet, it would be holocaust survivor, and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel. I’ve never met him, but his words have left an indelible imprint on my life. On April 12, 1999, he delivered an impassioned speech on "The Perils of Indifference: Lessons Learned from a Violent Century.” Almost immediately, he said words that reverberate through me even today: “Of course, indifference can be tempting -- more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction.”
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Elie Wiesel’s words bring to mind the words that Dr. King engraved in our conscience. On April 16, 1963, in that immortal Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Today, I would argue, we live in a world that encourages our indifference, and rewards our silence. Should we allow ourselves to fall victim to such sultry seduction? Should we embrace public education systems that go the extra mile to stifle and strangle those who, like Dr. King, wish to journey on the road less travelled?