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Right Side of History: Removing Barriers to Education

Two contemporaries who represent significant landmarks in modern education passed away last week.

This prompted some reflection on vision, determination and an effort to be on the right side of history.

The first was Zell Miller – history teacher, lieutenant governor and governor of Georgia, who gained national prominence as a U.S. senator and presidential endorser of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. His funeral services received wide coverage.

One of his most significant contributions, in the opinion of many, has been the vision and implementation of the HOPE Scholarship, a lottery-funded program that provided support for students in both state and private colleges and technical schools in Georgia.

Over the span of the program’s life, access to college education for a generation has been made more accessible.

Many recipients have been first-generation college students, who have modeled an educational pilgrimage that has transformed families and the educational profile of the state.

Miller’s vision and determination was a significant step in dismantling the economic barrier that had been a hindrance to educational opportunity.

Early opposition to the scholarship, largely due to its reliance on lottery revenue and a concern about its encouragement of gambling, gradually gave way to a sense of its being a benefit to many by those voluntarily “playing the lottery.”

Many came to view the program’s place on the “right side of history.”

The other death notice was for a Linda Thompson of Topeka, Kansas, who died at the age of 76.

In a story that had many expressions at the time, as a third-grader in the still segregated elementary schools of Topeka, she wished for an opportunity to attend the nearer, better-equipped school with the white children.

Her father, a minister in the AME tradition, joined with 12 others in a legal appeal challenging the structure of educational segregation.

Linda’s maiden name was Brown, and her father became the lead plaintiff in the case known as Brown v. Board of Education, in whose favor the Supreme Court unanimously ruled, saying, “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect.”

The ruling overturned the 1896 case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which had codified the “separate but equal” policy that had been in place for half a century.

Vision and determination in an earlier place in time, but another step in the dismantling of the racial barrier that had obstructed educational opportunity for a significant portion of America’s children. And a strong floodlight illuminating the right side of history.

With progress made in dismantling the economic and racial barriers to educational opportunity and fulfilment, the question might be asked, “What barriers now impede access to educational opportunity that are in need of dismantling by vision and determination?”

I would suggest that the barrier affecting education today is more complex, and more subtle, than earlier financial and racial barriers.

It is ideological and expresses itself in a pervasive suspicion of some of the very fruits of education itself, such as:

  • Knowledge as a basis for making decisions and establishing policy.
  • Critical discernment in the analysis of knowledge and its interpretation and application.
  • Personal and corporate integrity as a foundation for responsible participation in society.
  • A basis for understanding the relation of religious faith and scientific thinking.
  • An awareness of and commitment to the “common good” over the protection of advantage and privilege.

When this suspicion finds its way into the governing policies of our educational systems, the dedication and labor of those actually doing the work of education are crippled by a value system that subtly dismisses the carefully honed perspective of those in the field, as it lifts to prominence the very opposite of what education seeks to cultivate.

How to dismantle this barrier is not quite as clear as the concrete steps to take down the financial and racial ones.

It took a while for the road signs pointing to the right side of history to become clear enough in those cases to be embraced and followed by most people.

It may take a while in this case too, but the vision and determination of the young folks who are finding their voice are kindling a new level of hope that the ideological barriers to a healthy and wholesome future will give way.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Editor’s note: This article is the part of a series on public education. The previous articles in the series are:

Pastors’ Group Supports Strong Education for All Kids by Charles Foster Johnson

Why Privatizing Public Schools Threatens Education by Diane Ravitch