Steven Singer examines Dr. Martin Luther King’s view of education by quoting from a paper that he wrote as an 18-year-old student at Morehouse College. The young King said that the purpose of education was “intelligence plus character,” not just the academic learning (a necessary ingredient, obviously) but an understanding and appreciation for “the accumulated experience of social living.” In this statement, King sounds very much like John Dewey, whom he had probably never read at this point in his life. When King wrote, there were two kinds of schools: private and public. Now there are many kinds, including voucher schools, religious schools, charter schools, home-schools, and public schools.

Singer writes:

So which schools today are best equipped to meet King’s ideal?

Private schools are by their very nature exclusionary. They attract and accept only certain students. These may be those with the highest academics, parental legacies, religious beliefs, or – most often – families that can afford the high tuition. As such, their student bodies are mostly white and affluent.

That is not King’s ideal. That is not the best environment to form character, the best environment in which to learn about people who are different than you and to develop mutual understanding.

Voucher schools are the same. They are, in fact, nothing but private schools that are subsidized in part by public tax dollars.

Charter schools model themselves on private schools so they are likewise discriminatory. The businesses who run these institutions – often for a profit – don’t have to enroll whoever applies. Even though they are fully funded by public tax dollars, they can choose who to let in and who to turn away. Often this is done behind the cloak of a lottery, but with no transparency and no one checking to ensure it is done fairly, there is no reason to believe operators are doing anything but selecting the easiest (read: cheapest) students to educate.

Charter schools have been shown to increase segregation having student bodies that are more monochrome than those districts from which they cherry pick students. This is clearly not King’s ideal..

There are many public schools where children of different races, nationalities, religions, and creeds meet, interact and learn together side-by-side.

Students wearing hajibs learn next to those wearing yarmulkes. Students with black skin and white skin partner with each other to complete class projects. Students with parents who emigrated to this country as refugees become friends with those whose parents can trace their ancestors back to the Revolutionary War.

These schools are true melting pots where children learn to become adults who value each other because of their differences not fear each other due to them. These are children who not only learn their academics as well – if not often better – than those at competing kinds of schools, but they also learn the true face of America and they learn to cherish it.

This is the true purpose of education. This is the realization of King’s academic ideal and his civil rights dream.

But Singer realizes that many public schools do not meet this ideal. Segregation has intensified in recent years, due to judicial and political retrenchment. Some public schools are richly endowed with resources, while others are not. But public schools permit the possibility of change and improvement.

He adds:

If we want to reclaim what it means to be an American, if we want to redefine ourselves as those who celebrate difference and defend civil rights, that begins with understanding the purpose of education.

It demands we defend public schools against privatization. And it demands that we transform our public schools into the integrated, equitable institutions we dreamed they could all be.