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What Is Wisdom Worth?

Wisdom is the finest beauty of a person.
 Money does not prevent you from becoming blind.
Money does not prevent you from becoming mad.
 Money does not prevent you from becoming lame.
You may be  ill in any part of your body.
 So it is better for you to go and think again.
And to select wisdom.
 — Yoruba oracle poem (Nigeria), from Julia Stewart,
 African Proverbs and Wisdom, Citadel Press Books, 1997

Perhaps a dozen times this summer, I’ve been drawn into conversation with young African Americans about the efficacy of education. Most recently, a young brother called to interview me and, in the course of conversation, asked if I thought college was really “worth it.”
“If a brother or a sister has tech skills, they can make tens of thousands of dollars teaching those skills. They can help small businesses become computer literate; they can install networking in our community. They’ll end up making more money than an English teacher,” he said.
Then he did one of those journalism school “no-nos,” giving a speech then asking a question. “What do you think?”
When I didn’t quite agree, he commenced to argue that African Americans place too much emphasis on a college education, but not enough on technical education. “Don’t you agree?”
But I didn’t agree. I think we need to place some emphasis on all kinds of education, but that higher education shouldn’t be shortchanged, especially not by a reverse elitism that suggests that book learning simply isn’t “worth it.”
To be sure, there are opportunities for high-school graduates to bypass college education for technical training or on-the-job learning. And, before the market boom went bust, there were mind-boggling stories of teenagers whose computer programming skills earned them signing bonuses in the dot-com world. Now the dot-com dollars have dashed to other sectors, and the bonus money has dried up. Anyone who postponed college a year or so ago to rake in the “Benjamins” is probably scrambling for someplace to learn until high-tech pay inches up again.
Is it all about the Benjamins, though? Isn’t college about something more than finding a career that will pay well? Isn’t it also about acquiring wisdom and exposure, a set of life skills that enhance an individual? It’s specious to compare the earnings of an English teacher with those of computer jock, especially if the English teacher revels in her work. For African Americans to engage in this kind of comparison is also ahistorical. Thousands of African American teachers accepted substandard wages, historically, because of their commitment to educate Black children. In parts of the South, Black teachers earned a fraction of White pay, thanks to segregation. It didn’t stop them from teaching, or from tutoring after school, or from becoming community leaders and sharing their scant material wealth with others. Many were one of just a few to subscribe to Ebony or the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in their small town, but since their homes resembled lending libraries, those much-loved magazines were dog-eared and worn as dozens of fingers flipped through them. We should not evaluate these teachers by what pay they earned, but what value they added to their communities.
Now, gaps between the educational achievements of African Americans and Whites remain, even as millions of dollars of scholarship funds are awarded to attempt to close the gap. New African American freshmen should ask themselves what value they offer to both the African American community and to the nation. Of course, in these contemporary “postracial” times, many will ask what we mean by “value,” and what “community” means. There are those who would argue that the concept of an African American community is a fungible one, and that as racial gaps close it is increasingly difficult to uniquely define the African American experience. That’s where study, reflection and priceless wisdom enter.
From a policy perspective, I would be the first to acknowledge that there are millions of students — White, Latino, Asian and African American, who probably shouldn’t be within spitting distance of anybody’s college. Lacking attitude, aptitude and interest, some young people are better off taking a year or two off, or pursuing dreams that don’t include ivory towers. Still, isn’t it interesting that when some non-African Americans say, “everyone doesn’t have to go to college,” you have the sneaking suspicion they aren’t talking about their children. When folks talk about well-paying opportunities in the crafts or in service occupations, don’t you sometimes suspect this is a nice way of them saying they wish they were back in the land of cotton where the service was docile and the repairmen not so hard to find?
Even if that’s not what they mean, our nation’s racial history is such that any discussion that suggests limited access to education is a dangerous conversation. Should some people be encouraged to ruminate while others are encouraged to labor, to serve them? Should this encouragement be dependent on race and class?
Higher education isn’t the only way to develop wisdom in our society. Indeed, some of the slaves that shared the greatest wisdom had, perhaps, never cracked open a book. Harriet Tubman was wise, as was Sojourner Truth and the brilliant Frederick Douglass, who never went to school but taught himself to read. I’m troubled, though, with some of the anti-educational sentiments that I hear from time to time, especially when they are linked to conversations about careerism and earnings. A philosopher may well earn far less than both a sports star and a carpenter. A volunteer won’t earn a dime, but still bring value and wisdom to the table. What is wisdom worth? A book won’t provide an answer, but it will certainly provide insights. 

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