We Must Keep Youth Thirsting For Education

We Must Keep Youth Thirsting For Education

Rosa M. Jones, the 72-year-old mother of five children, received a Bachelor of Science degree in interdisciplinary studies from Norfolk State University in December 1999. Her accomplishment would have been notable at any age, under any circumstances, since fewer than 15 percent of all African Americans over age 25 hold college degrees (compared to more than 25 percent among Whites). But Jones’ accomplishment was all the more stellar because she earned her degree after having sent all five of her children to college.
Rosa Jones isn’t the only one whose thirst for education propelled her back to the classroom. My friend and colleague Susan Taylor, editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine, found that the title “editor” wasn’t enough, so she pursued her studies, receiving a B.S. from Fordham University in 1991. My own mom, Proteone Marie Malveaux, pursued doctoral studies at the same time I was a college freshman, completing everything but her dissertation and taking a junior faculty position at the University of Mississippi when she was in her mid-40s. Some people simply thirst for education, hunger to know more, and are prepared to do whatever they have to do to quench the thirst.
Too many others are educationally indifferent. Their indifference is not of their own making. All too often, listless or shoddy teaching has turned them off from education. The desire to learn is often strangled by dilapidated school buildings, metal detectors at the door, racist or trifling teachers who are devoid of caring, disinterested (or overwhelmed) parenting and other factors. Still, it is amazing that some of the same school systems that produced Rosa Jones, Susan Taylor and Marie Malveaux also produced folks who don’t give a hoot about learning. And unfortunately, the disease of educational malaise and indifference is striking African Americans at younger and younger ages. We who care about higher education need to work much harder to make the connection between K-12 education and higher education. The youngster who is turned off at 10 won’t be attending college, much less graduating.
Now, more than ever, it matters that African Americans of every age have access to institutions of higher education. The jobs of the 21st century increasingly require more education and preparation. Yet when we look at some of the fastest growing fields, many of which are in computers, engineering or science, African Americans are under-represented. It is appropriate to consider the Digital Divide, but it is equally important to consider the difference in K-12 school quality, and the fact that inner-city schools have a fraction of the resources and amenities that suburban schools have.
Aspects of the education reform movement address this, but too many think that vouchers and charter schools are the only way to bridge the gap. There is little will to roll up our sleeves and improve the quality of our nation’s public schools. But this is the pool from which future college students will emerge, which means that the higher education community has a stake in improving K-12 education.
The education gap at the K-12 level has already led to an access gap in higher education. Among those African Americans attending college, a disproportionate number are enrolled in community colleges, which is often a reflection of differences in K-12 preparation. Not all community college students are able to transfer into four-year colleges. Many are interested in post-baccalaureate degrees, but face tremendous obstacles to attaining them.
On campuses, there is concern about the enrollment status of African Americans, but compared to the impassioned focus of two decades ago, the concern seems relatively muted, perhaps by the chilling effect of Proposition 209 and the continuing controversy over affirmative action and diversity in higher education. The numbers say race matters and we haven’t reached equity in education (or in anything else), but too many people seem to take the status quo for granted, feeling they can’t do any more. They probably can’t, if they focus only on admissions, ignoring the K-12 gaps that influence the number of people who will apply for college.
The entire African American community pays the price for educational indifference, because the exponential pace of progress will leave behind those who are unprepared for the twin forces of technology and globalization. The Digital Divide is the tip of the iceberg for a community who has been surviving at the periphery of our nation’s economy.
To be sure, we don’t all cling to the periphery. United Airlines’ recent decision to merge with US Air and sell some of their routes to BET’s Bob Johnson is evidence that some of us have clawed our way into the economic mainstream. Another consequence of educational indifference, though, is the way it bifurcates African Americans by educational status and class. All African Americans won’t be left out of the new economy. But at least a quarter will be, and most of those will be people who live in inner cities, where schools tend to be substandard.
The challenge to educators is to figure out what kept the thirst for education alive in women like Susan Taylor and Rosa Jones, to bottle that motivation, and spoon-feed it to our youngsters. It is motivating to see sisters tackle the education challenge in middle age, or when they are older, but it is equally motivating to see focused youngsters transcend challenges because their thirst for education is greater than the limitations of their circumstances.    



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