Thanks to noted African-American scholar Carter G. Woodson, the nation celebrates Black History Month in February as a tribute to the birthdays this month of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Douglass valued a good education. It’s essential today, too. But it’s largely lost in our media culture of Facebook, cellphones, big-screen TVs and texting, where grammar and spelling don’t matter.
Yet, it is critical to revisit what former slaves such as Douglass knew in the 19th century, which many conveniently neglect now. Computers and other technology make it seem as if reading, math, history, science and even memorization are unnecessary.
But each, along with a growing vocabulary, are essential for students to do well, go to college and get good jobs. Yet the majority of black children enter school with a vocabulary several hundred words short of their white peers.
Often they fail to catch up. Also working against too many children of color is the same thing that civil rights era students of my generation faced.
We were part of the experiment of integrated schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Coming from mostly black schools, we were thrust into classrooms nearly all white.
Integration was what Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others struggled for. But black kids who did well in school and got along were criticized by other blacks for acting white.
Woodson, who started Black History Week in 1926, which became Black History Month in 1976, wrote about that in his book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” Too many people are taught and embrace the stereotypical image of blacks as too-cool-for-school, lazy, criminal, underperforming, ne’er do-wells.
Words for today
What Woodson wrote in his 1933 book, unfortunately still applies today:
“If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”
Schools throughout the country face a changing demographic. The enrollment in 40 area school districts of students of color since 2004 has grown by 25,468. White student enrollment has dropped by 7,631.
Educators must redouble efforts to reach and teach children of color, who locally and nationally make up more than 45 percent of public school enrollment — up from 29 percent 20 years ago. And curriculum must be multicultural and inclusive to be relevant to today’s students. Eurocentric education is failing.
Schools must also do more to get students to understand that doing well academically has never been just a white thing. Douglass, who was born when it was a crime to teach slaves to read, still learned and went on to become one of the country’s leading abolitionists, a newspaperman and a great orator.
More than 100 years ago, Douglass said: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
Unfortunately, too many young people abandon school, becoming exploited low- and no-wage slaves. Everyone should embrace the following Woodson quote:
“Philosophers have long conceded, however, that every man has two educations: that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable. Indeed all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves.“
These two kinds of education must be America’s 21st century civil rights goal for all kids and our nation to succeed.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board.