December 17, 2014

Graduation: Are We All Educated?

By Billy Thomas, MD, MPH
UAMS Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion
Professor, College of Medicine

Billy Thomas, MD, MPH UAMS Vice Chancellor for  Diversity and Inclusion Professor, College of Medicine

Billy Thomas, MD, MPH
UAMS Vice Chancellor for
Diversity and Inclusion
Professor, College of Medicine

Although summer is over and school has started again, I continue to think about the many graduations I attended last spring. Graduations are a time of fun and reflection for students. Graduates feel some degree of satisfaction and achievement, and their parents may feel some level of relief. In most cases, graduation signals the start of a new chapter in life for students and their families.

All graduations are ceremonial and long! Of the several graduation ceremonies I attended last spring, two I remember most vividly. One was at an HBCU – a historically black college/university, where the student body and faculty are predominantly African American or people of color. The other was at a small, private, non-profit liberal arts college, where the student body and faculty are predominately white.

The ceremonies at the two schools were vastly different, but also had striking similarities. At the HBCU, students and faculty marched, with much decorum, into the auditorium to the sound of a marching band, but concluded their grand entry with a mad, unorganized dash to their seats once the music stopped.

The liberal arts school, in comparison, was very calm, maybe even subdued. The students and faculty marched in synch in two rows in step with the usual processional tune in the background. It was orderly and organized. When the music stopped, everyone was in place and simply took their seat.

When it was time for students to walk across the stage to be handed their diplomas, the two ceremonies were much alike: Each student was on cue, each in their designated spot, and honor grads were recognized with the traditional designations – summa cum laude, cum laude. The processional at both was a mechanical affair including the grad who joyously hugged everyone on stage or did a cartwheel or two and the hoots and cheers of happy family and friends. No real difference between the two colleges.

One notable difference, however, was that at the HBCU, as each student strode across the stage, an announcement was made about his or her post-graduation plans. That added a personal touch and deepened my appreciation for not only each individual, but the school that had educated each of them and conferred their degree.

Speakers at both graduations included the college president and an invited speaker who gave the commencement address. The thing that I remember most was the very similar message by the two college presidents. The topic was education in the full and true sense of the word. Both addresses ended with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Intelligence + Character = Education.” It is from the article titled,“The Purpose of Education,” which Dr. King wrote while a student at Morehouse College. It was published in 1947 in Morehouse’s campus newspaper, the Maroon Tiger:

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race, but also the accumulated experience of social living. If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, “brethren!” Be careful, teachers!(1).

When I heard the quote at not one, but two graduations, my first thought was, “This is really great!” My second thought was, “This is spot-on! I hope this philosophy is not unique to these two institutions!”

The small sample of spring graduations that I attended suggests that Dr. King’s words, at the least, lend themselves to serving as pithy, inspiring nuggets of wisdom at many a college graduation. But surely, they also reflect the highest aspirations of educators – to not only confer knowledge and skills to their students, but also to provide the environment and opportunities for students to develop positive and caring attitudes, values and motivations.

I think we all agree that in most cases it is not what we learn from books or lectures but how we develop as individuals that holds us in good stead and is most important. In most cases it is not the cognitive measure of what we might call intelligence, but those unique intra- and interpersonal qualities that enable the expression of that intelligence. We are all intelligent, and we all have character. It is the polishing of these two qualities that in the end makes the difference.

As students leave the K-12 system and enter the world of post-secondary education, the selection of the institution they attend is extremely important. Which institution will be the best fit? What institution will provide the type of environment that will be nurturing and supportive to the development of the student, as a whole person?

In many case it may not be the upper tier private institution that enables a student to reach his or her potential. It may be the local community college, a state-supported university or a minority-serving institution. We all learn differently. We all perceive and respond differently to multiple environmental stimuli (situations, stressors) as we move through life. In the process, it is the galvanizing of a person’s character through multiple life lessons that allows us to accumulate the experience of social living. What is gained is then integrated into one’s character and one becomes a better person.

So, at a distance the two institutions appeared to be very different but they are quite similar — a microcosm of the larger social world. Beyond the differences of race, ethnicity, culture, gender and geography that define individuals and institutions of learning, our society is made up of human beings with very little difference in what we feel and value as the ultimate aim of education – to emerge as a more complete human being. Indeed, “Intelligence + Character = Education.”

Dr. King was only 18 years old when he wrote the article for the Maroon Tiger — Always ahead of his time.

  1. “The Purpose of Education’ by Dr. Martin Luther King. Maroon Tiger (January-February 1947): 10. Copy in GD.