The Pervasive Deification of Education in Black Communities
By Ambra Nykol
The rich history of Black people is one of struggle, survival, and finally, triumph (although many would like to stay in survival mode).
The right to an education was not always something that could be so easily trounced upon by the likes of me. I feel it is important to recognize that many black people were once denied even the right to learn how to read.
It is also important to recognize that quite awhile before the civil rights movement was even a thought, there were certain black people who rose up in the face of adversity to be great intellectuals of the black community.
Today, you will often hear black teenagers say things like, "I'm the first one in my family to graduate from university", or even worse, "I'm the first person in my family to graduate from high school".
I have the sincere privilege of being blessed with a highly educated family. My dad's a math whiz, my mom a Ph.d and professor, my grandmother was a teacher, my grandfather is a dentist, and there are about three other doctors on my mom's side.
I can certainly appreciate that. However, we have not forgotten as a family that just a few decades back, the same opportunity for advancement was not "readily" available to us as black people.
These days, a lot of teenagers are pushed into higher education because their parents "never got the opportunity". Thus, there is a clear expectation placed on them based on their parents' prior disappointments. Sound familiar?
So why do I say all this?
Well, it has become increasingly apparent to me that the past denial of higher education to many blacks has resulted in what I feel is a present over-appreciation for this privilege and a deification of education to an unhealthy position.
Central to the black community is this notion that education is the "end all and be all" of success in this country.
Young men at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia
Long ago it was the missing part of our success equation and now it seems we must fight never to lose it.
I always laugh when I see inspirational phrases like, "Knowledge is power" or "Education is the key to success" plastered on billboards for the United Negro College Fund.
Well, those statements may very well be true, but they're not absolute. The problem is, we've treated higher education as an absolute.
I can't tell you how many lectures I got when I was in high school from various adult figures and passing admonitions like, "just make sure you get an education".
It doesn't matter if you have no clue what you want to do or be in life, just make sure you get that education. In fact, it doesn't even matter what your major is or how deep in debt you have to go. It will all be worth it for that college degree.
I've found that highly educated people are much more susceptible to worshipping their education if they are very successful because they attribute their success to their education and nothing else.
In our community, education has become the source and God has faded into the background. Humanity was created to worship and we have a long history (even in the Bible) of acknowledging everything but God as our source.
Cambridge University's Black students
It seems we have left something out of the success picture. Something huge. I can't even count the number of young people I talk to who tell me they want to be lawyers.
Who didn't at some point right? My first comment to them is usually, "Are you called to be a lawyer, or are you just saying that because it sounds cool?" So it seems that Du Bois' former doctrine of the "talented tenth" is not too far off from today.
Let's just be realistic, when you were growing up, what did most kids say when asked, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" It is most likely they boldly proclaimed the same words every other kid across the globe did, "Doctor, Lawyer, Teacher, or Dentist" and maybe a few others in there.
As a black person, I can understand the aspiration to that. We're underrepresented in many of those areas and if that's what a person is truly placed on the earth to do, than by all means, be that, do that, succeed in that.
However, I am increasingly troubled at the idea that we are sending young people off to university to "find themselves".
Let me just debunk a most popular myth right now: university is not the place to find yourself. In fact, if you're not careful, university will jack you up.
This is not a popular message. I believe we have a flipped concept of higher education and that's why we're producing so many confused young adults today.
We ship off unsuspecting teenagers to go "find their way" by switching majors 87 times, bumping into many walls, only to land themselves in a career in which they lack passion or vision. We chalk it up to the "almighty degree".
Meanwhile, 20 years after graduation, we find some unhappy 42 year olds scattered throughout the country, trying to find their "passion" in life.
We often send young people to university ill-equipped. They lack a clear vision. They lack a clear purpose. They lack identity and end up finding it in their profession which is quite a tragedy.
Most commonly, when vision and purpose are lacking, human nature will self-destruct. Self-destruction manifests itself in many ways.
As a former university student, it's pretty safe to say the self-destructers were very apparent. Perhaps the biggest problem in this respect is that the black community has often confused "perceived success" with self-destruction.
So when we haven't seen Mrs. Johnson in a long time, we'll ask things like,
"Hey how are your kids doing?" And she'll respond,
"Oh they're just wonderful. Johnny just graduated Summa Cum Laude and is starting law school, Sally just got an accounting job at a Big 5 firm, and Derrick just got a full-scholarship to play basketball at Penn State!" And we'll say,
"Wow, that's so great!" and be on our merry way.
Our perception walking away from that conversation is that Johnson kids must be doing great. Meanwhile, both Johnny & Sally are struggling to find significance and meaning in their lives.
Sally's miserable in her 9-5 job and can't imagine doing this for 25 more years. Johnny just wants to stay in school as long as possible because he doesn't know his purpose in life and only has identity in being a student, and Derrick is about to crack under the pressure of his parents' expectations and is looking forward to the "groupies" more than he is the degree.
But it's all okay, as long as we're all educated right?
Ambra Nykol is a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Soundpolitics.com, Seaspot magazine and Modestly Yours. She owns and blogs at nykola.com
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