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A Celebration of Commitment to Education: Keynote Address

Arch St. Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA
Sunday, May 1st, 2016


I’m very grateful to Rev. Bill Golderer for inviting me to participate in today’s Celebration of Commitment to Education. At a moment in our national history when we pay far too little attention to the extraordinary, transformative impact of teachers and education on our children and youth, families, and communities, I commend you for taking the time to celebrate education and educators. I also would like to thank all who have dedicated your life's work to the education system: teachers, administrators, school nurses, janitors, food service workers, volunteers, and policy makers. And finally, I’d like to recognize students and their families. I thank you for being here, and I applaud your commitment and dedication. It takes all of us together to sustain and to improve our educational system.

Let me also acknowledge the leadership and vision that Bill and Julie Golderer and the Arch Street Presbyterian congregation have displayed in creating the Arch Street Presbyterian Preschool. Acknowledging both the impact of early education on the life chances of every person, and the lack of quality early education in the City of Philadelphia, this church has created a school where children of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds can receive excellent early education together. You recognize that by investing in these children today, you are building the society we hope to see in our future. I second the statement I read on your website: “We want children to discover and play together today to prepare for leading the community together tomorrow.”

Education has had a powerful impact on my life and in the life of my family; let me take a few moments to share that story with you. I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. I’m the eldest of three children of parents who were born and raised in the segregated south, specifically in Charleston, S.C. Both of my parents were raised in a community—extended family, neighborhood, schools, and churches—that believed in the value of education. They were encouraged to excel academically and to attend college because they were surrounded by people who believed that education would lead them from poverty and a limited set of life choices to independence, fulfilling work, economic self-sufficiency, and the middle class. Now in their late 80s, both of my parents still recall the teachers, relatives, neighbors, and fellow church members who encouraged them to make something of themselves and to carry the hopes of the past forward to the next generation.

The first in their families to go to college, my parents attended historically black colleges: my mother, Allen University in Columbia, S.C., and my father, South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. After graduation, they married and moved to New York; like many African Americans they were part of the Great Migration from the South to the North, leaving Jim Crow segregation in search of greater opportunities for themselves and their children. My father went on to get his master’s and doctorate and become a professor of biology; my mother became an elementary school teacher and received her master’s degree. They passed on to their three children the love of learning that had been instilled in them and the belief that education could transform lives.

I began my educational journey at an all-black parochial elementary school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Now one of a number of ultra-trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods, then Bed-Stuy was primarily home to black middle- and working-class families. My school, Concord Baptist Elementary School, was part of Concord Baptist Church, the prominent African-American congregation my family attended. The school was founded in 1961 by Laura Scott Taylor, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Oberlin and the wife of our pastor, the late, great Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor. Motivated by the same concerns that inspired the members of Arch Street to create your preschool, Laura Taylor—we all only ever called her Mrs. Taylor—founded Concord Baptist because she was convinced that the public schools in our section of Brooklyn were not providing the children of our community with a decent education. As she said in a 1967 interview, "There is something radically wrong with the public school system if our kids can't read."

Mrs. Taylor wanted to produce an environment where her students would receive a sound academic foundation; be taught to believe in their academic gifts; learn about black history and culture; and receive ethical, spiritual, and moral training. A brilliant, hardworking, dignified, and elegant woman—who was one of my earliest mentors—Laura Taylor made this school her life’s work, serving as its unsalaried principal for 32 years, from 1960-92. Although it closed sometime in the early 2000s after Mrs. Taylor passed away, the school improved the life chances of generations of students, producing graduates who would pursue careers in all walks of life: medicine, law, the arts, education, civil service, and so on.

Coming from a background shaped by educators like my parents and Laura Taylor, it is perhaps little wonder that I found my life’s work in the educational field. I’ve spent most of my career as a professor of English and African American Studies, teaching a variety of courses on topics such as modern and contemporary African-American literature, women’s writing of the African diaspora, black film, and literature and culture of the civil rights era. I love the material I teach, and I derive great joy from sharing my enthusiasm for the works my students and I study together. How fortunate I’ve been to spend a semester reading the works of Toni Morrison with 15 bright and engaged students. I still can’t believe I got paid to do that! I’ve also been fortunate to teach at some remarkable institutions, and I’ve had more than my share of outstanding students. But I’ve experienced my greatest sense of fulfillment when I’ve had students who enter my classes wrapped in timidity or self-doubt, shrouded in a sense that they don’t belong, and I’m able to help them discover their own power. It has been a true blessing to watch them flourish, discover their own life’s work, and then go on to inspire others to do the same. I’ve also enjoyed watching classes of students from diverse backgrounds become, over the course of a semester, a community of individuals who respect and delight in each other’s ideas. That desire to create a nurturing environment for all students, whatever their background or experience, is what led me to become an administrator: first as a dean, and now as a president.

I don’t get to teach much now, but from time to time I do get the opportunity to sit in on my colleagues’ courses. Let me share with you a story about I class I visited earlier this week.

Just a few days ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend the final session of a seminar entitled “The Politics of Punishment.” Taught by my Swarthmore colleague Dr. Keith Reeves, this political science course focuses on a topic of great interest to many, namely “the interplay among American electoral politics, public concerns regarding crime, and criminal justice policy.” Together, the class examines questions such as:

Why are so many Americans either locked up behind bars or under the supervision of the criminal justice system?
What explains the racial and class differences in criminal behavior and incarceration rates?
What does it mean to be poor, a person of color, and in “jail” or “prison”?
How and why does criminal justice policy in this country have its roots in both the media culture and political campaigns?

Since the class I attended was the final session, the students—12 women and 12 men—were asked to use the time to reflect upon their experience in the course and what they had learned. I was impressed and moved to hear the students’ spoken observations. One young woman described the impact of learning so much about issues of inequality in our criminal justice system that, during the course of the semester, she decided she wanted to pursue a career that would allow her to work on these issues. Another remarked that she appreciated the fact that the course didn’t merely address the problem of injustice in our criminal justice system; it also allowed students the opportunity to research and propose reforms in such areas as afterschool youth programs and resources for transitioning incarcerated persons back into their communities.

While a number of the students spoke about what they had learned from the content of the course, the majority reflected upon the personal and emotional impact of the class. A couple mentioned that during the past semester they had undergone health issues or personal losses. The class was a lifeline for them—they looked forward to their developing relationships with the professor and with one another during a period of grief and suffering. Another thanked the professor and his fellow students for taking him seriously. It was the first time, he said, that he had felt confidence in his own ideas and the quality of his thinking. One said that the class taught him how to be vulnerable with other people; another said that it gave him back his humanity. All of the students felt that it was the most rewarding academic experience they had ever had, and as they said goodbye, several were moved to tears.

In many ways this class represents the highest ideals of our educational system. Not only did it teach important, meaningful content—in this case, a critical and historical understanding of the relationship among American electoral politics, public concerns regarding crime, and criminal justice policy—but it helped students develop crucially important skills—such as critical reading, the capacity to construct and defend a well-substantiated argument, and the ability to speak and write persuasively—while also providing them with opportunities to get to know things about themselves, to respect others’ viewpoints, and to work collaboratively with people who are different from themselves.

As I listened to the students’ reflections, I was reminded of the words of the writer Anne Lamott:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

What made this class particularly unusual and special is that it didn’t take place on the Swarthmore campus—or on any other college campus. It took place in the State Correctional Institution at Chester. The class was taught under the auspices of the Inside/Out Prison Exchange initiative. Half the class—the women— were Swarthmore students; the other half—the men—were incarcerated.

There is so much to commend this program. The Inside/Out Prison Exchange provides a remarkable opportunity for incarcerated persons and regular college and university students to learn together from dedicated, world-class professors. Both groups of students receive the benefit of working, studying with, and learning from people who may be very different from themselves. Both sets of students receive the opportunity to experience each other as human beings—not as stereotypes.

And yet, even as I felt inspired and moved by the students’ intelligence, empathy, and eloquence, I couldn’t help but feel that in an ideal world, this program wouldn’t need to exist. How many of the men who are in this facility, or in facilities like it across the country, are there because the educational system failed to engage them intellectually, made them feel unintelligent, less than human? In an ideal world, all young people would have access to schooling that provides them a rigorous and well-rounded academic preparation; nurtures their emotional and physical health and well-being, creativity, and moral and ethical development through a rich array of extracurricular activities; and gives them confidence in their ideas, their humanity, and in other people by fostering mutually respectful relationships. In an ideal world, the quality of education would not depend upon family racial background, financial circumstances, or the amount of property taxes paid in one’s district. In an ideal world, these men would not have to be incarcerated to be intellectually engaged.

Let us remember the words of the great Nelson Mandela, who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” We must commit ourselves to fighting for a fair, equitable, and just education system in our region, in our state, in our country, and across our globe. When we resolve to provide educators and administrators with the resources they need to educate the whole person, and we commit to providing all young people with knowledge, skills, confidence, empathy, and compassion, we will be making the highest and best investment in our shared national and global future.

Thank you.