~ Written by Jesse Hake ~
Last week, on October 24, 2023, I listened in person as Dr. Bernice King—CEO of The King Center and Daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.—engaged in a conversation with two others about the current state of education in America. It was an honor for my colleague Joelle Hodge and I as we heard Dr. King sharing with Dr. Kelisha Graves and Dr. Anika Prather at an event hosted by Liberty Classical Schools in Atlanta, Georgia, and moderated by Josh Andrew, Head of School at Atlanta Classical Academy. Joelle and I were there at the invitation of Dr. Prather, a co-author of The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature published by Classical Academic Press.
At multiple points during a stimulating conversation about critical insights into the place of our humanity and personhood within a specifically Kingian philosophy of education, all three of women were prophetic and on the same page regarding some radical critiques of our nation’s current educational methods. Their conversation titled “A Discussion of ‘Kingian’ Education: How Classical Education Supports Civil Discourse in Democracy” covered several reasons why our nation’s current default toward a “factory model of education” within many of our schools is inhuman and failing us all.
Early in the conversation, Dr. King shared how the factory model of education overemphasized the value of finding “efficiencies” at the expense of the time and the real human interaction required to nurture and care for the personhood of each student. Referencing the work of her father and her mother, Coretta Scott King—both of whom wrote substantially about the need for a humaning philosophy of education—Dr. Bernice King said that schools must place character, the dignity of the whole person, and virtue, including specifically the Christian virtues of humility and love, at the forefront of their educational objectives. She noted that her father, specifically, drew from a vast range of great thinkers regardless of how fully he agreed with every aspect of their thought or what tradition or school of thought might be associated with them.
Dr. Prather and Dr. Graves both appreciated and elaborated on several of these points with insight and enthusiasm that was contagious, leading to multiple interruptions for applause and to a standing ovation as the conversation and the Q&A came to close. Dr. Kelisha Graves is an author and educator who serves as Chief Research, Education, and Programs Officer at The King Center. Among other publications, she has written Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer, 1900-1959 (Notre Dame, 2019). Engaging with the other two ladies on stage, Dr. Graves spoke of the “tyranny of metrics” within the factory model of education as an aspect of its fixation on efficiency at the expense of student’s growing in character, virtue, and their capacity for inquiry and civil discourse. According to Dr. Graves, MLK showed us that “principles are forever” while our methods and techniques will always come and go. Moreover, as MLK understood, this has direct application to education. Dr. Graves joined Dr. Bernice King in praising the classical liberal arts approach to education for its track record of keeping these human values front and center within the classroom. With passion and laughter in reference to her own experiences as a professor and teacher, Dr. Graves called for reformation of our contemporary testing and grading systems and described the need for students to have direct experience with civil discourse in response to reading a wide range of compelling thinkers rather than sitting through endless hours of standardized testing and being crammed with information that they will only quickly forget. Education should aim at a full and flourishing life throughout adulthood, Dr. Graves insisted, rather than giving students the impression that the only aim of education is how to pass the next test and succeed in the short term within the areas of schooling, work, and career.
On a related topic, Dr. Graves spoke about how “MLK did not throw anybody out” as she criticized the harm done to students in our “cancel culture” as students are kept from following the examples of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King in drawing from the deepest possible range of great thinkers even when there are substantial problems in some of these sources of inspiration. Dr. Graves described how students are being taught to shut down and disengage instead of interrogating and growing through the process of learning about the fullness—both positive and negative—that exists in great texts from various traditions. She was fearless in criticizing the status quo in our schools, both K-12 and at the college and university level, as current trends close off areas of exploration and reading for students by creating and reinforcing a growing list of ideological taboos.
While the agreement was strongly reinforced on all of these points above with raised hands, head nods, and audible amens between all three conversation partners, one area of some back-and-forth between Dr. Graves and Dr. Prather was with regard to the need for an appreciation of the “many canons” of great works as Dr. Graves expressed it. Without at all dismissing the value of seeing and reading from multiple traditions, Dr. Anika Prather responded that there was a blessing in recognizing the centrality in our own shared story of the specifically Western canon of great books. Dr. Prather pointed out how strongly Anna Julia Cooper advocated for the way in which the great books of the Western canon belonged to all people and how these text provided inspiration to so many black leaders including Huey P. Newton’s reading of Plato. As with so many other points covered in this rich dialog between these three women, Dr. Prather’s defense of a traditional Western canon received a warm response from Dr. Graves as a point well worth serious consideration in the development of a rehumanized vision for education in America. The opportunity to hear these three women engage with each other with such warmth and openness renewed my own hope and excitement for our nation’s students who are so in need of such examples. I was given a concrete demonstration of what a restoration of civil discourse and of the liberal arts can offer to our classrooms and our lives together.
Want to read more from Jesse Hake? Check out "Finding God Amid the Goodness of Summer: Keeping the Borders of Eden" and "Classical Education is Not at the Heart of the Culture Wars." Plus, listen to the ClassicalU Podcast to hear him interview a variety of guests about their contributions to the renewal of classical education!