Born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights activist and minister widely known and recognized for his impact on race relations in the mid-to-late 20th century. The second child of Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King, Martin Luther King Jr. thrived in his educational pursuits — earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Morehouse College in 1948, and even becoming the valedictorian of his class at Crozier Theological Seminary in 1951.

During his academic career, King was awarded a fellowship to graduate school at Boston University, which he accepted. He began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his PhD in 1955. It was during his time in graduate school that King formulated his thinking and the ideas that guided his life. A little over a decade later, King donated his memorabilia to his alma mater, and it is now housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center on the Boston University–Charles River Campus.

Among the collection that King donated to Boston University, was a paper of his idea on the purpose of education, which was a response to a question posed by one of his professors. For King, education primarily served society in two ways: to discipline the mind for sustained and persistent speculation and to integrate human life around central, focusing ideals. Our educational system tends to flourish at getting the minds of students to be curious and ask questions, however when it comes to making human life on central, focusing ideas the system falls short.

“It is a tragedy that the latter is often neglected in our educational system”

King went further to explain the need for education to teach us with the power to think effectively and objectively. It is with textbooks, critical analyses and guidance from teachers and professors that one learns how to rise beyond the half truth, prejudices and propaganda that plague society in a multitude of forms. It is in the educational system that one learns how to think intensively, however, King felt that this is not the whole of education.

“If education stops there it can be the most dangerous force in society. Some of the greatest criminals in society have been men who possessed the power of concentration and reason, but had no morals.”

Decades after King’s time at Boston University, I wonder what he would think of the educational system in today’s age. There have been protests on college campuses across the nation and world calling out the structural racism, misogyny and heteronormative ways that plague many of the institutions we have learned to be places that teach the best and brightest to expand their minds and embrace their curiosity. Would he view the curricula that emphasize memorization and multiple choice examinations and not the essay-based examinations and seminar-oriented classrooms in a positive light? Would he view the consistent lack of contextualization around human beings from various backgrounds and identities in subjects ranging from law and sociology worthy of our monetary resources? And would he think that our education system is actually teaching individuals how to “rise beyond the half-truths, prejudices and propaganda”?

If King believed that education is supposed to teach us to how to think critically and analytically about various topics, defeat our own personal ignorance and the prejudices spat out by our environment and embrace us to ask questions, I find that he would be thoroughly disappointed with what our educational system looks like in the 21st century. Education in the United States is constantly under scrutiny either because of its emphasis on testing and memorization, or because of hardly any representation in terms of diversity in students, faculty and staff. We still have a long journey ahead of us if we are to all view our educational system in the same manner as the likes of Dr. King.