January 16, 2022

The Learning Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King

We remember Dr. Martin Luther King as one of the greatest teachers in American history. Like any good teacher, he knew the value of learning.

A prolific writer, some of his less-known writings reveal an even more nuanced philosophy: the power and importance of collective learning. Dr. King knew that we learn in the world as much or more than we learn in school. We need to value both.

Learning is an Equalizer

In a 1961 article for the New York Times, "The Time for Freedom has Come," Dr. King applauds the advancement of the civil rights movement on college campuses, begun and sustained by Black students. Fueled by history, philosophy, and an examination of African freedom movements, the students collectively set the tone for a new expectation for social justice - one that bridges both race and class.

In his essay, Dr. King reminds us that education and learning are “tools for shaping the future and not devices of privilege for an exclusive few.” Learning – and in particular, social learning – is an equalizer.

What we learn from each other is more powerful than anything we can learn alone.

Marion Trikosko, Martin Luther King, 1964, Wikimedia

Social learning can and must happen every day – at home, at work and in the world. But learning in familiar circles is not enough. Dr. King urges us to recognize contributions, hear diverse voices and learn new lessons from and with others different from ourselves.

Our contemporary education system trains us to assume that knowledge and wisdom follow hierarchical structures: those with the most education have earned the right to be the smartest in the room. Honoring these structures weakens our organizations, culture and communities and threatens the fabric of inclusive or equitable society.

When we overvalue hierarchy, we undervalue the wisdom of life experience. We prioritize some voices over others, at the expense of community.

To emphasize this point, consider the opposite. One of the cruelest ways to dehumanize a population is to prevent them from learning. In our own history, it was a crime to teach an enslaved person to read or write.

Learning is a form of freedom that can never be taken away. Learning together multiplies that freedom. We learn best when we step into each other’s shoes and see the world through other eyes.

Inclusion is about Learning

As we continue to seek inclusion and belonging in our workplaces and our communities, more progress lays ahead of us than behind.

In his essay, Dr. King calls out a broader definition of learning: human growth at the crossroads of “academic learning from books and classes, and life’s lessons from responsible participation in social action.”

For Dr. King, progress happens when we marry book learning and life learning, when we value the wisdom of our experiences and our communities.

Sixty years later his voice rings loud and clear.

Social action must be based in learning, but also in the energy and inspiration we receive from each other’s perspectives.

Dr. King ends his essay with the inspiration he received from a student, a young man he describes as “far more poetic with a basketball than with words.” He asked him to find a quotation expressing his feelings about the civil rights struggle and his own faith in a better future. The young man left him the following lines:

     I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see,

     I sought my God, but he eluded me,

     I sought my brother, and I found all three.

As we take time to remember the legacy of this great teacher, leader and learner, we must open our own hearts and minds to learning from every possible source, and to be informed and shaped by the contributions we least expect.

Image Credit:
Glenn Ligon, Double America 2, The Broad Collection, via rocor, flickr
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