Education, which comes from the Latin educo, "to lead out," is the light that guides our society across time. Human beings are only able to progress as a people because each generation chooses to teach the next about the triumphs and failures of those that have come before. Education allows people to build on past successes, right historic wrongs and explore entirely different worlds. It can cure the problems of racism, disease, poverty and war. By any measure, all individuals who have succeeded in life have in some way been taught by someone else. And only through a strong commitment to education can the youth of today become the knowledgeable leaders of tomorrow--leaders passionate for and inspired by all that life has to offer.
For some time now, the educational light leading our nation has been in danger of being extinguished. Nearly 50 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, America remains a balkanized society. Brown affirmed the fact that "separate but equal" was an inherent contradiction, but despite the ruling, this contradiction persists in America. The statistics are uncannily familiar: Blacks and Latinos live in the least integrated neighborhoods and have the highest high school dropout rates. Whites and Asians--the groups living in the most integrated neighborhoods--achieve the highest education levels of any racial group.
This lack of commitment to educational equity in America fundamentally belies the egalitarian principles upon which this nation was founded, as well as the noble ideals for which Americans died to end institutionalized racism. In the year 2000, 60 percent of fourth-graders eligible for free or reduced lunch--a disproportionately black and Latino population--could not read at a basic level. Throughout elementary and secondary school, blacks score lower, overall, on mathematics and reading tests than whites. These educational disparities handicap students in all areas of life, leaving them powerless to finish a race that has been inherently unequal from the start.
What do these inequalities mean for the vast horde of Duke students flocking to our nation's top graduate institutions and firms? Sadly, not much. But the belief in a meritocracy on which so many of us rest our fundamental assumptions about education and the world must be changed or at least shaken by these facts. For most undergraduates, there is a strong belief that being at Duke is a right earned by their hard work and stellar high school resumes. I would urge these students to think again--for the most part, Duke students are at this University because they were raised in environments conducive to educational development, in which aspirations to go to college were encouraged and nurtured. Most of these same students come from middle-to-upper-class neighborhoods where a dearth of educational resources would never be an issue.
We often proceed through this competitive institution thinking that our grades or our extracurricular achievements somehow lay testament to our worth in life. But what about the entire generation of students completely excluded from the competition, perhaps more intelligent or more worthy but never given the resources to succeed? Until we ensure that equality of educational opportunity exists in this country, our achievements and other successes--however laudable or significant to society--are distributed by chance, to those lucky enough to have grown up in the "right" communities. We cannot assume that acceptance into a particular school or attainment of a certain position means anything but that we are more fortunate cogs in the grand wheel of life.
If we want to change this reality, so that each of us may take some ownership in our personal or societal achievements, we have to start thinking beyond the narrow view of grades or money as the sole indicators of success. My vision for society is not one in which we all achieve the same, but rather, one in which we all have the same opportunity to achieve. Thus, by committing ourselves wholeheartedly to educational equality, we can fulfill the idealized conservative dream of seeing people not as products of their environment, but as true individuals.
The situation of American public education is not hopeless. In 1973, arguing that education is not a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution, the majority of justices of the Supreme Court overruled the judgment of a federal district court in San Antonio that had found the disparities in Texan education finance unconstitutional. The high court thus halted what would have been a revolution in how we think about public education, perhaps eradicating the historic connection between local property taxes and education funding that has relegated lower-wealth districts to lower educational standards.
While many advocates of "liberty" in public education argue against the use of money to increase educational output in low-income communities, many of these same advocates send their children to the wealthiest schools in the country. The implementation of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act requires vast achievement gains with no guarantee of essential educational resources, even though recent court decisions in New York have affirmed the connection between "more resources" and the "effective, individualized, and differentiated instruction" of at-risk students. To change this unjust system, either we as a nation must recognize the fundamental nature of education in realizing all other rights or wealthy advocates of the current setup must overcome their hypocrisy to redistribute public funds towards poorer districts for the long haul.
In no way should one's tax bracket or skin color affect the opportunity one is given to succeed at life. Pledging to provide equality in the funding and delivery of public education will be the next step in fully realizing the vision of Brown and the dreams of countless crusaders for genuine civil rights in this country.
Philip Kurian is a Trinity junior. His column appears every other Monday.
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