|I’m going to study hard like Obama says so I can get a job when I graduate.
In some states of the Southern Confederacy it was a violation of law to teach slaves how to read and write. Plantation owners knew that it was in their best interest to keep their labor force illiterate and docile. Effective language skills could lead to the communication of revolutionary ideas.
Despite the prohibitions, slaves tried to learn to read on their own. They cherished their McGuffey Readers almost as much as the family bible. There was a longing for education. A strong belief developed among blacks that a high level of education was essential for social and economic progress. Unfortunately, the cultural affirmation of that belief has somehow diminished in recent years.
In a speech to inspire students to study hard in high school and qualify for college, President Obama said recently, “The fact of the matter is that 60 percent of jobs in the next decade will require more than a high school diploma. That’s the world you’re walking into.”
Surprisingly, Rick Santorum, vying to be nominated as the Republican candidate for president, took exception to Obama’s remarks. He called the president a snob for exhorting students to aspire to go to college.
This was undoubtedly a gambit by Santorum to be perceived by white working class voters as their kind of candidate. He often speaks of his grandfather who emigrated to America and worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines. However, Santorum should more honestly have pointed out that he followed Obama’s advice in his own life. He has a B.A. from Penn State, an MBA from the University of Pittsburg, and a law degree from Dickinson. According to his tax returns he earned $930,000 in 2010 and $3.6 million in the last four years. Santorum lost his membership in the 99 percenters some time ago.
The compilation of data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census indicates a close correlation between one’s level of education and annual income. Both President Obama and Rick Santorum know this. A male high school graduate earned $32,900 in 2009 compared with $51,000 for an employee with a bachelor’s degree. The pay scales are even higher for those with master’s or professional degrees.
Obama is aware of the growing need for better-educated citizens so that America can compete in the technologically oriented global economy. There is some growth but it is still inadequate. Fewer than 5 percent of the adult population aged 25 and older had received a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1940, but by 2000 that percentage had grown to almost 25 percent. College attendance by young adults (18 to 24 years old) varied by race. More than one half of young adult Asians, more than one third of whites and 27 percent of blacks were all attending college.
Data from a year ago indicate that last March for the first time more than 30 percent of American adults at least held bachelor’s degrees. More than half of all Asians (50.3 percent) were in this group, 34 percent of whites and 19.9 percent of blacks.
Santorum had no intention of inspiring black students by denouncing Obama’s words of encouragement. In fact, with his negative comment, Santorum could possibly provide support to black youth headed toward delinquency. In response, black students should reflect on attempts to keep slaves illiterate in the ante-bellum South. They should be motivated by what African Americans have had to overcome and resolve to meet the academic challenges of the day by rising to their highest level of educational competence.