Every once in a while in the schedule of my talks to Junior, Middle and Senior School students I am able to use the same story, and the same message. Right now is such an occasion: if you are a Junior School parent, you might ask your sons or daughters if they remember the story I told about the man who needed to change a flat tire.
In Senior and Middle School Chapel, where these talks take place, Reverend Fletcher always starts Chapel with a thought-provoking question. Before I gave my Senior School adaptation of the same story (the Middle School gets it on Tuesday) the question was, “What are your two best reasons for going to school?” Such a question invites some light-hearted responses for sure, so Reverend Fletcher told the students to omit such reasons as the legal requirement.
The question was perfect for my talk (unplanned!) and in my own mind I turned it around: How would you feel if you could not go to school? The central message of my talk is that while there may be many practical benefits to going to school – preparation for a future career, for example – the more fundamental reason is that education is an exercise in personal freedom and democratic freedom. One of the sentences I use every year in my Graduation Ceremony address is “the great project of education is to free us to be most fully ourselves, and to stay free.” Or, in the words of the SMUS Vision, “discovering the promise in our selves and the world.”
I ask doubters to consider these two examples. Stephen Lewis, a politician and social thinker and activist more prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, worked with the United Nations on a project to address the problem of children orphaned because of HIV/AIDS, many of whom developed the disease themselves. His own foundation carried on this work, which was about as much of an uphill struggle as one can find. Of all the things these children wanted in their lives, the single biggest wish they had, he recounts, is to go to school. My second example is Malala Yousafzai, the girl who survived a devastating life-threatening attack in Pakistan because she was a girl who was going to school. When people tell young people – such as girls – that they cannot get educated, they are in fact telling them they cannot be free.
In my story I told at all three schools this week, the man is unable to change his tire because he cannot read the manual. He cannot read the manual because while he can recognize letters of the alphabet, he cannot read at all. Certainly, therefore, a practical purpose is served in education by being able to change a tire (as long as the manual is in the glove compartment). With orphans deprived of a school, or girls like Malala whom others would rather kill than send to school, education genuinely and authentically is about discovering the promise in our selves and the world.