Magazine article Liberal Education

Leadership for a New Age: Higher Education's Role in Producing Minority Leaders

Magazine article Liberal Education

Leadership for a New Age: Higher Education's Role in Producing Minority Leaders

Article excerpt

MY EXPERIENCE as an undergraduate at Hampton University filled me with a sense of excitement about learning and shaped many of my views. My professors prepared me to live and lead in a world that would not necessarily expect a lot from me. At Hampton, I was praised for being curious and even sometimes rebellions. I learned about the importance of putting students first, expecting the most of them, giving them the support they need to succeed, and emphasizing leadership and service. I know that students grow from being challenged inccllectuiilly and from receiving support, both academic and personal. That philosophy governs my approach as a university president.

In 1970 when I entered graduate school at the University of Illinois, I realized for the first time just how few African Americans and other minorities could be found in graduate programs, especially in science and engineering. For the past thirty years, I have spent much of my professional career addressing this issue and supporting minority and other students. My thinking has been rooted in the idea of "The Talented Tenth," expressed a century ago by W.E.B. DuBois (1903). In his treatise, The Souls of Black Folks, DuBois wrote,

Can the masses of the Negro people be in any possible way more quickly raised than by the effort and example of this aristocracy of talent and character ?...[I]t is, ever was, and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that arc worth the saving up...This is the history of human progress...How then shall the leaders of a struggling people be trained and the hands of the risen few strengthened? There can be but one answer: the best and most capable of their youth must be schooled in the colleges and universities of the land.

DuBois was writing, of course, about the importance of liberal education, which is something I emphasize in my convocation address each year U) new freshmen. In fact, I talk about the meaning of liberal education-that the word liberal comes from the Latin adjective fiber, meaning jree. The word education comes from both the Latin verb dwco, meaning to !ead, and the prefix e, which means ottt of. Defined literally, then, liberal education means tae free act of leading out of. Most often, liberal education has been associated with free people, who, unlike slaves or indentured servants, had time to cultivate the intellect. 1 talk about another popular interpretation of liberal education as education for its own sake-much like climbing a mountain because the mountain is there-and the freedom to think and explore ideas in any direction.

Intellectual models

While DuBois may have been the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard and one of the first to focus the nation's attention on the issue of blacks, higher education, and the value of liberal education, he was following in the footsteps of other black luminaries, a few of whom deserve special note. Few Americans know that well before the Civil War, selected liberal arts colleges like Harvard and Bowdoin admitted from time to time an exceptional black. Even fewer know about leaders such as Fanny Jackson Coppin, who as a teenage girl had been a servant in a Newport, Rhode Island home. She eventually attended Oberlin College, one of the nation's few colleges open to blacks in the mid-nineteenth century. After earning her bachelor's degree in 1865, she taught and later became principal at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, the city's only high school for black students and perhaps the nation's leading school of its kind at that time, where she worked for thirty-seven years.

At the Institute, she hired Edward Bouchet, my hero, a physicist, and the first African American to graduate from Yale (1874, Phi Beta Kappa), where he ranked sixth in his class of 124. In 1876, he earned his doctorate in geometrical optics and became the first black to receive a Ph.D. at an American university. …

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