Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights for African Americans. Beside King are John Lewis, Reverend Jesse Douglas, James Forman and Ralph Abernathy. (Photo by Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images)

Doctor King Cites the Importance of Critical Thinking and Character 

When you read the words that a young Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his college newspaper at Morehouse in 1947, it’s easy to see the foundation being laid for the renowned fiery orator he would soon become. 

At just 18 years old, he was developing his own ideas about the purpose that education serves in our lives. Among the thoughts he shares in this essay, he says that education is a way out of the “morass of propaganda.” 

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction,” he writes. 

There’s much in his essay to ponder on this day of commemoration. Here are Doctor King’s words, as published in Morehouse’s Maroon Tiger. (Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute

“The Purpose of Education” by MLK 

As I engage in the so-called “bull sessions” around and about the school, I too often find that most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the “brethren” think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end. 

It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life. 

The Morass of Propaganda 

Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. 

Critical Thinking 

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. 

The late Eugene Talmadge, in my opinion, possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America. Moreover, he wore the Phi Beta Kappa key. By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively; yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated? 

Intelligence Plus Character 

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living. 

If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, “brethren!” Be careful, teachers! 

A Day for Reflection 

As a reminder of the times in which Doctor King was writing, it would be another seven years before the US Supreme Court would declare school segregation unconstitutional in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Jim Crow era was still very much in full swing.  

Black schools and their white counterparts were separate, but clearly not equal. It would soon become clear that education would be a critical component in the fight for civil rights.  

As we celebrate Doctor King’s birthday today, we remember his immeasurable contribution to our country and to humanity. Now is a good time to reflect on his early essay, what it would have meant to people reading at the time—and what it means for people who work in education today.  

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