Higher Education for What?

I ended last semester with this question on my mind: “Higher education for what?” As I watched my students prepare to walk across the university stage to receive that long awaited diploma, the question provoked its way into my thoughts. Now, here again at the start of a new semester, it is demanding to be answered. Yet when I think about it a bit, it occurs to me that I have been pondering this question for more years than I can remember. You see, it all started with my dad.

kathy's dad bw 001
Peter Hernandez – Daddy

It was clear to me as a child that Daddy believed there were two worthy pursuits in life—pursuing education and cultivating a relationship with God. Though he had not finished high school, education beckoned him as a commodity of great value, if not for himself for his daughters. And even now I have a fixed image of him driving his green crown Toyota taxi, with a silver angel on the bonnet, back and forth from Sangre Grande to Matura, or up and down Ojoe Road, accepting crumpled dollar bills and loose change, gathering them all up into precious investment bundles which would one day yield the academic fruits of this aspiring blogger.

It saddens me that he died before we could celebrate in our characteristic way. Perhaps, both of us sitting in the gallery, he on his makeshift stool, and I on the banister, looking out at the road and cars going by, and intermittently calling out greetings to neighbors on the street, as he asked me questions about my professors, and courses and what it was like to live abroad. And I would paint pictures for him about American life and foods, and smog and snow and places he had never been. Ah, to think of it now, still makes my eyes water.

I am convinced that this investment in my education was for him one of his great life accomplishments. For when I do make it back home for visits, family friends and people I don’t even know come up to me and say how he would corner them in some quiet spot at the market or grocery store and tell them in that easy on the ear Trini twang: “Cathian at U—nee-ver–sity now, yuh know! Doin’ ah Doc-tah-rate in som’ ting or de other!” And he would be smiling broadly.

I was compelled to call forth this memory from the treasured spot where I keep all such recollections of Daddy after an encounter last semester. One of my graduate students sought me out after class to tell me of his plans to pursue a terminal degree. He spoke with a passion that was contagious! I was excited for him, especially since I meet so few African American men in the academy.  So I asked, “What do you intend to do with it?” He shrugged his shoulder and said with great certainty, “I just want a Ph.D! Do you need to have a reason to want a BMW? No! Well, I want a Ph.D. It will be my Bulls**t card! So I can finally say what I want to say and be heard!”

WOW!

Since then I have reflected on that response. Though at the time I was tempted to dismiss it as superficial, the more I have thought about it, the more I understand that young man’s desire.  The reality is that for a man or woman with a black or brown paint job in US society, credentials are needed to earn you a place at the table and EVEN then, you might have to claw and fight to be accepted as having a credible voice. But that’s another story, and deserving of a separate discussion.

In response to the question at hand: “Higher education for what?”,  I recognize that the young man’s aspiration and my father’s hope for his daughters are connected by a common thread. The pursuit of education offers the possibility of an elevated status in life especially for those who have in some way been marginalized; education presents tangible rewards. After all, I am not ashamed to admit that during my last years at Temple University, the thing that most  moved me forward to completing that terminal degree was the image of me wearing that beautiful cherry colored robe and the big poufy hat. Yes, the hat! Me!  This sun-ripened, pan-hoop playing, marble-pitching, water-toting, guava-tree-climbing girl! Me! That girl! The taxi driver’s daughter from Quash Trace in Sandi Grande, ah U—nee-ver—sity graduate! ME!!

Oh yes, the tangibles!! They do matter!

deans and me_2
The Cherry Robe & Big Poufy Hat – 2005

But after that what? What about the intangibles? What is the real value and purpose of education in our increasingly technological but still troubled age? Now, I will admit that this question is a deeply philosophical one, and worthy of a more erudite discussion. Yet, in this blog space which is intentionally informal and personal, I wish to share some of the hopes in my heart for my students and the younger version of myself –hopes for the intangible rewards of education.

I hope that my students have been rewarded with an appreciation for deep versus superficial learning. I hope they recognize that having a 4.0 on a transcript means diddly squat, if they have not learned the content in a way that improves their knowledge, skills and attitudes to enable them to offer their best service to world. Sadly, over the years, I have met too many students who did not get that. They were too intent on doing what was needed to pass the test, to make the grade–but the learning had not changed them personally and professionally—had not touched them deeply. That pseudo learning is anathema to education.

kiki and me
Celebrating with Kiki — 2014

I hope that my students have learned that the ultimate benefits from education are derived from ongoing learning. This is not a one shot deal. In fact, the more I learn the more I realize how little I know. After all, a Master’s degree or a Doctoral degree  only means that you have begun to study a topic, within a topic, that is as slippery as a fish and metamorphoses as it is shaped by societal and other forces. How humbling! Much of what we know today is quickly becoming irrelevant or obsolete. But what will remain with us is the skill to continue learning so that we can address problems that are yet to be defined.

I hope that my students will be rewarded with a critical mind–to question old ways and patterns of doing things and in doing so have the courage to fight against injustice. Perhaps, James Baldwin has said it best: “The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. …To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions…, to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk” (A Talk to Teachers, 1963).

tafia and me
Celebrating with Tafia — 2014

The world is in need of men and women who have been educated to this end—to tackle some of the hard questions and problems of our time: how to deal with systemic discrimination, homelessness, poverty, broken judicial systems, corrupt political systems, untenable economic systems, inequitable educational opportunities to the most vulnerable populations, global warming, incurable diseases, moral decay…. How will your education help you to take your place  in the world? What will you do? What  will I do to help?

So to my students in pursuit of that Bullsh**t card, and to the younger version of myself who longed to wear that beautiful robe and the poufy hat, I say this: “What you probably don’t know is that the robe is heavy–for it is lined with the weight of great responsibilities– responsibilities to our God, to ourselves, to those who have invested in us, and to the waiting world.”

My response to all, and certainly to my dad is this: “I promise to wear that robe well!”