Does inflation irritate you? Do you every think about how to protect yourself against it? After all, it is constantly on the move creeping up all around us. Even with the massive market correction in housing in the past decade, the U.S. government reports a 357% increase in the average price of a home from 1980 ($ 76,400) to 2010 ($ 272,900) (1). That statistic far outpaces the 165% cumulative inflation rate the U.S. has experienced over that same period (2).
If you think housing was bad, consider the massive increase in education costs. The NationalCenter for Education Statistics reports that the average cost to attend one year of a 4-year college in 1980 was $ 3,499. Jump ahead to 2010 and the average cost shoots up over $22,000—an incredible 631% increase in cost! With the exception of healthcare, very few items can keep pace with inflation in higher education. If a stock increased 631% over that same period, investors would be ecstatic, but can the education sector boast such a dramatic return on investment? And let’s get away from the dollars and cents return. Is America fundamentally sounder because of the training it’s giving the rising generation? Put another way, is post-secondary education merely about opening a door to making some money or are we preparing a generation to think, create, improve, uplift and promote freedom? This question must be asked in determining the true value of our own education and that of our educational system.
Years ago a man seeking investment advice from a wealthy Benjamin Franklin received a surprising answer. Franklin responded that the best return would be realized by investing in himself. He went on to emphasize that an investment in his own education could always be called upon and never lost. Even though his formal schooling ended at age 10, Franklin realized that the gateway to success was knowledge and personal development. Thus, he poured time and money first and foremost into a self-directed education and his list of accomplishments seems never ending.
Another figure who recognized the power of a self-directed education was Booker T. Washington, a black slave born in Virginia at a time when state laws prohibited the education of slaves. That state, reacting to an insurrection among the slaves, realized that an educated slave was more apt to think and fight for his freedom. As a result they reasoned that controlling their education was the best approach to controlling their behavior—just ponder that statement for a minute
As a boy slave, Washington recalls sleeping on a pallet of dirty rags with his siblings in a cabin on a southern farm. He received little attention from his mother who was literally enslaved in household work from early in the morning to late at night. His chores were relatively light, but he dreaded one chore above all others—taking the corn three miles to the mill. During the long haul the corn would often shift and fall from the horse’s back. Helpless to reload the heavy bag himself, long hours would pass as he waited for a willing passerby to do it for him. With each passing moment, fear of the return trip in the dark and the flogging he would receive for his tardiness drove him to tears.
Though he had no schooling as a slave, he relates an experience that sent a charge of inspiration through his body that he could hardly understand at the time. Carrying the books for his mistresses to the schoolhouse one day, he recalls being mesmerized by the sight of “several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study…I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.” (3) Not long after this at age 9, a Union Soldier entered the home of his owners and read a piece of paper declaring the slaves free. Overcome by emotion, his mother’s eyes filled with tears that wet his cheek as she kissed him and thanked God for this day of deliverance that she had long prayed for.
However, their rejoicing quickly turned to somberness as the full weight of independence rested squarely on the shoulders of families who had never made decisions for themselves. W.E.B. DuBois sums up the former slaves plight as follows, “[He] felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”
Under those conditions Booker walked hundreds of miles to West Virginia to unite with his step-father. There he labored first as a salt packer, then as a coal minor before taking a job as the house boy for the mine owner, Lewis Ruffner. Mrs. Ruffner slowly warmed to the boy and began teaching him to read and write. There the spark he felt years earlier when staring at the one-room schoolhouse roared into an unquenchable burning passion to become deeply and widely educated. In 1872 at the age of 16, Washington left his employment to pursue his dream to expand his mind and enlighten others. He walked over 500 miles to Hampton Institute where he met his mentor and friend, Former Union Army General, Samuel Armstrong, who would have a profound influence on shaping his life. Together they took on the education of slaves and the goal of helping them learn self-reliance, industry and much more. Within three years he had earned his BA and began a teaching career.
When all was said and done, Booker’s passion for learning drove him to earn advanced degrees from Wayland Seminary, Harvard and Dartmouth. He became a powerful speaker and educator whose advice was sought for by President Theodore Roosevelt. He dined with presidents, had tea with Queen Victoria in London, spent time with wealthy philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, and was able to create TuskegeeCollege for the education of black people in America. By 1915, he had taken it from a school which met in a rural black church to a prominent institution with over 60 buildings and a 3 million dollar endowment.
Washington embodies the qualities of greatness and the value of pursuing knowledge and wisdom. From a spark of inspiration, he disciplined himself to pursue his passion for education and in the process empowered countless former slaves to develop the capacity to live free. You see, a piece of paper can’t do that for you, me or our children. No, not even a degree that costs $100,000 can do that. Only a freedom education can empower our country today to enjoy the true benefits of freedom. So what is the value of your education and are you willing to really invest in yourself today in spite of or maybe in addition to the formal education so many us receive and package up never to be used again? If you would be free, dust off your thinking caps! Read a book because you want to. Turn off your TV and turn on your brain. For we will either discipline ourselves in this fashion…or someone else most certainly will.
3. Washington, Booker T. Autobiography: Up From Slavery; The Penguin Group, NY, NY, 1986.