An MLK Day/University Education Thought Experiment

Education was a major part of Dr. King’s vision. He looked forward to a time when children of all races had equal opportunity to pursue their educational goals, through high school, past high school, as far as their dreams and their abilities could carry them.

Rep. John Kavanagh, on the other hand, is pushing for a “Hey, idiot, if you’re going to be a salesman, you shouldn’t waste our money by going to university” mentality in Arizona. I wrote about his jaw-dropping pronouncement Sunday, and I haven't been able to shake my disgust with his statement since. It's especially rankling on a day honoring the memory of Martin Luther King.

So I want to try a thought experiment, looking at the consequences of Kavanagh’s vision of restricting university education to people who will, in his view, make proper use of it.

Let’s imagine a group of 100 students at Catalina Foothills High, where 77% of the students are white or Asian and 6% are on free or reduced lunch. Next, imagine another group of 100 students at Pueblo High, where 95% of the students are Hispanic, Native American or Black and 79% are on free or reduced lunch. Let’s also imagine the 100 students at both schools are an identical mix of intellectual ability. To the extent that DNA determines intellect, the genetic makeup of the two groups covers the full gamut in equal proportions.

In other words, both groups have the same biological chance of being successful students at UA. They're separated by geography, family income and ethnicity, not by native ability.

Now, imagine John Kavanagh is giving separate talks to both groups. Which of them is most likely to hear this speech?

“Boys and girls, I know some of you hope to go onto college, even the University of Arizona, when you leave here. And I’m sure there are a few among you who have what it takes to succeed at UA. But I want each of you to be honest with yourself. Do you really think you’re going to need a fancy university education? You know, you can be a very successful salesperson or store clerk — even store manager! — with a high school education. And you can start earning the day you get your diploma instead of spending four tough years at UA before you begin working — and don't forget about those huge college loans you’ll be paying back for the next twenty years. Instead of that, you can take a few business training classes at community college at night to help you get that promotion while you’re pulling in a paycheck.

“Let’s be realistic. Look around you. Look at the people in your community. How many of your neighbors are doctors or lawyers or rocket scientists? Not many, right? Now ask yourself, do you have what it takes to make that giant leap from the world of your parents and your community into a university that will be far more difficult and far more time consuming than the school you’re attending now? If you’re not sure, here’s my advice to you. Get as much education as you need, work hard, raise your children with the right values, and who knows? Maybe they’ll be the ones who become the doctors and lawyers and rocket scientists of their generation.”

You think Kavanagh would give a talk like that to students in the Foothills? Not a chance. If he did, he could expect parents with buckets of tar and baskets of feathers waiting for him when he stepped out the high school's doors. Everyone knows those kids are being groomed to pursue a higher education. The sky's the limit for the children of the affluent and educated, who live among highly educated, highly paid professionals — the kind of people they're expected to be.

No, a message like that would be for the Pueblo high students, whether it was stated explicitly or laid between the lines. It's a version of the advice minority children heard in earlier generations. Don't reach above yourself. You'll only cause trouble for yourself and your community. You need to know your place if you want to live happy, healthy — and by healthy, I mean safe — productive lives.

Kavanagh's message that universities are only for students who will make good use of them is more veiled than the explicitly racist messages of the past. Its assault on minorities, and on the poor of all races and ethnicities, is more subtle. But it's exactly the kind of lowered expectations Dr. King fought against. To the extent this country has made headway in minority participation in higher education since King's death, it's in spite of people like Kavanagh.