January 30, 2007

'60s Leader Seeks Change

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To Robert Parris Moses, the best way to get people actively involved in the fight for educational equality is not to lecture them on the issue at hand. He believes that we must “think of ourselves as we, the people” to whom the constitution gives ultimate power, enabling us “have a national conversation.”

Accordingly, Moses turned his Monday night lecture “Equity and Excellence: Quality Education as a Civil Right,” into a “workshop.”

Cornell President David Skorton introduced the distinguished civil rights activist and mathematics educator and served as moderator for the active discussion that followed. Moses’ appearance was his first on the Cornell campus as the Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor. Moses will reside in Alice Cook House on West Campus, giving Cornell students the opportunity to interact with a distinguished educator.

Despite Moses’ considerable achievements in civil rights, which include his service as field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and as co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations, an organization that oversaw many prominent civil rights groups in Mississippi from 1960 to 1966, he did not come to Cornell to preach about how students should institute educational equality.

Rather, he provoked discussion after reading the preamble from the United States constitution.

“We are signing a contract now,” Moses said as he opened the floor. “Think about what you want to share with each other. I know it is difficult. We do not have a tradition in our country of standing up in a public place and taking a public position about public issues.”

Moses asked participants in the workshop to discuss whether or not the government should “establish a constitutional right to a quality education for every child in the United States.” The audience addressed various issues, including whether or not education should be privatized and whether or not a constitutional amendment guaranteeing educational equality could actually be supported.

Numerous Cornell students, both undergraduates and graduates, took to the microphones to voice their concerns about the state of education in America. For instance, Kendra Chatburn ’10 discussed her experience being homeschooled and encouraged those in the audience to “have the confidence to take our education into our own hands.”

In addition to Cornell faculty, Ithaca community members, students and staff also made their voices heard. Jacqueline Melton Scott, teacher at local Beverly J. Martin Middle School and Professor at Cortland University, equated the “tool of education” with a “tool of empowerment.” Scott stressed that in our current education, students “can’t think.”

“Teachers themselves are taught to regurgitate what their teachers say,” said Scott, and subsequently they teach their students to repeat lessons rather than practice “critical thinking.”

Middle school teacher Leah Granacki painted a picture of a system that has failed students in impoverished districts. She described an experience she had with a student she tutored in the Tompkins County Louis Gossett Jr. Residential Center, a youth detention facility. Granacki said, “He told me ‘this doesn’t matter because even if I get my GRE, I’m gonna end up in the same place.’ And I couldn’t tell him he was wrong.”

Granacki’s anecdote addressed an important theme that recurred throughout the conversation: That public schools consistently fail to educate and empower students because the government is unwilling to provide poor students with the means to improve their economic conditions.

Gail Patrice Lockert Anthony also contributed a poignant anecdote. She discussed her mother’s progression from a high school dropout to a Ph.D. holding graduate of Pepperdine and Claremont Colleges. “She did that almost single-handedly,” said Lockert Anthony. Lockert Anthony’s story stressed the importance of of making educational equality a reality. “If we’re going to have a constitutional amendment that assures a fundamental right to education, we have to get off our butts and act like we want it,” she said.

To wrap up the workshop, Moses described the action currently being taken to achieve educational equality. “There is a legal struggle going on,” said Moses. “But we already have what we need in the constitution.”

Moses referred to the Fourteenth Amendment’s “guarantee of national citizenship” to all Americans. To Moses, education is an implicit right of citizenship, and is an “unmet duty of Congress.”

In his concluding remarks, Moses urged his audience to help bring about a “groundswell in communities to act on our democracy,” and relayed the message that education is necessary to “make choices in one’s life and to fulfill one’s potential.”

Moses was born in Harlem and educated at Hamilton and Harvard. His achievements in American civil rights include the founding of the Algebra Project, a program geared toward increasing math literacy in schools in order “to breakdown racial and economic barriers,” as Skorton described.

The Project began in Brooklyn-area schools and grew to its present size as a nation-wide program. It started in 1982 with the aid of a five-year “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

During this time, Moses helped organize the Freedom Riders, a group that defied the restrictive Jim Crow laws implemented in the South, and the Freedom Summer project, an initiative to make voter registration available to black citizens.

Moses’ affiliation with these groups ended in 1966, when his disagreement with the Vietnam War caused him to emigrate from the United States and teach mathematics in Tanzania. Moses returned to the United States in 1977 and continued his work as an educator and as a civil rights advocate.

He received numerous honors, including the War Registers League Peace Award in 1997 and the Mary Chase Smith Award for American Democracy in 2002.