Last weekend, I attended the 2016 Black Biomedical Technical Association Conference entitled “Disparities in Access and Distribution of Healthcare.” The conference showcased phenomenal M.Ds, Ph.Ds, D.Os and public health leaders from across the country and united students from all across N.Y. state. During my time there I decided to listen in on a workshop called “Case Study” with John P. Mitchell, M.D., Arts ’69, one of the numerous speakers at the gathering. The talk was geared towards students on the medical track. However, halfway through the presentation the profile of a real anonymous student popped up. The Cornellian was an underclassman deciding on what he wanted to major in. I smiled as I saw among the top choices on the list were the words, “Africana Studies Major.” The panel of speakers then proceeded to assert that being a pre-medical student and being an Africana major is beneficial and looked favorably upon when applying to medical school. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to major in human biology health and society, chemistry or biology in order to be pre-med. For once I was impressed that someone acknowledged the versatility of the major, and that one can still keep one’s agency.
In his speech on the purpose of education, Martin Luther King Jr. remarked, “The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” I believe King’s philosophy was revolutionary for his era because it theorized education as more than just a singular endeavor. His ideal challenged the idea that the degree you receive should translate into a strictly financial actualization that goes up and down during the turn of the markets. It saw education as the tool for change not only in the life of the person who receives the education but everyone who surrounds that person. It reimagines the educational curriculum as a blueprint for social change as opposed to monetary rewards. It does not have to ask the question, “How will you change the world?” because it already assumes that you have taken the first steps to changing the world and that means working on oneself. The true purpose of education becomes the catalyst for character King goes on to say, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” When EQ meets IQ, one truly gains higher education.
Too often Cornellians get stuck in the mindset that their degree is an ever appreciating and depreciating piece of paper that like the dollar, rises and falls with the market. For those students in the humanities, having to answer the question, “What do you plan to do with that major?” comes with a bit of discomfort. The discomfort does not arise from not being able to give an answer, but rather an awareness that the listener has never theorized the potential of your field of study. It is a discomfort of knowing that your field of study is being implied to have less utility, applicability and real-world potential as opposed to that of another. After I became an Africana Studies major, I was met with two questions. The first was, “What college is that in?” The correct answer is the College of Arts and Sciences. The second one, “What can you do with that major?” For this, the receiver expects a simple answer, a simple truth, a simple, easy-to-digest answer that you can give them that will reveal the next 25 years of your life. Herein lies the problem.
Everyone knows days wants simple answers. However, taking more courses in your major and studying for days on end teaches you that the world is not a simple place and the largest problems of our day do not have simple answers. We cannot pill pop our way to the truth because sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes the truth requires more than just overtaking off a bandage — but undergoing surgery without anesthesia, laughing gas nor comic relief. The semester I declared my major in Africana Studies, I began to see what you gain that no money can buy from an education. I was forced to question not just how I will the change the world with my education, but what does it mean to be a critical thinker? You gain the ability to think about the theories, governing principles and invisible bylaws that govern your life and the lives of those around you. You gain the ability to look into the mirror and not be afraid of the image that looks back at you. You gain the ability to move in the direction that you believe secures a future for yourself where you are able to use the knowledge of your Ivy League education for something larger than you. You gain the vocabulary to speak out against injustice and intersectional systems of oppression. You gain the ability to craft out your own blueprint for your life, cultivating your own unique lens from which you view the world. You begin to see Africana Studies as the study of humanity and the human condition over time through philosophy, medicine, physics, cosmology, economics, gender, religion, agricultures, law and everything else in between. A true education in an institution of higher education asks more than “how will you change the world?” With a better understanding of the true purpose of education according to King, we realize that sometimes changing the world requires first growing our character.
Jeremiah Grant is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Jeremiah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gates & Ladders appears alternate Fridays this semester.