MAXWELL:  Listen up, parents: Learning is free

4/1/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Several weeks ago, I wrote that parents should be more responsible for their children’s academic lives. The column was aimed mainly at black parents because of the high number of black children performing poorly and disrupting classes.

Needless to say, and as I had anticipated, I received many angry letters and telephone calls from blacks who misunderstood me. Today’s column is an attempt to expand on the notion of learning so as to clear up some of that misunderstanding.

All parents, especially black parents, should know this well-kept secret, one of the most important truths in the world: Learning is free. I repeat: LEARNING IS FREE.

Education _ the formal process of attending classes at an institution, completing assignments and taking examinations to earn a diploma, degree or certificate _ costs money. But learning _ the individual act of acquiring information, knowledge and wisdom _ is free. When prison inmates discover this truth, even their lives often improve.

When I suggest that parents should do more at home to enable their children to benefit from the daily school experience, I am talking about inculcating a love of learning in their children.

To learn is to comprehend, to apprehend. It is to find a comfortable chair in the library, the best corner of your bed, a cool spot under a tree. It is to become excited _ marveling over the beauty of a poem, accompanying Holden Caulfield as he confronts the world of adult “phonies,” struggling to decipher an incomprehensible algebraic equation, discovering real connections between abolitionist newspapers and the Civil War, seeing why Americans celebrated John Glenn and Project Mercury.

In other words, no one else has to be there for a child to learn if the love of learning has been instilled.

During the rare times that I speak to black groups, I like to discuss the lives of our forebears, many of whom were slaves, who suffered the unforgivable sin of being prohibited by law from learning to read. I like to discuss how _ without an official school or an official teacher _ they learned to read and write and compute by stealing precious moments in hideaways.

Tens of thousands of slaves and later generations of blacks liberated their bodies and minds through learning. Today, too many of us enslave our bodies and minds by refusing to learn.

Think, for example, of famous Floridians such as Josiah Walls. Born in Virginia in 1842, he fought for the Union, moved to Archer and cut down trees for a living. He learned to read at night, thus launching his extraordinary career in politics.

As more blacks in Alachua County registered to vote, they saw the need to have their own representative. In 1867, Walls went to Tallahassee as a delegate to the state Republican Convention. The next year, he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, and to the state Senate the following year. Three years later, he was elected to the U.S. House, an office he held until 1876. In 1873, he bought the New Era newspaper in Gainesville, the first African-American-owned newspaper in Florida.

Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, is equally as inspiring. Born in 1875 on a 5-acre farm that her father and mother, former slaves, sharecropped, she was one of 16 children. As a young child, she carried a book around and pretended to read.

“She wanted to go to school to learn how to read more than anything in the world,” writes historian Maxine Jones. “But Mary’s family was poor, and none of her older brothers and sisters attended school. She begged and begged until finally her mother agreed to let her go to the mission school. . . . This was the beginning of a life devoted to learning and to teaching others.”

Presidents Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt appointed her to important positions. Today, Bethune-Cookman, her greatest legacy, is one of the best black colleges in the nation, a place where thousands of African-Americans, including me, have been inspired to learn.

I could list hundreds of other blacks, untold numbers right here in St. Petersburg, who understand that learning is free, that it is for the taking. But I will not. I will say, however, that more parents need to understand this simple truth and act on it.

Indeed, racism is a serious problem that disrupts the process of education, as I have defined it. But racism cannot stop black children who love to learn from learning. In fact, racism should be a great incentive to want to learn. Why? Because learning is the only sure way to free ourselves of racism’s power to make us permanent victims.