MAXWELL: LEARNING IS FREE
1/21/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

In the first two parts of this series on black schoolchildren and closing the achievement gap, I discussed the importance of effective parenting and discipline.
For this final installment, I revisit a truth that I argued in this newspaper several years ago. It is a truth that most middle- to-upper-class white parents take for granted and act on: Learning is free.
If black parents could grasp this simple, enduring and universal truth and then act on it positively, they could help our public schools radically improve the academic lives of their children.
Let me explain. Education – the formal process of attending classes at an institution, completing assignments and taking examinations to earn a diploma, degree or certificate – can be cost-prohibitive. It also can be out of reach for many people because their low test scores and other measures of performance bar them from admission.
Learning, however – the individual act of acquiring information, knowledge and wisdom – does not cost one penny and is accessible anywhere and everywhere.
Let me use an extreme example to illustrate how learning is free and universally accessible. During the 1980s, I taught reading and English at Florida State Prison on a wing for inmates banished from the general population. Some were lifers, and they read every book I brought to them. In fact, a few read voraciously. They asked questions. They wrote essays.
Although some would never use their knowledge in the outside world, they learned nonetheless. And they enjoyed learning. As a result, their intellectual lives were enriched behind bars.
When I suggest that black parents should do more at home to enable their children to benefit from the daily school experience, I am talking about inculcating and nurturing a love of learning. I am not talking about punishment.
To learn is to apprehend the intrinsic value of knowledge and wisdom.
It is to read a book for pleasure in a cool spot under a tree, under an umbrella on a beach or under the covers of your bed. It is just that simple. It is appreciating the imagery of a poem about nature. It is struggling to decipher a seemingly incomprehensible algebraic fraction just for fun. It is sincerely weighing the arguments between creationists and evolutionists. It is watching the Discovery Channel and the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel one hour a week. It is reading one newspaper a day. It is reading the cover story of a weekly news magazine.
Learning is just that simple. No one else has to be present for a child to learn if the love of learning is a natural part of a child’s life.
I speak from personal experience. Neither of my parents graduated from high school, but they understood the inherent value of reading. As a maid in several Fort Lauderdale hotels and motels, my mother would bring home discarded magazines, newspapers and books. My father was a garbage man for a short time, and he would bring home every book he found that was in good condition. He failed me as a father in many other ways, but he was an avid reader, and I emulated him.
If parents are to instill in their children the love of learning, they first must change themselves. They must do a paradigm shift, as it were. They must change their attitudes toward learning and embrace the efficacy of intellectual achievement.
Above all else, they should never tolerate the self-destructive canard that “being smart is acting white.”
I always have believed that for the benefit of society at large, every caring school district should establish evening courses that introduce parents whose children are not achieving to the concept and practice of inculcating the love of learning.
These parents can be taught that learning is an essential family value that can be instilled around the dinner table and on the living room couch. Fancy and expensive gadgets are unnecessary.
I know that racism is a serious problem that can disrupt and even prevent education as I defined it above. But racism cannot stop the intellectual maturation of children who possess a love of learning. Racism should, in fact, be the strongest motivation to learn.
Learning – which is free – can lead to the acquisition of a formal education, and formal education can put black children from backgrounds of poverty on the path to freedom and success.