“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character” – Martin Luther King, addressing the people who had marched on Washington for “jobs and freedom” on 28th August 1963.
Martin Luther King spoke of freedom, peace, respect, justice, liberty and repeatedly said “now is the time”.
I have a dream too. I have a dream that all children, my own included, won’t be judged by the colour of their skin, or their intellectual ability, or their physical prowess, or their accent or dialect, or how they ‘perform’ in standardised tests. I have a dream that all children, my own included, will be “judged” by the content of their character.
We’re fifty years on from that famous speech and precisely how far have we come in enabling the generations of young people subsequent to this piece of oratorical brilliance to be judged by the content of their character? Are our children yet free? Is there justice for all? Is there an acknowledgement that we are all equal to the point that each and every one of us has the same opportunity to follow our own dreams, and discover our element?
Fifty years on, and what precisely are our schools doing to develop the content of a child’s character? How do they develop a child’s freedom of expression? How can our schools encourage the development of all of a person’s intelligences? Is there justice in our education system?
Those key words of freedom, justice and character are as important and relevant now as they were fifty years ago.
“Now” was the time many years ago, but now is definitely the time for us to consider what we want for our children and young people. For me, this is an excellent starting point: to consider whether Martin Luther King’s dream of all children being judged by the “content of their character” is anywhere near to being realised.
We’re fifty years on from that famous speech. A key passage is “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the rights of freedom and the security of justice.”
If we continue to ignore the injustices that are staring us in the face, then we’ll never accomplish the goals that were so eloquently spoken of on this day half a century ago. In this country too, we need to look at whether we are truly democratic, whether we truly embrace the right to freedom, and whether we offer all of our young people the justice that will enable them to live life well. Providing an education that judges them at the ages of 7, 11, 16 and 18 by their intellectual capacity or exam-passing ability alone is just plain wrong – and is not part of my dream.
Over the past two weeks my own children have received their A-Level and GCSE results. They are fortunate souls. They have innate capabilities that have made passing examinations relatively easy. They have been successful and achieved exceptionally good results. There were times in the past when I was concerned they wouldn’t fulfil their intellectual potential because both of them, by their own admission, are somewhat reluctant to study formally.
However, they both have a love of learning, which is worth more than any A* grade. Both of them have been brought up to appreciate that their education in school is a mere fraction of the potential learning in their own free time. Their rooms are full of books, of computers, of games, with Internet access that enables them to choose where they take their curiosity and their learning.
A fortnight ago, my youngest child and I sat in a park at midnight watching the Perseid meteor shower. It was an incredible moment when we both acknowledged, silently and also conversationally, the vastness and brilliance of the universe. His learning that night was factual but more importantly experiential. He felt something. He learned through that feeling. He may well have returned to the computer to look at the progression of the meteor shower and to discover for himself how and why this phenomenon takes place, but it was enough for him to experience it.
Last weekend, we visited the beaches of Normandy and the war graves of the Somme. My eldest son, who’s about to go off to university to study History, was mesmerised by the monuments at Thiepval. He’d have been happy to spend a whole day investigating and experiencing what this incredibly poignant place has to offer.
The reason that I’m using these examples is that I’m as ‘proud’ (if that’s the right word) of their responses to these experiences as I am of the ‘A’ grades they received in their public examinations – because it was in this unplanned, informal and individual learning that they really showed their character. It was in these two moments of experiential learning that they demonstrated their empathy, their curiosity, their ability to see worth in humanity, their ability to recognise true beauty and their ability to talk, to listen, to think . . . and to cease from thinking in order to register feelings and emotions.
My children are fortunate to be taken to places where they can have these experiences. There is injustice in too many children not being afforded these wonderful opportunities, which makes the case even stronger for our universal centres of learning – our schools – to ensure that young people are given wider opportunities to think, feel, imagine, create, and learn freely.
Freedom to do all of these things is vital. Martin Luther King demonstrated it all within the delivery of this speech himself. He’d had the speech planned, written down, checked by the speech writers and was ready to read it from the paper in front of him. It wasn’t until the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson heckled him from the stage to “tell them about the dream” that he went “off piste” and delivered that part of the speech that has been heard, remembered and embraced throughout the world: I have a dream.
That part of the speech wasn’t written for him. According to Clarence Jones, a collaborator on the writing of the speech, the “dream” section was completely spontaneous. Prior to this, King was reading from his papers. His passion, the strength of his feeling, was more evident when he wasn’t working from the script.
And so it is with learning. We will never accomplish the dream of developing and enabling every child’s true “character” if we stymie them, if we hold them to the script and if we continue to judge them – not on their ability to be good and worthy human beings, but by how well they did in their exams and whether they managed to get into a Russell group university.
My dream ends with people not being judged at all. Maybe it’s too much to hope for, but I strongly believe that we need to free children to learn as individuals and through this we can offer them the chance to develop their characters, their individuality, and all of their intelligences.
It may be a naïve and idealistic dream but if anyone is going to judge my children then I sincerely hope it will be on the content of their character – first and foremost.
Now is the time.