John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Reflections Needed More Than Ever

January 18, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

John N. Gardner


I don’t really need an MLK Day to make me think of Dr. King. I think of him frequently for the impact he had on my own consciousness and life. I think of him in the 2017 national presidential election cycle especially in terms of the unfinished civil rights movement, and the fact that there surely would be no President Barack Obama were it not for the ultimate sacrifice of Martin Luther King.

In the summer of 1963, when King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, I had just finished my sophomore year in college. I didn’t know that a few months later my Presidential hero, John Kennedy, was going to be murdered. That August though, I had a summer job in Hillside, New Jersey, as a steelworker, laboring in a factory making millions of beer cans, and not a drop to drink — real torture for a red-blooded American college kid like me. On the day he made that speech, I was driving on the Garden State Parkway. I had my car radio on, and I listened to the news coverage of the demonstration and speech. As he started to speak, I knew that I was never going to hear another live speech like this again. I just couldn’t believe my ears. His words and spirit touched me like no speaker I had ever heard. I rapidly became enthralled and so for my own safety I pulled over to the shoulder, shut my engine off, and took in the speech in wonderment. I hadn’t yet begun to conceptualize that I would ever earn my own living as a public speaker, and even if I had, I would not have imagined ever being able to speak like that. And, of course, I can’t. However, he inspires me to this day.

Just five relatively short years later, with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts adopted, and the Civil Rights movement in full swing, along with the war in Vietnam, I had been drafted and then volunteered to go on active duty. I was stationed at a US Air Force base in South Carolina (as a psychiatric social worker) in April of 196\8 when Dr. King was murdered. I was scheduled to teach a class in Sociology 101 the next night in my capacity as an adjunct instructor at USC Lancaster, and I just couldn’t imagine sticking with my original game plan for that class. So, I went to the base library and checked out several of Dr. King’s works, and used the following class for an extended eulogy and exploration of his life and its significance. My eulogy consisted largely of readings I did for the students who sat there looking –some of them—shocked, others embarrassed and avoiding eye contact with me. The next week when I returned to teach that class the campus Dean met me before class to inform me that a “delegation” of students had come to see him to complain about my previous class describing me as a “N…… Lover.” I couldn’t and didn’t deny it.

Fast forward, here I am, 49 years later. As I look at my own continuing work to help colleges and universities improve first-year and transfer student success, more than anything else, I see my work as part of the continuing, unfinished, civil rights movement. This has been powerfully confirmed for me in the past few months as more and more attention has been called, rightfully so, to the institutionalization of inequality in the US. Now, once again, the whole country is talking about inequality, the 99% vs. the 1%, the myth of American upward social mobility, compounded by our myth that we are a classless society with equal opportunity for all.

I know my work was needed when I was just one, lone, classroom adjunct college instructor in a small, rural, southern, textile mill town. I am far from that now in terms of my own stature but my work is needed just as much given what we know to be the powerful inequities that remain in our society that can only be corrected by education as the primary means of upward social mobility.

There are so many examples of one person making a difference. Dr. King is about as good an example as I can think of. He inspired me then. He inspires me now

As an exercise for any of my readers who work with college students, ask them who inspires them, and think long and hard about what they tell you. This year, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, would be a great time for such a discussion.



John N. Gardner


For many of us on Inauguration Day 2017 it was just impossible to resist comparisons of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Different men, different times, different contexts, different speakers. I wonder, wouldn’t even want to venture a guess, what percent of our country’s college students actually heard/saw the address live. Sadly, I suspect very few relatively. And if they had/did, did they know what they were hearing that might be significant? I hope some of us have been talking about this with them.

I had been in college two years when I heard, live, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. I remember where I was, time of day, what I was doing. Really quite simple. I was in New Jersey in August of 1963, driving to a second shift job in a factory that made beer and soda cans. Millions of cans and not a drop to drink. A real torture for a 19-year-old college kid like me. I was a unionized steelworker, who didn’t know what he wanted to major in at the end of his sophomore year, let alone what he wanted to do in life. But I knew what I didn’t want to do: work the rest of my life in that plant. It was a character building experience that had been arranged for me by my father. The older I get the smarter he gets. And he has been deceased for 35 years.

I was working for the first time in my life in a very multi-racial/ethnic environment.  I was a child of privilege who was dropped into an ideal learning setting.  I was learning that even though I thought the plant’s jobs were incredibly monotonous, they were nevertheless the ticket to good middleclass incomes and lifestyles for my fellow workers. They were lucky to have them. And I was happy for them. America was then in the business, unlike now, of growing its middle class. I knew there was going to be a march that least had a car a simple radio, good enough to catch Reverend King’s speech live as I drove on the Garden State Parkway. After few paragraphs into the speech, I knew that I had never heard anything like this in my life. So I pulled over on the shoulder and put my flasher on. In my best of college lecture classes, I had finally grown up enough to be a very active, focused listener to some really good stuff that would stimulate my thinking if only I let it. But this speech was something else. I had never heard anything like it. Not even President Kennedy’s Inaugural, which I had also heard, when I was a senior in high school. Not only how it was being delivered, but what was being said. I shall never forget that day. While I couldn’t fully anticipate the contribution the speech would make—how it would increase the momentum to pass the Civil Rights Bill one year later, and the Voting Rights and Higher Education Acts two years later, I knew enough to know that it was going to be a game changer for our country. And so what are our students thinking about what they heard in this Inaugural? I hope you are helping them think that through. How are they trying to connect the words to what may unfold for them? What difference might it make for them if we developed a more humane policy towards immigration? Do they want to see Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security preserved, modified? Are they regretful there was no mention of the national debt as the Republicans have lamented? Did it strike them as significant to hear a US president reference explicitly our fellow citizens who are “gay”? Did the speech strike them as an unapologetic, even uncompromising exposition of liberalism? So many questions they could be asking. So many things for them to be thinking about. We are helping them, I hope.

If I were 19 again, and had heard the speech just two days ago, would it have implanted itself in a way that I would remember it 39 years later? I am not sure. But I know that after two years of college, the college experience had already better prepare me to know that what I was hearing was really something special. I am thankful we now celebrate the birthday of this great American. Many of our students cannot remember a time when we didn’t, let alone the resistance to doing so. And that is another indicator, that resistance or not, America is changing, ready or not. We need to help our students be more than ready.


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