Tilghman: Education the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

Hank Aaron acknowledges the crowd at Princeton University's 264th annual commencement today. (photo courtesy of Princeton University, Office of Communications)

PRINCETON BOROUGH –  During a commencement ceremony in which baseball legend Hank Aaron was honored, Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman called on graduates yesterday to support and strengthen the nation’s public education system.

Echoing the words of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Tilghman said unequal access to an excellent education is the civil rights issue of our time.

“I find it deeply paradoxical that the United States has, without question, the finest colleges and universities in the world but a K-12 education system that is leaving vast numbers of students behind” she said, noting that one in four students drops out of high school or fails to complete school on time in the U.S., a rate above the average of many other developed countries.

“What is worrisome about these data, which have been replicated in study after study, is that the relative performance of U.S. students has been steadily declining over the past quarter century,” Tilghman said. “What is downright distressing is the fact that a student’s chances of being in the bottom quartile and never finishing high school are almost entirely determined by his or her family circumstances. Just consider the fact that the best predictor of SAT score is family income.”

The relationship between family income and education raises fundamental questions of social justice, Tilghman said, undermining the premise the country was founded on, that all men and women are created equal.

“Without good education available to all there cannot be equality, and the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence cannot be effectively pursued in the 21st century or any other century for that matter,” she said, quoting Horace Mann, the father of the U.S. public education system, who called education “the great equalizer of the conditions of men.”

She argued the nation has a self-interest in ensuring all children receive a good education, asserting that as the economy moves to a “knowledge or information economy”, it is going to become impossible to earn a living without a good high school education. She also stressed that he U.S. needs to better educate its students to be prosperous and compete in the global economy with countries like China,.

“A permanent underclass that lives without opportunity or hope will be a chronic drag on the economy and a potential source of social unrest,” she said, contrasting the present with the past, when children could have access to a better life through education if their parents worked hard.

Lifting up the achievements of Princeton alumni like Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, Tilghman said even if graduates to not go in to fields like education, they can still make a difference in their own communities.

“All of you will be citizens of cities, suburbs, towns and hamlets that will depend on their public schools for their future prosperity, and all of you will be able to find ways to devote some of your time and talents to raising both their sights and their levels of achievement,” she said.  “Your pledge today to demand that those schools serve all their students well, not just the lucky ones like you, could make all the difference in the world.”

The ceremony was attended by an estimated 7,500 visitors. The school awarded degrees to more than 1,200 undergraduates and 815 graduate students.

Aaron received a standing ovation from the crowd for his achievements in baseball and for “confronting of racism with quiet dignity” as one of the first black players in the major leagues after the sport was integrated.

Five others received honorary degrees: Geoffrey Canada, champion for children in Harlem; Susan Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor of the University of California-San Francisco; Charles Gillispie, Princeton’s Dayton Stockton Professor of History Emeritus; Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; and Princeton alumnus and trustee Robert Rawson, Jr.