It’s well known and widely appreciated that [historically Black Colleges and Universities] have graduated many military officers, physicians, teachers, attorneys, judges, ambassadors, business executives. In fact, reports show that an impressive percentage of Black college graduates in America come from historically Black colleges and universities: 35 percent of Black lawyers, 50 percent of Black engineers, 65 percent of physicians, 80 percent of Black judges and more than 80 percent of Black teachers are graduates of historically Black colleges and universities. The value of these great universities is indisputable. America needs to ask itself what this country would be like if [HBCU] graduates had not been provided with the quality of education that they got.
So it’s undisputed that HBCUs have a proud and distinguished history. And we owe this honor to the men and women who preceded us and who provided this leadership and this success. They faced the hardship of their day and paid the price, whatever it was, stayed the course, won the battle. And now they’ve handed off the baton to a new generation of leaders who will face new problems and new obstacles and new challenges and new questions. And so the question today is not “Is there a proud history of HBCUs?” The big question is, “What is our future?” That’s the big question.
But the trump card we have is you. You are the answer to that question, you and I… But we have to do things differently. We can’t go speeding into the future looking through a rearview mirror. I quote Walter Lippmann here: “Those born today are born into a world in which the foundations of the old order [that] survived only as habits are about to fall. Scientific invention and blind social currents have made the past authority impossible.” I’m going to reinforce that with a statement from Woodrow Wilson in 1912: “There is one great fact which underlies all the questions that are discussed in the political platform of the present moment. The single fact is nothing is done in this country as it was done 20 years ago. We are in the presence of a new organization of society. Our lives have broken away from the past. The life of America is not the life it was 20 years ago. We’ve changed our economic conditions absolutely from the past, from bottom to top, and with our economic society the organization of life now is different. The old political formulas don’t fit the present problems. They read like a document taken from a forgotten age.”
The proposition I put before you today is leadership matters and you are the leaders. You are the designers of our well-being at a time when we need it, at a time when African-American students are at a disadvantage in terms of their performance on every standardized measure in education you can name. This is a time for great leadership to deal with a doable problem, one that can be fixed by persistence and work. The proposition I put today is leadership matters, and the question I put is what is our future?
Allow me to make a suggestion. I believe our future can be found in our past. The great business book by Jim Collins entitled Good to Great points out a question that every successful enterprise has put before [itself] and answered. And that question is what can we do to be the best in the world at? What is it that we can lead the world in? Now, I know that some people don’t like to ask questions like that. They’d rather just be good, and you are good. But I take my religion from Mr. Collins and did it some time ago, and I think “good” is the enemy of great. Good is satisfying, good is comfortable, restful even. But to be great is painful and it hurts. That’s why there are so few great things. But we can be great. You know what I think that we can be the best in the world at? I think we could be best in the world at preparing teachers to teach children who need the greatest teachers. We can be the best in the world at that. And we’ve already got a head start. This is an area where Black colleges and universities can lead the world and that is in preparing teachers who can excel in teaching children who need great teachers.
So I would argue that our future is in our past. This is not an argument about doing all those other things. I know some of you are going to be great in technology. But you’re never going to be an MIT. This one the world can match you in. Be good in engineering. Be great in preparing teachers.
Roderick R. Paige, Ph.D., the first African-America to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education (2001-2005), is chairman of Chartwell Education Group L.L.C. The above remarks are excerpted from his speech at the National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference in Washington, D.C., in September 2002.
By Roderick R. Paige, Ph.D.