The Legacy of Education: Walking in the Dream

Pervis Thomas, Jr., Managing Director and Chief Investment Officer of Shell Oil Company, was the keynote speaker for a ceremony on Martin Luther King Day.


As we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King today, we should remember that his dream was that all people – black, white, brown – would one day have the opportunity to realize the American Dream.

Dr. King, in his eloquence, and his heroism, moved and inspired a nation to uphold the pledge “liberty and justice for all”. He dedicated his life so that all Americans may share in the promise of this great land. And what is that promise? It is freedom, the right to choose the direction of your life without restriction or limitation and to live it to your potential.

Dr. King challenged America to keep that promise! His legacy–and our challenge–is to make the most of that opportunity. For many, education is the path to that promise and fulfillment.

Throughout my career, I have continually emphasized the importance of continuing education to minority high school and college students. They seem most impressed by the fact that I am speaking from experience.

I often ask these young people in high school what they hope to do with their lives. What do they imagine for themselves when they are thirty years old, forty, fifty? And what can they really expect without an education?

Getting that diploma opened doors for me including the chance to continue my education. And college presented me with more choices and more opportunities. Education offers a world of possibilities. It can reveal the path to a rich and fulfilling life. But education does require effort.

Studying is not as much fun as a video game and there is no instant gratification in doing homework. I often tell students that the “key to success” is self-discipline. The young have the gift of time and they must choose how to use it. Will they invest their time and energy in education, and earn a meaningful and gratifying future? Or will they squander their time and have no future to show for it. Self-discipline makes all the difference.

But telling a teenager to think beyond the immediate moment is an exercise in futility. Any of you here who have raised kids, will understand exactly what I mean. It is said that youth is wasted on the young; the same might be said of education.

Some students are in school only because society and hopefully their parents require it. And this dazed indifference can also be found in some college students.

So, we parents, grandparents and other concerned adults face a number of serious challenges. First, we have to convince teenagers of the necessity of education and of the need to study as if their lives depended on it.

Additionally, we also have to encourage students to take a practical approach to their education. Are they taking the type of courses that can be the basis for a gainful and gratifying career? Would a class in Poker 101 really be as useful as chemistry or trigonometry?

Finally, we have to ensure that our schools are offering the appropriate curriculum to prepare the students for the demands of the future. The sorry fact is that many of our schools are failing to do so.

Our educational system seems more comfortable than practical. Consider the remarkable achievements of science and technology within our lifetimes. Yet, are they being taught in schools? Today most students would recognize Albert Einstein for his hair rather than his ideas.

Our colleges are producing great Jeopardy players and we may have more lawyers than we could ever need. But our schools are not producing the number of scientists and engineers we need to maintain America’s technology leadership and economic vitality against growing global competition. In fact, the number is dwindling.

Over the last twenty years, enrollment in Bachelor of Science programs has decreased by more than eighty percent. Engineers, scientists and technicians of the Baby Boom generation are now moving into retirement, and we will not be able to replace a large percentage of them with Americans. For the time being, however, we can still import our scientific minds. Fifty percent of the graduate students in engineering schools are from foreign countries.

In graduate programs in mathematics and the sciences, forty percent of the students are from other countries. It is some comfort that our colleges still have something to teach and are worth the airfare from far away places.

Perhaps, in an abstract sense, it doesn’t matter if your company’s engineers and geologists are from a foreign country. But I don’t live in an abstract sense. I am an American who wants this country to remain the leader in science and technology. And, I am an African-American who wants our disadvantaged youth to have the education that the future demands.

In American high schools, a student can graduate with just three years of math, while the standard requirement in the rest of the industrialized world is four years. The high school science requirement for graduation is two years of courses. It too is the lowest in the industrialized world.

This information may be news to you, but you should be aware of this trend. Some of our politicians are giving full-voice to this concern, while others are offering all sorts of slogans as solutions. Everyone realizes that we need to encourage and educate our students in math and the sciences. But when it comes to funding new initiatives in education, tax cuts are more important.

Tell me this! What are we saving in taxes, if we are losing our competitive place in a global economy? What are we saving in dollars, if we are squandering the future of today’s students. Education should not be considered an expense. It is an investment, an investment in our children and in America.

Education is your passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today. Those words were spoken by Malcolm X. A Greek philosopher named Epictetus said “Only the educated are free.” He lived 1900 years ago and was born a slave.

These two quotes sum up what I’ve been trying to say for the last 20 or so minutes. They express both the struggles of our past and the challenges of our future. And, while Dr. King didn’t say them, I certainly believe he would have agreed.

Education elevates us and emancipates us. It is the path on which Americans, and particularly African-Americans, can find the promise and fulfillment of the American dream, and it is our privilege and responsibility to be guides on that path. Thank you and God bless you all.