34th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Breakfast of MIT
Ensuring Educational Access: Our Challenge, Our Opportunity
Remarks by Kenneth Kweku Bota
Presented: February 21, 2008
Good morning, President Hockfield; our keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond; the MLK Diversity Committee, faculty and administrators, fellow graduate and undergraduate students, and guests! My name is Kenneth Kweku Bota and I am a second year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and the Whitehead Biomedical Institute. I humbly greet you with Peace and Honor!
The first words of Charles Dickens's timeless novel, A Tale of Two Cities, reads:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the age of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darknessâ€¦
Imagine that it is the year 2058, fifty years from now. A historian is writing about a tale of two cities, Cambridge and Boston, at the beginning of the 21st century.
He writes: In the city of Cambridge, separated from the other by the Charles River, were two extraordinary institutions of higher learning. It was the age of enlightenment and technological advances, where these two great institutions, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University thrived. In their classrooms and libraries, engineering and chemistry labs, and even in their cafeterias and lounges, some of the greatest intellectual minds engaged in fruitful dialogue about the incredible scientific and engineering discoveries of the time. Scientific discoveries such as metathesis by Richard Schrock, the discovery of quarks by Henry Kendall and Jerome Friedman, and the unraveling of the Human Genome, were just a handful of great contributions that these institutions were making to a burgeoning and exciting scientific age.
The faculty at these institutions was replete with recipients of prestigious awards such as the Nobel Prizes, National Academies of Sciences awards, and the MacArthur "genius" awards. Their students touted the best test scores and highest GPAs; their achievements and inventiveness were remarkable. For the city of Cambridge, it was the spring of great expectations.
On the other side of the river, however, things were quite different. The city of Boston was home to the oldest public school system in the United States, established in 1635. It comprised of several smaller boroughs, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, where racial, social, and economic disparities were great. The public schools were failing miserably and the community morale was low. In Boston, the public schools that were once at the mountain tops of educational achievement had crumbled to anthills of utter failure.
The demographics of the Boston public schools were 76% black and Hispanic, 14% white, and 9% Asian. For many of the pupils in the public school system, "It was the season of darkness; it was the winter of despair."
Few students who attend MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, will ever leave their comfortable nests on this side of the Charles River, travel south down Mass. Ave. into the city of Boston, pass historic Fenway Park, and the trendy stores of Newbury St. and then venture pass the melodious concert halls of the Berklee School of Music, into the poverty stricken areas of Dorchester and Roxbury. Few will converse or engage with anyone from these neighborhoods or meet a child who attends schools that have become dilapidated and lack adequate books, computers, and other critical learning tools.
In considering the theme of this morning's breakfast, Ensuring Educational Access: Our Challenge, Our Opportunity, I wish to briefly share an experience with you. In my first year at MIT, I had the opportunity to join the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Program of Boston and was paired with a 12-year old black boy named Kris who lives with his aunt in Dorchester. Last summer, Kris and I took a field trip to visit the MIT Museum. On the way to the museum, I gave Kris a quick tour of MIT and we stopped in Hayden Library. Kris was amazed at the many books and computers that he saw and commented that in his school he could not play on the computers or spend time perusing the comic and science fiction books! Visiting MIT was a special and inspiring moment for both Kris and me.
Like Kris, many African-American and Hispanic youngsters in Boston do not know that MIT and Cambridge even exists just a few miles from them partly because MIT has failed to adequately reach out to their communities. Life in Cambridge is considerably different from life where they live and attend school.
Kris wrote a letter to me this past fall and was forthright in expressing his displeasure about his lack of access to computers and books, something we take for granted on our end of Mass. Ave. Here at MIT, we have literally thousands of books, computers, and resources at our immediate disposal. However, no matter how smart and innovative we are in using them, we will not achieve and witness the full spirit of Dr. King unless we begin to commit ourselves to helping those who are less fortunate than we are. We must commit ourselves to eradicating the Savage Inequalities that sociologist Jonathan Kozol, who taught 4th Grade at Roxbury, described in his 1991 book.
Dr. King's epitaph reads, in his own words, "Don't tell them about the Nobel Prize; don't tell them about the honorary degrees; just say that I tried to help somebody." Dr. King's life and message are treasured memories for us. But memories and inspiring words are simply not enough. It is not enough for you and me at MIT, who have had the opportunity, through a fortuitous set of circumstances, to cultivate our minds. Dr. King was concerned about the equality of opportunity and quality in all areas of life.
Dr. King is revered all over the world. He will always be remembered because, like George Bernard Shaw and Robert Kennedy, he dreamed of things that never were but could one day, be. So I have the audacity of hope that MIT will become a national leader in the effort to close the gap in educational attainment and access, between black and white, women and men, and yes, Cambridge and Roxbury.
MIT is known worldwide as a great citadel of scientific achievement. So if Dr. King were alive, he would say that MIT will become even greater when it uses its unique intellectual prowess to serve ALL the people in ALL communities. When we and future generations of MIT are able to do this, then our putative historian, writing from his time in the Cambridge of 2058, would say, it is the best of times; it is the age of wisdom; it is the epoch of belief; it is the season of Light; it is the spring of Love; we have everything before us; AND we are going directly to Heaven!