The Value of Education

November 19, 2002

In the late 1800's there lived in Missouri a sickly young black child named George Washington Carver.  Too weak to work in the fields, he helped in the kitchen of the home he lived at and learned to bake, cook, sew and iron clothes.  He didn't have friends but instead and found peace by tending to a hidden garden he kept in the woods.  He was extremely observant and learned much about the plants in his garden.  Soon, his skill as a botanist became known, and people were bringing their "sick" houseplants to him.  As he was able to make many of them healthy again, people started calling him "the plant doctor."  It made him feel important and he wanted to learn more about plants, but that required schooling and there were few opportunities at that time for a black child to get an education.  During that time even most white people did not have an education much beyond the fifth grade.  George was undaunted, however.  He left home in pursuit of his dream of an education.  He did anything and everything to earn money to live and to buy books so he could go to school.  He faced ridicule, racism and hatred, but he persevered.  Age was no obstacle to him.  He was past age 30 when he finally graduated from high school.  He was in his forties when he graduated from college.  He was in his mid-forties when he became a teacher at the Tuskegee institute, and later, a world-renowned scientist.

Before George Washington Carver, cotton was the main crop raised in the South.  But rising cotton year after year on the same soil had depleted it of many essential nutrients.  Dr. Carver knew that crops had to be rotated among the fields to ensure a healthy, vibrant harvest each year.  But what crops to use?  Peanuts and sweet potatoes could be alternated in the fields of the South, and were good for the soil he knew, but there was no market for these at that time—so he changed that.  He learned how to separate peanuts into their most basic compounds, and explored how to make different products out of each of them.  He invented hundreds of products from both peanuts and sweet potatoes.  To prove the worth of the peanut as a viable crop he once appeared before a committee of the U.S. Congress to seek funding to further his research.  One congressman made an unkind comment about him because of his skin color but Dr. Carver ignored it and went on with his presentation.  As he concluded, he served them a meal consisting of soup, salad, mock chicken, and an ice cream dessert.  After they finished their meal he informed them that the entire meal was made of nothing but peanuts.  They were astonished.  They also approved his funding request.

Dr. Carver helped change the South by creating new products and the markets for them, allowing farmers to rotate crops each year and still keep farm operations profitable.  Education and perseverance was the key to doing it.

Each of you has the opportunity to go on to college or a trade school.  Some of you may come from families with limited means but all of you can become educated if you possess the will.  None of you are likely to face the challenges that Dr. Carver faced in his quest for an education, but many of you will still be confronted with barriers that you must overcome.  Surmount these and get as much education as you can.  Whatever level you attain, however, do not look down on people who possess less knowledge.  Education without humility creates a snob.  Not all of us can be Dr. Carvers, but we can still use the gift of an education to serve our fellow citizens and our country.

Good night, gentlemen.