My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more intelligent and more educated than college professors.
― Maya Angelou
The legendary poet and author Maya Angelou, who just passed away at the age of 86, had a major influence on education in the U.S. Angelou touched more lives than anyone can estimate, but beyond her personal connections, her link to education expanded her reach and influence to the lives of educators and students, who not only read her works, but were inspired by the way she confronted issues of race, identity, and literacy. Angelou had a humanizing effect on American literature and education that was unique.
Personally, she was a lifelong educator, as well as a student. According to Angelou’s biography, after a series of traumatic events that left her mute for years, educated black woman, Mrs. Flowers, offered Angelou a role model and finally coerced the future poet to uncage her voice and speak again. Mrs. Flowers, as Angelou recalled in her children’s book Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship (1986), emphasized the importance of the spoken word, explained the nature of and importance of education, and instilled in her a love of poetry. Angelou graduated at the top of her eighth grade class. Angelou served as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, and was also awarded more than 50 honorary degrees.
Angelou’s work as an educator served as inspiration for the Maya Angelou Institute for the Improvement of Child and Family Education at Winston Salem University. The mission of the Institute is to improve child and family education through community partnerships, program development and implementation, professional education and research. The Institute initiates interdisciplinary collaborations within the Winston Salem State University community, with Winston-Salem Forsyth County public elementary schools and community service organizations. The intent of the Institute is to mount initiatives designed to give children and families the tools needed to thrive educationally, socially, physically, and psychologically.
Angelou was also a big supporter of President Obama, and in 2011, he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. But she also was a critic of his school-reform policies, raising her voice last year to blast his signature education initiative, Race to the Top, and expressing concern about the impact standardized testing was having on children.
Angelou was one of the more than 120 other authors and illustrators of books for children who signed a letter last October to Obama and said they were “alarmed” about the impact his standardized test-centric school-reform policies were having “on children’s love reading and literature.” The letter, organized by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said in part:
We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.
A week later, she appeared on the MSNBC show “Andrea Mitchell Reports” and responded to questions about her opposition to Race to the Top, a multibillion-dollar competition run by the U.S. Education Department that allowed states and later individual school districts to vie for federal funds by promising to enact education reforms favored by the administration. Critics have charged that Race to the Top has led to increased high-stakes standardized testing because it requires states that win funds to evaluate teachers in part on student standardized test scores.
She said: “Race To The Top feels to be more like a contest … not what did you learn, but how much can you memorize.”
She also said that young people should have the freedom to read the great authors, including Tolstoy and Balzac, because their books help young people learn about the complexities of the world. “Writers are really interested in forming young men and women. … ‘This is your world.’ ’ This is your country.’ ’ This is your time.’ And so I don’t think you can get that by racing to the top.”