Melissa Harris Perry teaches why education matters


Poor Melissa Harris-Perry, she tried to make a Fox News style joke and it failed miserably. Education Matters kicks off its 9th year with thoughts on how MSNBC host MHP may have torpedoed her career as a serious journalist and why education always matters.

In the waning days of 2013, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry showed a family picture of former Republican presidential candidate holding his newest grandchild, an African American baby boy recently adopted by his daughter. Harris-Perry referencing a Sesame Street rhyme said to viewers “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same.” Meaning of course the little black baby surrounded by his 21 white cousins. Faux pas!

Education Matters paraphrases her ditty: One of these things is not like the other. One of these things is not the same. One of these things can never be taken away. Which is it, a voter’s registration card, passport, tenured professorship, driver’s license, or college degree?

A hint, Harris-Perry is a Duke University educated professor of political science who at Tulane University has everything on this list. “Snarky” remarks notwithstanding, once earned, it cannot be revoked or taken away. When you’re in possession of one of these things the doors to the world are open to you, endowing you with its rights and privileges in perpetuity.

The answer is a college degree. As I watched this story unfold I was struck by two different thoughts, which at first seemed unrelated. Upon closer consideration I realized this incident perfectly illustrated the importance and power of education.

First thought, while I’m no fan of Mitt Romney, I wondered why a respected African American journalist, (who is herself a mother) would make a joke at the expense of an infant— no matter the color of his skin or the circumstances of his birth.

Her ridicule of Romney’s grandson was problematic for me in other, less obvious reasons. For example, Dr. Harris-Perry is herself a woman of mixed race, (her mother is white, father is black). She has been blessed with generational access to a wealth of education opportunities. Both her parents were college professors; her father was the first dean of African America Affairs at the University of Virginia.

In addition to her position hosting a popular, self-titled weekly news show, Dr. Harris-Perry enjoys celebrity (and very lucrative speaking engagement fees) bolstered by the publication of two best-selling books, “Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought” and “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.”

Given this set of circumstances, the question arises why would she risk her reputation, journalistic credibility and livelihood over such a silly remark? The answer perhaps is found in my second thoughts. A university education confers upon its recipients subtle, but powerful benefits. The intrinsic, essential and ultimate value of a college education lies in its capacity to grace one with a continuous stream of options, even when all seems lost or in jeopardy.

A higher education degree once earned and officially conferred is one of the very few things in America that cannot be taken away no matter how badly we behave, whether we break the law, make stupid public statements or innocently get into bad situations.

This absoluteness is not true of most things we assume and hold dear. These “rights” are all bound up in our sense of freedom and directly connected to the ability to fulfill our destiny. In most states if convicted of a felony, your right to vote will be taken away. A driver’s license, as every parent has explained to their teenager is a privilege, not a right. It can be revoked if the rules of safety are not followed. Passports can be confiscated for any number of reasons, and take months of red tape to get it back.

While attaining tenured professorship is a major accomplishment, it is not the lifetime guarantee of university employment you may think it is. Though rare, in “certain instances, professors have lost their tenure due to misconduct.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, an average of 50 college professors have their tenure revoked each year.”

By this calculus Dr. Harris-Perry armed with several degrees doesn’t have as much to lose as it first appears. The foundation for her current station in life was laid with an undergraduate degree in English from prestigious Wake Forest University. No matter how foolish the comment, embarrassing the on-air apologies or self-serving the social media mea culpa, she has covered her bases. None of the colleges she graduated from are going to call saying they’re taking back her degrees.

Melissa Harris-Perry just learned a hard lesson with the soft landing an Ivy League education gives its alumni. She should be forgiven and allowed to move on— maybe to something bigger and better. In terms of our own lives, all children will make mistakes, say stupid things or exercise bad judgment at some point. In 2014, every parent should make the sincere commitment to give their kids the best insurance policy against life’s ups and downs— an education that helps them achieve the highest possible level of academic achievement.

Jayne Matthews Hopson writes about education matters, because “only the educated are free.”