By Sara Bruya (c) 2006Note: This paper was written as the final exam for "Philosophy of Education" at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Fall 2006, Prof. Catherine Elgin
It is unfortunate that the exchange of ideas between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois concerning the development and social elevation of the Black population after the Civil War has been framed as a debate. A debate is defined as opposing viewpoints on a single proposition.[i] On closer inspection of this ‘debate’, it is not clear whether there is a common proposition on which Washington and DuBois stand in opposition. While it is true that both men were offering strategies for improving the condition of African-American life in
In this discussion, I will urge a more balanced assessment of Washington and DuBois’ development strategies in order to highlight the valuable contribution
In the articles “The Talented Tenth” and “Industrial Education for the Negro” [ii] DuBois and Washington can be seen as having two distinct development strategies for the race of ex-slaves in the early 20th century.
The perception of the race and the material needs of the majority constituted very different ends toward which these men were working, even though both of these development strategies addressed immediate needs in the black community. They found themselves in opposition, however, (despite the fact that both men acknowledge in their writings the legitimacy and necessity of the other’s work for the ultimate amelioration of the problems facing the community), because both were dependent on bending the ear and securing the contributions of those with the resources to fund black education—namely, rich white industrialists such as Carnegie and Rockefeller.[iii] Thus, debunking the other’s ideas was a necessary fundraising strategy, but was perhaps detrimentally and unnecessarily divisive for the black community.
DuBois was seriously concerned about the steady withdrawal of funding from black liberal arts colleges and the increases in white support for industrial institutions like
One of the ways in which
At the same time, while DuBois is rightly championed for his insistence on the equal intellectual capacity of both races, it is important to recognize the complicated influence of the Eugenics movement on his thought and attitude toward the subjects of Washington’s effort—the poor and average—which he describes as “unfit” (Talented Tenth ¶10). In much more subtle fashion, DuBois was also accommodating of the popular social theories of the time, to the detriment of the nine untalented tenths of his race.
As such, one central area of disagreement between Washington and DuBois seems to be whether poverty is a function of economic or genetic factors. The way the disadvantaged social position of their race is perceived by
In order to understand the importance of
Imagine living in this Sharecropper’s house[v]—a drafty house with a leaky roof and no heat. Maybe there is a wood stove for which you have to go out into the countryside—a two-mile walk—cut down some dead wood, chop it into fire logs, bundle it and carry it back to the house on your back. There is no running water. You must walk to a stream, maybe nearby, maybe not, and bring it back in buckets. There is no plumbing. You take a bath from a bucket or in a basin of water that is maybe heated, maybe not. You wash your clothes in the same basin or in the river where it is easier to rinse them. This process takes hours. There are ten children in the house, and the food to feed them comes from the field next to the house. Or maybe your livelihood depends on an inedible crop like cotton which, if the harvest is good, you can trade for items to meet your family’s basic needs in the coming year.
To understand Washington, it is important to understand that such a life of poverty is a life of labor—cutting wood, hauling water, washing clothes—and that the amelioration of such a life by those living it requires the perfection of manual, industrial skills. Thus,
“I believe most earnestly that for years to come the education of the people of my race should be so directed that the greatest proportion of the mental strength of the masses will be brought to bear upon the every-day practical things of life, upon something that is needed to be done, and something which they will be permitted to do in the community in which they reside.” (Industrial Education, ¶ 10)
Washington’s example of the laundry girl (¶18) illustrates what he sees to be the problem with book-learning alone in an era where well-educated blacks were not always able to secure employment matching their level of education and intellectual capability. He does not suggest that the girl should not be educated, but that her education does her a disservice if she should fall out of touch with or become indifferent to those skills that might help her to provide the material needs of her family. For this reason,
Let us imagine that she is one of ten children in the Sharecropper’s house. Let us send her off to Howard or Fisk as part of DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” strategy. Now what of the other nine and the parents?
While our modern sensibility is ruffled by the suggestion of 19th century gender roles in
It is unclear to me whether DuBois, with his privileged background, ever experienced the conditions for which
A popular social theory at the turn of the century applied
It was this prevailing attitude that DuBois refuted, not only by promoting the intellectual and biological equality of the races, but doing so by suggesting that there were ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ members of every race. In this way, he internalized and promoted certain aspects of the Eugenics movement which allowed him to write off the needs of the majority of his race living in poverty, and to make inborn fitness the basis of his call for education according to ability. [xii] According to Dorr, “DuBois…believed that relatively ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ human beings existed, and that society as a whole could be improved by assuring the propagation of the fit—the best and the brightest individuals, regardless of race. What emerged from this school of thought was ‘integrationist’ or ‘accommodationist’ eugenics, which assumed the essential biological similarity of all human races.”
It is on this point that we give DuBois great credit and even go as far as to call him the “most important figure in the American civil rights movement.”[xiii] However, we must also strongly critique DuBois for promoting the biological equality of all races on the one hand and regarding slavery as an institution that “legalized [the] survival of the unfit,” on the other. DuBois writes in “The Talented Tenth” that black leadership sought to eliminate slavery, not for being inhumane and unjust, but because it prevented the forces of natural selection and survival of the fittest from strengthening the black race. (¶3)
Another point on which we must call DuBois’ development strategy into question is his assumption that the Talented Tenth will use their education to help others of their race, and that intelligence, character, ‘civilization’ or knowledge will trickle down in the way that he suggests. DuBois believes that the Talented Tenth would rise and pull “all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground,” (¶14, my emphasis). Clearly, development and elevation of the race for DuBois does not mean an amelioration of circumstances for the majority of individuals. Most of them are not “worth the saving.” It rather means a strengthening of the best representatives of the race by selecting and promoting those who are already privileged and talented.
Even if such individuals are educated and encouraged to return to their communities (an idea to which
For these reasons, I would argue that the hope of development for an entire race of people (if we mean to indicate by ‘development’ the possibility for an improvement in the quality of life for each individual) cannot be placed in the hands of DuBois’ talented elite, especially if they share his belief in their inherent superiority. Talent, by nature, tends to the focused development of itself and does not necessarily include within its scope a broad humanitarian imperative. Even if we accept the premise that the development of black leadership will lead to a speedier advancement of civil rights, this solution does not necessarily lead to the social or economic elevation of the race as a whole, as we see evidenced in our world today.
The Example of
In many parts of the post-colonial, developing world, we can find concrete examples of social dynamics which are in many ways similar to post-Civil War
The example of
Meanwhile, for those who stay behind—like the girl in the photo—there is no part of their education that provides the tools for improving the immediate conditions of their lives. While the present educational system provides opportunity to a very small fraction of the population, the rest would benefit greatly from
It may be tempting to believe, with DuBois, that Gabonese leadership must be developed to address the realities of poverty by sending
The lesson to take away from this example is that good liberal arts education does not necessarily create good leaders. Good leaders might just as easily rise up from among the oppressed once some degree of economic autonomy can be reached through industry and small enterprise. In addition, the ability to improve the quality of life in the immediate circumstances by the individual should not be viewed as less important or less fundamental than big-picture policy change by educated leaders. The former is ultimately more empowering and libratory of every human individual, which to my mind, in contrast to DuBois, is the greater goal.
Modern Implications of the
From the Washington-DuBois debate we can draw a broader philosophical question about the value we assign to different types of knowledge and work. To the modern mind, Washington’s compromise of civil rights is much less acceptable than DuBois’ sacrifice of the unfit masses because we continue to follow a similar social philosophy in America today, in which it is common to believe that poverty is the result of people’s laziness or inability to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. We continue to internalize and legitimize a similar social hierarchy that champions a particular definition of success, progress and happiness. And we perpetuate a hierarchy of knowledge according to this definition of success and progress such that those with more advanced degrees of liberal arts education are generally more esteemed than those with technical or vocational training. Thus, lawyers are more esteemed than masons, professors more valued than truckers (even though they are both instrumental for the good workings of society); and such assignment of value and status to knowledge is generally unquestioned in American society.
In response to such beliefs, I stand with