Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Defense of Industrial Education

A Defense of Industrial Education as a Strategy for Development

By Sara Bruya (c) 2006

Note: 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 America in the decades following the Civil War, we will see in this essay that they were operating with very different ideas of means and ends; in other words, they were each tackling important aspects, but not the entirety, of the problem.

In this discussion, I will urge a more balanced assessment of Washington and DuBois’ development strategies in order to highlight the valuable contribution Washington’s ideas make to the development of the immediate circumstances of the underprivileged. I will also challenge DuBois’ elitism and the suggestion that supporting the talented elite will ensure such development. In addition the essay will reflect on the hierarchy of knowledge implicit in the discussion of industrial vs. liberal arts education and the importance, as Washington suggests, of valuing all kinds of work.

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. Washington’s project, seen as an economic strategy, involved a push for industrial, skill-based education. It was an effort to improve the immediate living conditions of the majority of poor, rural blacks and to build the material foundation from which to develop and prosper economically. DuBois’ project, seen as a political strategy, focused on the importance of creating an educated, black leadership and was an effort to improve the political perception and influence of the black race, while disproving popular theories of racial inequality.

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 Tuskegee.[iv] The disparity in resources between the black and white communities at this time is an unfortunate but critical factor in the valuation of the strategies developed by Washington and DuBois. Had they not been fighting for financial support from the racist, white culture intent on maintaining second-class citizenship for black people, they might not have had to stand in opposition to achieve their goals.

One of the ways in which Washington’s work was and continues to be discredited is through an accusation of accommodation. While the modern interpretation of the Washington-DuBois debate presents, for the most part, a heavy-handed condemnation of Washington’s accommodationism and a praise for Dubois as the father of the civil rights movement, I think both perspectives require a more balanced examination. While Washington’s suggestion that blacks accept their inferior position in society for a period of time is certainly problematic, his emphasis on industrial education as a development strategy is visionary and still highly relevant today. This strategy must not be completely discarded because of Washington’s weaknesses.

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 Washington and DuBois fundamentally underlies their proposed educational measures and the methods each proposes to counteract the prevalent theories and social realities of white dominance.


In order to understand the importance of Washington’s ideas, it is essential to have an understanding, if not a first-hand experience, of poverty. For the benefit of those who have not had such an experience, the following illustration may be helpful.

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.

Washington, born into slavery himself, sought a relevant educational solution to the immediate challenges facing families—the majority of ex-slaves at the turn of the century—living under such conditions. While very few blacks had the opportunity to pursue higher education and the white standard of success, Washington believed that in order to achieve dignity and self-determination an individual needed to understand that they were valuable as they were, where they were. He believed there was something that an individual living in poverty could do to ameliorate the material conditions of his or her family and, over time, the race as a whole, when he encouraged people in Up From Slavery, to “cast down your bucket where you are.”[vi]

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, Washington focused his educational strategy around this critical need. He writes:

“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, Washington wants to fit students “for occupations which would be open to them in their home communities.” (¶19)

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? Washington would encourage one to become a carpenter, another a farmer, another a plumber. When she returns from university to teach her brothers and sisters and the community, as DuBois suggests, will her knowledge make the difference, make general improvements, to the development of this family’s well-being? Does DuBois’ strategy actually take these material needs into account?

While our modern sensibility is ruffled by the suggestion of 19th century gender roles in Washington’s description of the laundry girl, we cannot overlook the value of the work that women contributed to daily life under these conditions. Looking again at our house and ten children, the woman’s part in maintaining the working order of such a lifestyle was crucial. It was a lifestyle we can hardly imagine. We insist upon a woman’s independence from such menial work as laundry, when in such a context, laundry is vital to the health and well-being of the family. A woman who would return to such a house from university, having found no job suitable to her qualifications—regardless of whether she planned to teach in her community—would need to contribute to the family-group through some kind of labor, whether laundry or otherwise, because such a life is laborious.

Washington sees a huge problem in emigration of large numbers of blacks to urban centers in search of work. By equipping people for economic success in rural areas, Washington hopes to provide, for the first few generations, if not the ultimate fulfillment of their potential, at least the material basis for the growth of future generations. As such, he suggests that “knowledge must be harnessed to the real things of life.” (¶10. See also ¶19)

Washington’s mistake was in not advocating for immediate civil rights. He is remembered chiefly for his “Atlanta Compromise” address in which he suggested that political and social equality were less important as immediate goals than economic respectability and independence. [vii] He believed that civil rights and social equality would follow from the respect the black man would gain from the white man. For this reason, his development theory is under-rated and is seen to be inferior to DuBois’ push for classical liberal arts education and the development of black leadership. Because of a disdain for Washington’s accommodationism, some tend to discredit a valuable development strategy for the nine-tenths of the population that DuBois discarded as “unfit.


It is unclear to me whether DuBois, with his privileged background, ever experienced the conditions for which Washington was attempting to provide a remedy. DuBois clearly valued his own experience as a highly educated, privileged individual—enjoying certain academic status not even widely available to white people at the time. He valued his intellectual prowess and “took pride in surpassing his fellow students in academic and other pursuits.”[viii] But did he know the realities of living in the Sharecropper’s House? More importantly, what did he believe such poverty indicated about the value of individual who lived in such circumstances?

A popular social theory at the turn of the century applied Darwin’s principle of natural selection to the inequalities in society. This theory presumed that, “if biological organisms evolved gradually by eliminating those individuals least fitted for survival, then social organisms must evolve at the same geologic rate and by the same process of elimination.”[ix] It followed from this theory that racial conflict represented the continual striving of society to improve itself through competition. Thus it was believed that if evolution eliminated the unfit, the loser in racial conflict must be, by definition, inferior.[x] “Racists, northern and southern, proclaimed that the Negro was subhuman, barbaric, immoral, and innately inferior, physically and intellectually, to whites—totally incapable of functioning as an equal in white civilization.”[xi]

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 Washington does not object, ¶19), it can be argued that talent and conscience do not always go hand-in-hand. It does not necessarily follow that those who achieve the highest levels of education and success will put their disadvantaged brothers and sisters on the top of their priority list. There is no direct correlation between higher education and generosity of spirit. In fact, as DuBois has demonstrated, his education and privilege fostered in him a belief in his genetic and intellectual superiority and a complete disdain for the “Average” masses—those who “have no aims higher than their bellies.” (¶13,16) These are the words of someone who has not only never experienced poverty, but who sees poverty as an unseemly characteristic of the genetically ‘unfit.’

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 Gabon
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 America. The people of Gabon, a country in central Africa, are now four decades past their era of national independence and yet face circumstances remarkably similar to those faced by ex-slaves in the United Statesth century. The living conditions described in the illustration of the Sharecropper’s house are those experienced by the majority of Gabonese people today.

The example of Gabon provides a useful, modern-day context to test the application of the ideas of Washington and DuBois as effective development strategies. The educational model in place in Gabon remains the one instituted by the French colonizers over two hundred years ago. It is a system that prepares Gabonese students according to a rigorous liberal arts program without regard to their local custom or immediate need. Most students in Gabon struggle to complete their studies, but those whom DuBois would consider the Talented Tenth go on to university in West Africa or Paris. Thus, they leave their communities for the prospects of achieving modern standards of success, and most of them never return. If you have a Masters or PhD in Economics from Europe, what possible employment will you ever find in your village? What incentive do you have to return, when you are now qualified for high-paying jobs in Europe or in the capital city of Libreville?

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 Washington’s industrial education—the acquisition of practical skills such as agriculture, carpentry, masonry, sewing, etc. with which to address their daily needs. Most of the jobs in Gabon requiring these skills are filled at the present time by foreigners.

It may be tempting to believe, with DuBois, that Gabonese leadership must be developed to address the realities of poverty by sending Gabon’s brightest off for the best education the world has to offer. The obvious problem with this strategy is that those who gain such intellectual resources do not de facto return to help the communities from which they came. On the contrary, we find that often it is those very highly educated people who manipulate the country’s resources for their own gain. Thus, maintaining the status quo is to their advantage. For this reason, the idea of industrial education is often opposed by Gabonese leadership for the very fact that it would transfer agency and ability to those who are currently, and conveniently, being oppressed by the elite.

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 Washington – DuBois Debate

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 Washington when he asserts that “no race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”[xiv] Why do we view trades, crafts and industrial jobs as inherently inferior to other types of professions for which a more intellectual, philosophical education is required? As an extension of this value system, the types of education which develop such skills, either technical or intellectual, are valued accordingly. We continue to hold this hierarchy in place, stratifying professions and the working contributions of each person according to a hierarchy of value and its accompanying status. In such an environment, it is no wonder that DuBois’ ideas are more highly appreciated, but if we posit the importance of the right to full legal, social and economic equality[xv] for all human beings, we must recognize the value in each one’s constructive contribution and begin to acknowledge and address the social inequalities we tend to foster and pursue.

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