W.E.B. DuBois on African-Americans and Education

As many of you already know, I have the great joy of working at a classical school that is quite unique in its location and demographics. We are in the heart of a traditionally African-American neighborhood in Savannah, GA, and have a student population that is overwhelmingly African-American. The majority of our students also live in households with incomes low enough to qualify for free lunch (set at twice the poverty line). It has been our struggle since even before our inception to justify our existence to a school district (we are a charter school because of our mission to remain tuition-free and open to the public, and so, need their approval, however grudgingly it may be given) that forces 8th graders to choose from a list of a dozen “career pathways” (all of which are technical/vocational) when preparing to enter high school. (As a sample, witness this characteristically inane recent article recently published in Savannah’s local newspaper.)

Earlier today, I had the great pleasure of attending an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Carnegie Library, just a few blocks away from our school, which is, by all evidence hitherto discovered, the oldest continually functioning black library in America. It was founded and funded by members of Savannah’s African-American elite using money provided by members of the African-American community and matched by the Carnegie Foundation in 1914. This is the same library Clarence Thomas spent time in while a boy. He wrote in his autobiography that it was seeing the photos of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington on the wall here and reading of the world outside of Savannah’s then-segregated and still poverty-ridden East Side that set him on the journey to where he is today.

Departing from my tangent to continue: While there, I took the opportunity to browse through the many shelves of books on the history of African-Americans in Savannah and in the United States generally. One book I came across was a collection of essays published the same year the library was founded in which the early 20th century black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois argues that the technical/vocational education then being presented to African-Americans will continually hold them back from attaining positions of leadership in this country and even from becoming competent citizens. It is only access to a liberal education in the humanities that will prepare them to become a people who can effectively communicate their unique experience and thereby contribute to the American, Western, and world traditions of thought. I am very pleased to have found this eloquent and erudite ally among the great African-American figures.

While I could not check the book out (unfortunately but understandably, such treasures are not allowed to leave the library), I did find this short selection from one of those essays after a few Google searches. The short quote below I believe accurately conveys DuBois’s position, one in which I share and which, unfortunately, remains equally valid even 100 years later, in 2014:

“While then we teach men to earn a living, that teaching is incidental and subordinate to the larger training of intelligence in human beings and to the largest development of self-realization in men. Those who would deny this to the Negro race are enemies of mankind.”

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