Book Review: The Education of Black People by W. E. B. Du Bois

Among all of the voices clamoring for attention in today’s buzzword-laden and technically-oriented world of education, Du Bois’s is, unfortunately, one that is rarely heard. Yet it is one that has the potential to contribute to modern debates over education in its unique character as a voice that fervently advocated in favor of liberal education of African Americans.

Though there are great differences, both in philosophical content and in tone, between these various speeches and essays, written over a period of 54 years, there remains Du Bois’s constant belief that the best sort of education for any student is a liberal education that begins with his own culture and heritage. With this basis firmly established, the student may then move on to discovering universal truths through the exploration of other cultures and heritages. With this wisdom, he is able to return to his own culture and heritage with a keen eye for what is universal and what merely parochial, as well as what is best and what needs improvement within his own culture.

While Du Bois argued specifically for access for African Americans to such an education, his arguments apply to any group of people anywhere. And his ideas certainly deserve their fair hearing today in a world where the technical has crowded out the liberal in education from kindergartens through graduate schools and where a misapplied multiculturalism has reduced rather than increased the cultural knowledge of the average student.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in education, especially as that subject relates to American and African American history.

Book Review: Who Killed Homer? by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath

Something is amiss in higher education and has been for some time. Unfortunately, this something amiss in higher education has also steadily trickled down to primary and secondary education, so infected them that these too are now permeated by the same ailment — or, rather, ailments. As Hanson and Heath (the two authors of this book) and a number of other brave souls have pointed out, these ailments, though they come in a variety of forms, can be narrowed down to three basic categories: multiculturalism, vocationalism, and careerism. Tackling each of these and the symbiotic relationship that exists between them specifically in the Classics departments of America’s universities, Hanson and Heath do a great deal to diagnose while also providing some excellent advice for a future cure.

Multiculturalism has, of course, brought havoc to nearly all of the American education system, ironically doing the most harm to those it was supposed to help. Rather than empowering African American, Hispanic, and other minority students, however, multiculturalism has further disadvantaged these students by denying them access to the knowledge that would make them education and successful denizens of Western Civilization. As Hanson and Heath show, multiculturalism has harmed all of us by denigrating the civilization that we are the inheritors and whose thought world we continue to live within while heaping up a large and steamy pile of sophisms about the history of the West and its relation to other civilizations.

Vocationalism may be the ailment in American education that has entrenched itself the deepest. It now runs from the kindergarten all the way through the doctoral program. There is a constant and consistent focus on what makes money rather than on what is good, true, and beautiful. Classics has been one of the majors hardest hit by this focus on vocationalism as the refrain of “how will you make money with that?” has steadily worn down the numbers of students willing to pursue a costly college degree in a field that, they are continuously assured, they will never be able to earn a sufficient income with. Damned be the truth that a man with a BA in Classics will undoubtedly prepare anyone to be a fast learner with solid interpersonal skills fit for nearly any job in business or education.

Tied closely to these ailments, and, in a sense, providing the filth upon which they feed, is careerism. It is remarkably difficult to find a professor or even a K-12 teacher who is not focused on their career above the needs of their students. The professor seeks an ever decreasing course load in order to pursue ever more specialized (and therefore ever more irrelevant) research that no one will read. The K-12 teacher kowtows to the educational authorities’ latest pedagogical fads and buzz words, teaches to the test, and dumbs down the curriculum so everyone will pass. The result is a woefully undereducated, distracted populace that can handle only “Greek Mythology in Cinema 101” rather than “Introductory Homeric Greek.” And the fate of the Greeks — and the civilization they gave us — is sealed.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in an insight into the profoundly depressing world of modern academia. But, remember, it’s not all doom and gloom: the light of the end of the tunnel is you, if you so choose.

Black Like Me

Identity is a funny thing. Almost as long as humans have been humans, we have derived our individual identities from the collective identities around us. We differentiated ourselves as individuals and tribes through our linguistic, ethnic, religious, and sexual groups. This is still, largely, the case in traditional cultures today. If one is born in a small, rural village in the center of Africa, one derives one’s identity from the tribal structure, the language of his people, their religious and cultural traditions, etc.

The modern world, though, has forced a reevaluation of our means of deriving identity. Witness, for example, the current conflicts raging in the Middle East. Iraqis, as one example, have traditionally derived their identity from their locality, their tribe, their religion (especially sub-groups within their religion), and, to a lesser extent, their language. When the nation of Iraq was artificially created following the end of foreign rule of Arab lands, one of the greatest challenges the new government faced (and is still facing) was the inability to get Iraqis to think of themselves as Iraqis, rather than as Sunnis or Shi’as or Assyrians or any number of other, more parochial, identities.

The United States presents a particularly fascinating example of the confusion regarding identity in the modern world. Americans are almost all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from other nations, beginning with Europe and Africa and now including immigrants from every continent and nearly every nation on earth. As these various immigrant groups came together, identity became an instant problem. What did it mean to be American? Could one still be, for example, Irish and American? Italian and American? African and American?

The problem reached a particular pique at the dawn of the 20th century with a massive influx of immigrants from nations which hitherto had very little representation in the United States. The changing religious and ethnic demographics prompted a great deal of soul-searching. There were those who asserted that American identity was contingent upon Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. There were others who argued for a broader definition. The conclusion was a kind of stalemate in which each immigrant group lost nearly all aspects of its traditional national identity, including its language and most of its cultural traditions, in favor of becoming American. Religion maintained itself as a holdout and largely does still today, though this is changing as well.

This inconclusive settlement blocked those of any and all European ancestries together under the umbrella term “white,” a conglomerate which necessarily derived its content meaning from its contrast with a similarly concocted idea of “blackness.” This status quo persisted in large part throughout the 20th century, but has proven itself unfit at the dawn of the 21st.

Witness, for example, the case of Rachel Dolezal, an African-American studies professor and NAACP leader recently “outed” as “white” by her own European-descended parents. Apparently, Ms. Dolezal has been passing herself off as a black, or at least biracial, woman for some time. She was, for a few years, married to a black man. Her “son” (apparently, actually her adopted brother) is African-American. She claims that her very curly current hairdo is “natural.” She participates in African and African-American heritage events. She champions social justice causes on behalf of the African-American community. Yet she seems to have had no ancestors from Africa at all.

Dolezal’s case is not the first of its kind in the fraught world of identity in America, however. Numerous examples could be brought to the fore as interesting case studies in racial identity. The story of James Weldon Johnson as he presents in his 1912 Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man presents one interesting example. Johnson, the son of a light-skinned black woman and a white man, did not realize that he was anything other than “white” like most of his classmates at a non-segregated school in Connecticut until a teacher accidentally “outed” him in elementary school. He records running home crying to ask his mother if he was indeed a “nigger.” Johnson spent much of his life confused about his racial identity, passing himself off at times as a black man and at others as a white man. Eventually, he became the first “black” president of the NAACP.

One might also cite the example of John Howard Griffin. For his 1961 book Black Like Me, Griffin, a white man, used heat lamps and chemicals to darken his skin. He was able to pass himself off as a black man in the segregated South in order to write his book about segregation from the perspective of an “insider.” For that matter, Homer Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) fame was only 1/8th black and had to inform the authorities on the segregated train that he was African-American so that they would forcibly remove him from the whites-only train car.

An even more modern and interesting example is that of President Obama. Obama, the son of a white American woman and a black man from Kenya, does not share in the historical experience and culture of African-Americans. None of his ancestors were slaves in the American South. None of them were sharecroppers. None of them were part of the Great Migration. None of the unique characteristics of African-American culture are part of his inheritance from either of his parents, including the African-American vernacular language and the black churches. Obama has, however, largely adopted the African-American community as his own and they, in turn, have adopted him as one of their own.

But how is President Obama’s case different from that of Ms. Dolezal? Certainly, Obama looks more like the common African-American, yet he no more shares in the cultural heritage and history of that group than does Ms. Dolezal. And what about Johnson and Plessy, who were so fair-skinned that they appeared white to most people who saw them?

As I said, identity is a funny thing. And it is particularly a funny thing in the United States, where most of us have lost all of the means by which we might have traditionally derived an identity. Perhaps it is the United States, once the locus of racial conflict in the world, that will prove the concept of racial identity, a fairly modern idea compared to other traditional means by which identity has been derived, to be an absurdity.

Book Review: Three Negro Classics by John Hope Franklin (ed.)

Contained in this book are three essential works for those interested in the history in the history of African-Americans and even of the United States as a whole, as the African-American experience is one quite important aspect of the wider American experience. Each of these is a great book in its own right; the effect of reading the three successively, all combined in a single volume, is tremendous. Each tells the story, from a unique perspective, of one of the greatest injustices in the history of the world, namely, the enslavement and subsequent marginalization of millions of people because of the color of their skin.

The book begins with Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, his autobiography. He begins by recalling his earliest childhood memories as a slave in the Deep South as well as the long-awaited day of emancipation. He then discusses his rise from a slave boy to his international fame and leadership of a leading institution of higher learning for African-Americans, through the mentorship of General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, whom he adoringly refers to as “General Armstrong” throughout this book. Along the way, Washington seeks to explain and justify his preference for industrial training over liberal education for African-Americans. While I could not disagree with him more on that subject, it is nonetheless a fascinating insight into his intentions and the philosophy behind them.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk forms the centerpiece of the book, fitting, not only because it comes midway between the two chronologically, but because it is thematically a point of connection between both of the other works contained in this volume, completing Washington’s work and setting the stage for Johnson’s. It is also fitting, I believe, because it is the standout best of the three works featured here. Du Bois, a Northern black born into freedom, raised in a mostly white small town in Massachusetts, and granted a quality liberal education which culminated in post-graduate work at Harvard University, provides the insight that only he could provide as a simultaneously insider and outsider. As a well-educated Northerner, he saw the blacks of the South as an outsider would see them; as a black man who dared to venture into the Jim Crow South, however, he knew their suffering intimately and at firsthand. The insight he provides into a people group as yet unexplored makes this one of the greatest books not only of African-American literature, nor even of American literature, but of the literature of the world.

Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man caps off this volume with the story of a man with a white father and a mulatto mother who was able to pass himself off nearly everywhere he went as a white man. The result is a lifetime of confusion and hesitation, wondering at the duality into which he had been placed by his genetics, in which he could choose, as his conscience called him to do, to identify with the oppressed minority with whom he had a genetic and cultural connection through his mother, or, as his natural human desire for comfort and safety called him to do, identify with that aspect of his heritage granted him especially through his father. It is the story of a man ripped apart by the same policies which ripped the United States apart for a century, the malignant legacy of which still lingers in the air today.